Sunday, November 26, 2006

Polonium Poisoning -- What a Way to Die

The death of the Russian ex KGB and FSB officer and, at his death, a British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko on Thursday is getting a bit of coverage here in Denmark. However, there aren't all that many details so I had to do some research.

First, if it is correct that Litvinenko was poisoned with Polonium 210 -- and I have no reason to doubt this -- the first conclusion is that this was done by an agent of a national government.

Polonium 210 is not something you can buy over the pharmacists counter at Walgreens -- not even if you have a prescription.

The most stable isotope is Po 209, which has a half life of little more than a century. Po 210 has a half life of about 5 months. The total annual world production of polonium amounts to about 100 grams.

Po 210 is very strong alpha emitter and therefore must be handled with special care and precaution. A fraction of a microgram ingested into the body is a fatal dose. It is about 5000 times as radioactive as radium and therefore generates heat and has been considered as a light weight heat source in thermo-batteries on space craft.

An odd characteristic of this metalloid is that, although it's melting point is 254C, it vaporizes at room temperature. Why it does this is not clear, but the assumption is that it has to do with its radiation and that small particles are "peeled off".

It struck me last night that this perhaps contributes to its toxicity. Inside the body, it would continue to dissipate and thus be distributed throughout the body of a victim. On the other hand, polonium is readily soluble in dilute acids and stomach fluids could perhaps do the job.

However the poison was delivered to Litvinenko in the hit job, nobody is going to get possession of the stuff without the help of a national government or one of its agencies.

First off, the substance can only be produced synthetically. It is made from bismuth 209 bombarded in a nuclear reactor with neutrons. The bismuth absorbs a neutron, becomes Bi 210 which very quickly, emitting a beta particle, decays into Po 210.

The point is: it is not something you can brew up in the kitchen sink or a microwave.

Alexander Litvinenko died convinced that he had been wacked by agents of the Russian government. At the time of his poisoning he was investigating who ordered the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.

Before and after pictures of Alexander Litvinenko

The thing is this was really a diabolical way to kill Litvinenko. From the first symptoms until he died there went little more than three weeks. Basically, he died of massive internal radiation poisoning. The people who did this are abolute shits.

Litvinenko and Politkovskaya had long been a thorn in Putin's side so we need not ask why, rather why now? I suppose because they figure the world is distracted by other things? Whatever, I find rather little about this case in what I can see of American media from here in Denmark -- is that actually the case?


Technologist said...

it is not something you can brew up in the kitchen sink or a microwave

One does not need to; it is very easy to buy the stuff. It is even available online :-)

Lurch said...

Whike I deplore removing an inconvenient menace in such a horrible way (I'm sure the death is painful as well as humiliating) I'm more interested in the technical questions of "why?" rather than "why now?" and the second question of "how?"

Most likely, as you infer, he was killed to silence his investigation into Politovskaya's death. A secondary benefit of this method of execution could be as an examplar.

At the time his illness was discovered there was some media attention given to his daily activities. I remember the fact of a lunch appointment with an Italian journalist several hours before the symptoms first appeared. Despite SISMI's proven ability to co-opt journalists in the past, that is an unlikely vector of attack. What do you do? Sit down for lunch and say, "Here. This very heavy box is a present, but don't open it until later." ?

The high radioactivity argues it wasn't a brushpast in a crowd or anything like that.

I'll bet he used to brush his teeth every day.

Chuck Cliff said...

Technologist, you are referring to the more stable Po 209, aren't you?

Although, with a half life of a bit more than a century and highly radioactive it is far less so than Polonium 210.

The 209 isotope is the nataturally occuring one that M. Curie discovered in in ore after she had extracted ueanium only to find that the ore was more radioactive.

Po209 has a few industrial uses. For ex., alloyed with, I think, beryllium, it is a neutron source.

Po 210 is synthetic. I can't believe you can buy it on-line.

Chuck Cliff said...

"A secondary benefit of this method of execution could be as an examplar."

Exactly -- like a somewhat extended extrapolation of the dead canary in your bed, the message being here, "Youse guys see what can happen?"

The method delivery is not only hard to figure, but scary. First to consider is the places where trace amounts of 210 was found.

If the shit had been exposed to the air for any time (it vaporizes 50% in less than two days near room temperature!) there would be particles in the room.

On the other hand, in toothpaste, tea, fish, whatever it is not dangerous until you get it inside the body. Alpha radiation is an internal not an external problem as a general rule.

Lurch said...

I'll wager a half interest in my condom factory in North Carolina it was the toothpaste. It's a tried and true vector that is easy to accomplish - house access isn't that difficult for an accomplished operartive; locks are in the second week syllabus. Much of Europe still uses metal toothpaste tubes, and it's pretty easy to learn the target's brand, spike it, and replace the one that's being used. The problem with dosing food is that you're seen by the rest of the kitchen staff because you have to manhandle a lead-lined case.

Chuck Cliff said...

Is toothoaste basic or alkaline? Polonium disolves readily in weak acid.

Today, the Danish TV said that traces have been found in 12 places which Litvinenko frequented. Does it come out of your pores when you sweat or your urine when you piss?

But you're right that the Sushi bar is likely a wild goose.

I don't think though, that you'd need a lead lined box to keep it in. I figure a syringe that looked like a ball point pen would suffice.

It doesn't take much to stop alpha radiation and the physical size of a fatal dose would not be bigger than a period at the end of the sentence here.

Anonymous said...

well, actually it wouldn't be impossibly difficult to get polonium for poisoning someone - it's sold as an anti-static device for use in areas where electrical ionizers are undesirable.

The benefits of using an alpha source to ionize the air are that:

a) it generates equal amounts of +ve and -ve ions (the alpha particle itself is positively charged, but each alpha generates ~1000's ion pairs in the atmosphere as it comes to rest)

b) there are no electrical parts to move or fail. eg. if you have fuels or explosives about, you don't want an electrically powered ionizer that could stop working or go wrong one day and produce a spark itself.

Hence you can buy sealed devices that contain Po-210 plated onto a substrate such as a metal foil or a thin needle.

It wouldn't be impossible to dissolve off the top ~10 microns of such a radioactive source using HCl or some similar acid, were you foolish enough, though you'd risk contaminating yourself in the process.

The thing that I don't understand is; why go to such extraordinary lengths?
As you say, polonium tends to self-sputter/vapourise due to the kinetic energy of the 0.5% that decays each day. It's going to be hard to avoid leaving a radioactive trail back to the source of the poison.

What's wrong with just pushing your victim in front of a bus?

Chuck Cliff said...

It's always good to learn and I must now admit that Po 210 can be purchased, on-line even, although the only source I have yet found (assuming I haven't been bamboozled by the internet) states that delivery is only within the USA. The amount of Po 210 is "exempt", that is it is so small that it poses no hazard.

Supposedly one would need an order of 15,000 units and the price would be one million dollars. Considering that they get two or three orders a month, hmmn, it would kind of be obvious.

I'm not saying that there isn't a commercial source, it's just I don't know there is. Until somebody points it out with more soecifics, I'll continue to say it must have been a gov't agency behind this, not necessarily Russian, either.