Polonium-210: Radioactive poison that killed Russian spy Litvinenko

The Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was murder with radioactive substance, polonium-210. His murder is one of those that attracted the most attention in the last 10 years. It is assumed that it was placed in his tea.

British investigation started in January 2015, allegedly showed that the Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the order for his assassination.

The radioactive poison that killed Russian spy Litvinenko (1)

The polonium is a radioactive element, which in nature can be found in very small quantities, harmless to humans. It was discovered in 1898 by Maria Curie, while she was searching for compound that causes high radioactivity in the uranium.

The chemical label for the polonium is “Po”. On the Periodic Table of Elements, polonium is located on the bottom of the group led by oxygen and sulfur.

The polonium is one of the most poisonous substances. It is radioactive because it emits alpha particles. Considering the fact that it is easily absorbed by other substances, in order to get to the organism and harms it, only a few thin sheets of paper or some air is needed.

Because its alpha particles are easily absorbed, it is hard to be detected by the radiation detectors. If it is found out that the polonium came into the organism, there are some chances to be removed by removing the contents from the stomach or gastric washing with water.

Effects on the human organism

The radioactive poison that killed Russian spy Litvinenko (2)

Alpha radiation breaks the chemical bonds in the living cells, damages the DNA and creates very reactive free radicals that cause additional damage. Characteristic consequence is a reduced number of white blood cells, which requires blood transfusions and platelets. Liver, kidney, spleen and bone marrow are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects from the Alpha radiation. It quickly comes to damage of the gastrointestinal tract, causing nausea and vomiting. Bone marrow fails within a few days. The hair is also exposed to the harmful effects of polonium. That is why Litvinenko before his death was with no hair.

Alexander Litvinenko is not the first victim of poisoning with polonium. The daughter of Marie Curie, the scientist Irene Joliot-Curie died from leukemia in 1956. It is believed that she was ill from exposure to polonium.