Lighting Up The Investigative Path With Polonium-210

Originally published on November 10, 2013 6:58 pm

With a Swiss forensics investigation pointing to polonium-210 as a possible cause of Yasser Arafat's death, the radioactive element is back in the news.

Confirming whether the Palestinian leader died from an assassination attempt will be difficult, given polonium's short half-life and the fact that Arafat has been dead nine years, science writer Deborah Blum says.

Whatever happened to Arafat, polonium does have a deadly history.

"Polonium only really came to public attention when we started using it to kill each other," says Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook.

One such incident took place on a chilly November afternoon in 2006, in London's Grosvenor Square.

That day, three Russians ordered drinks at the upscale Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel.

"It's very hushed. Full of shadows and whispers, dark wood paneling and leather seats," says Will Storr, author of "Bad Blood," an essay published earlier this year in MATTER. "It's very discreet."

Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun ordered gin, and a 43-year-old Russian dissident named Alexander Litvinenko drank green tea. As far as Litvinenko was concerned, it was a business meeting with two old acquaintances.

"He goes home to his little house with his wife Marina, has a chicken dinner, watches the Russian evening news and goes to bed," Storr says. "It was just a normal night."

But within hours, Litvinenko began having bouts of severe vomiting. Litvinenko knew immediately that he had been poisoned. His wife called for an ambulance.

"He goes to the local hospital in Barnett and tells the doctors there, 'I've been poisoned by Russian spies.' And of course they suggest that he calls for a psychiatrist because he had sushi for lunch," Storr says. "So they were like, 'It's food poisoning. You've just been poisoned by some bad sushi.' "

But days passed and Litvinenko's condition worsened. He was put on a feeding tube and started losing his hair. Antibiotics were administered and tests for AIDS and hepatitis came back negative. Doctors were at a total loss.

It took over two weeks to finally discover the culprit. Tests showed polonium-210 coursing through Litvinenko's body.

Blum says death comes quickly because polonium-210 has a half-life of just 138 days.

"For a while it's hissing and spitting with radiation and energy, and then it burns itself out," she says. As it stabilizes, the polonium emits alpha particles.

"Alpha radiation is not highly penetrating radiation," Blum says. "If I was standing in front of you with a container of polonium-210, I could hold this in my hand and it would not go through my skin. So for it to be dangerous, you have to swallow it."

All the assassin had to do was put the odorless polonium in Litvinenko's green tea. From the moment he took his first sip, he was doomed.

"If you can imagine that you swallow an element that's basically radiating, you can almost visualize this as a tiny dot with sparks shooting out in all directions like a sparkler," Blum says.

Minutes after ingestion, it would have already begun to destroy the lining of his stomach.

"It embeds in those tissues, it goes into your blood stream, and what happens quite often with particularly these elements that are in that radium decay chain as polonium is the structure is a little bit like calcium," Blum says. "So the body loves to deposit them in the bone."

Once it settles in the bone marrow, the victim begins to die.

"Your hair falls out, you can't eat, you can't breathe, it damages your lungs, you are hugely subject to infection, it's phenomenally destructive once it's in your body," she says.

Even if doctors discovered the poison sooner, polonium-210 has no antidote.

Litvinenko died three agonizing weeks later.

As the polonium-210 underwent alpha decay, it was a race against the clock to solve Litvinenko's murder. Blum says forensic investigators tracked the poison by following the radioactive trails it left all over London — "restaurant seats, airline seats, tea bars, sushi bars."

They were trails not only left by Litvinenko, but also by the killer himself.

"You turn off all the lights in London because polonium-210 has this faint blue glow," says Blum. "Pale blue, glowing trails lighting up the path of murder."

Andrei Lugovoi, one of the Russian men at the Pine Bar that afternoon, became the prime suspect. But he was never convicted. Lugovoi pulled out of the Litvinenko inquest in London and has since become a wealthy Russian politician.

"This has been written about as the first-ever successful nuclear attack on the West by Russia," says Storr. "It's a major situation."

Despite the evidence for the Litvinenko case, "you can't say that was a case that resolved with justice," Blum says. As for Arafat, Blum says the likelihood of finding an assassin — if there is one — is even slimmer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

From NPR West, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "D.O.A.")

RATH: In the 1950 film "D.O.A.," accountant Frank Bigelow, played by Edmond O'Brien, drinks a glass of bourbon spiked with luminous radioactive poisons.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "D.O.A.")

