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Polonium 210 November 28, 2006

Posted by dorigo in food, news, physics, science.

Polonium 210 is one of the most poisonous substances on earth. A powerful alpha emitter, with a half-life of 138 days and an emission energy of 5 MeV, Polonium is not a substance anyone should mess with.

As with all alpha emitters, this substance is not dangerous by itself if kept outside of one’s body: alpha projectiles only travel few millimeters in air, and fail to create a danger. It is only through inhalation or ingestion that the horrible effects of this substance become evident. The energy released by this fast-decaying isotope is quite high (a unbelievable 140 watts per gram according to wikipedia), and the amount of damage manifests very quickly in the hosting body, as was demonstrated a few days ago with the death of the russian spy Alexsandr Livitnenko in London.

Livitnenko was allegedly poisoned while eating at a sushi bar near Piccadilly Circus, in the center of the city: most probably his killer sprayed a small amount of the substance over his meal. In any case, the substance is volatile -probably the radioactive decay spontaneously sublimates atoms of the material by spallation- and its nasty effects are so powerful that even less than a nanogram can be deadly. Quoting wikipedia again, the maximum allowable amount of ingested substance is 7 picograms – a sphere 1 micron in diameter is already harmful!

I think it is wise to wait for at least 10 half-lives to visit that sushi bar now. That’s 7 years!



1. Alejandro Rivero - November 28, 2006

I will follow your suggestion. But the sushi bars around Picadilly are tempting.

2. Censorship 101: Polonium 210 « Age of BS - November 28, 2006

[…] If you need to shut somebody up, and duct tape is too short-term, consider Polonium 210. What is Polonium 210? Click over to A Quantum Diaries Survivor for the nasty facts. […]

3. Fred Altieri - November 28, 2006

Something’s not right. Unless there is some method to allow Polonium 210 to go undetected after use, why would the perpetrators leave a clue, thus creating a reasonable suspicion as to their identity. Certainly the Kremlin employs methods with tighter restrictions when communicationg with their intelligence agents. Thanks, as I often learn something from your blog. For free, no less!

4. dorigo - November 28, 2006

Ok Fred, send a check of 10 US$ as monthly subscription 🙂

I think whomever did this indeed wanted to leave a trace. There are lots of ways to kill a person that do not make the headlines, and Polonium is indeed quite easy to trace. The idea I made of the whole story is that the perpetrators left a message loud and clear for the right ears to listen to.


5. Alejandro Rivero - November 29, 2006

you can check the table at http://www.nndc.bnl.gov/nudat2/reCenter.jsp?z=84&n=126
Its main alpha drives 5304.33 keV.
dose: 5.30433 ( MeV/Bq-s )

6. Meggy - November 30, 2006

I always believed that sushi was an incredibly stimulating food, even without polonium.
I guess after this case they’ll finally install some radiocation detectors at the airports (I’m rather surprised they didn’t already.

7. Alejandro Rivero - November 30, 2006

As they say, “This is London”. Do not expect the smart measure. They can forbide the use of trash cans because there was a bomb in one of them once. Or to forbid any liquid in the plane and then offer you a whole paramedical set of supplies after passing the security control.

They like the spy thing, specially if austro-hungarian secret services and snake venoms are involved. Polonium is a funny variation.

8. dorigo - December 1, 2006

Ciao Meggy, checking for alpha emitters is not quite easy. Alpha particles are shielded by as little material as a sheet of paper, so you could conceal a microgram of Polonium practically anywhere with zero risk of being caught, even by the most sophisticated tools. A microgram of Polonium can kill ten thousand people, by the way.

Alejandro, who didn’t read a spy story at least once ? And we all like those involving unlikely assassinations. I think the funny thing is that I feel more awe than concern about this contamination issue 🙂


9. Emerson Swan - December 2, 2006

All good. But, isn’t 10 half-lives more like… 4 years?

10. Jonathan Brooks - December 7, 2006

Thought American Elements’ website (www.americanelements.com)would a useful resource–info on Po 210 and 100s of other Isotopes, Nanomaterials, etc. (Disclaimer: I’m an engineer with the company!)

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