Destroying life: a brief history of polonium as a poison
On a chilly November evening in 2006, ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko met two former colleagues at the Pine Bar located in the lobby of London’s posh Millennium Hotel. After a long discussion and a round of drinks, he returned home to his wife after what was seemingly an ordinary night.
In just a few hours, however, the Russian dissident knew something was very, very, wrong—he began to feel nauseous, and was quickly seized by bouts of severe vomiting.
Fearing the worst, his wife called an ambulance and he was quickly hospitalized. Upon arrival, doctors attributed his symptoms to a bad case of food poisoning, but their assumptions were proven wrong as their patient deteriorated at an alarming rate.
In mere days Litvinenko began to lose his hair, and his immune system began to shut down In a short while even more basic bodily functions began to fail, his food intake diminished and his breathing managed by a respirator. In just a few weeks the man—described by some as a “fitness fanatic”—become a mere shadow of his former self, bedridden and skeletal, reduced to little more than pallid skin sagging over bone. Only three weeks after his visit to the Pine Bar, Alexander Litvinenko was dead.
The cause of Litvinenko’s mysterious death was not immediately discovered. While it was known that the man had many enemies, including Russia’s infamous intelligence service, his death did not match the symptoms of any known poisons.
It was only after extensive testing that the culprit was identified: Polonium 210—an extremely rare radioactive isotope, which can only be artificially created through the use of a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator.
Due to its chemical properties, Polonium makes for a perfect assassin’s tool. Though radioactive, it can be safely carried in glass vials, it is colourless and odourless, and a lethal dose requires little more than a few milligrams that can be administered either in a liquid or as a powder. Due to the rarity of the isotope and the difficulty of producing, it is not often tested for by investigators.
In the Litvinenko case, the poison was most likely delivered through his drink—his tea spiked surreptitiously at some point during the evening. For a long time, this was the only recorded assassination by Polonium, but as of November of this year, it seems that the former spy was not the only victim.
A recent report points to the strong possibility that the late Palestinian resistance leader Yasser Arafat, may have also been a victim of this deadly poison. Released by the University of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, France, it points to Polonium as the likely culprit in his death, with scientists “confident up to an 83 percent level” that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned by it.
Three teams of Swiss, French, and Russian scientists analyzed his bones and the soil surrounding his remains—with the Swiss investigation finding an amount that was eighteen to thirty-six times higher than normal Polonium levels. More conclusive findings may very well be released in coming years, as the French government has opened a criminal case on the matter.
Regardless of the findings of the investigation, the only certainty is that the story of Polonium, the most infamous poison of the early 21st century, will continue.
A study has since been published refuting the claims in the second-to-last paragraph of this article. The issue, however, remains contested.comments powered by Disqus