RATH: The ticking clock is a common device in suspense movies, and a poison that kills slowly but inevitably is a perfect film noir gimmick. But that very scenario played out in real life, beginning on a chilly November afternoon in 2006 at the Pine Bar in London.

WILL STORR: The Pine Bar, I mean, it's in a very exclusive hotel, the Millennium Hotel in London Square.

RATH: Will Storr wrote about this mystery.

STORR: Very hushed. Full of shadows and kind of whispers and dark wood paneling, leather seats, chandeliers. And, you know, it's very discreet.

RATH: Three Russians ordered drinks that day. Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun had gin. And a 43-year-old Russian dissident named Alexander Litvinenko drank green tea. As far as Litvinenko was concerned, it was a business meeting with two old comrades.

STORR: It's just a normal night. But yet within hours, he was kind of vomiting with such violence and completely freaking out.

RATH: Immediately, Litvinenko knew that he had been poisoned. His wife called for an ambulance.

STORR: And he goes to the local hospital in Barnett and tells the doctors there, I've been poisoned by Russian spies. And, of course, they suggest that he calls for a psychiatrist because he had sushi for lunch. So they were like, you've just been - it's food poisoning. You've just been poisoned by some bad sushi.

RATH: But days passed, and Litvinenko's condition worsened. He was put on a feeding tube and started losing hair. Antibiotics were administered. Tests for AIDS and hepatitis came back negative. Doctors were at a total loss. It took over two weeks to finally discover the culprit: a highly radioactive and deadly element that was coursing through Litvinenko's body: polonium-210.

DEBORAH BLUM: Polonium only really came to public attention when we started using it to kill each other.

RATH: Deborah Blum is a prize-winning science writer and author of "The Poisoner's Handbook." She says death comes quickly because of polonium-210's radioactive instability.

BLUM: So for a while, it's hissing and spitting with radiation and energy, and then it burns itself out.

RATH: And as it stabilizes, it emits alpha particles.

BLUM: Alpha radiation is not highly penetrating radiation. If I was standing in front of you with a container of polonium-210, I could hold this in my hand and it would not go through my skin. So for it to be dangerous, you have to swallow it or inhale it.

RATH: All the assassin had to do was put the odorless polonium into Litvinenko's tea. Blum says the moment he took his first sip, Litvinenko was doomed.

BLUM: If you can imagine that you swallow an element that's basically radiating, I mean, you can almost visualize this as a tiny dot with sparks shooting out in all directions like a sparkler.

RATH: Any living tissue it touches along the way dies. It begins to destroy the lining of the stomach minutes after ingestion.

BLUM: Quite often with particularly these elements that are in that radium decay chain as polonium is, is their structure is a little bit like calcium. So the body loves to deposit them in the bone.

RATH: And once it settles in the bone marrow, the victim begins to die.

BLUM: Your hair falls out, you can't eat, you can't breathe, it damages your lungs, you are hugely subject to infection.

RATH: Even if the doctors had discovered the poison right away, polonium-210 has no antidote. Litvinenko's fate was sealed. He died three agonizing weeks later.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Here's another thing about polonium: If you know what to look for, you can track its path before it decays. So forensic investigators tracked the polonium, following radioactive trails all over London.

BLUM: Restaurant seats, airline seats, tea bars, sushi bars...

RATH: Trails left by Litvinenko and his killer.

BLUM: You turn off all the lights in London, right, because polonium-210 has this faint blue glow. Pale blue, glowing trails lighting up the path of murder - I just love that image.

RATH: Andrei Lugovoi, one of the Russian men at the Pine Bar that afternoon, became the prime suspect. All evidence pointed to him as the assassin, but Will Storr says he was never convicted. He refused to face the Litvinenko inquest in London and has since become a wealthy Russian politician.

STORR: This has been written about as the first ever successful, you know, nuclear attack on the West by Russia. I mean, it's a major, major situation.

RATH: Now, with the latest report from a Swiss investigation pointing to polonium-210 as the cause of Yasser Arafat's death, the radioactive element is back in the news. But with a short half-life, and Arafat's death now nine years ago, Deborah Blum says it will be hard to confirm if this was indeed a political assassination.

BLUM: With this much more difficult case with Arafat, there's nothing in these tiny traces to allow us to say, yes, we know who killed him.

RATH: She questions if there will ever be an answer in Arafat's case. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.