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“Weaponized” Polonium-210 and What It May Mean

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There's a couple of things that are really strange to me about the poisoning death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.  And now it looks like even more people may have been exposed (AP via Salon), which in turn raises a whole new set of questions:

December 01,2006 | LONDON — An Italian security expert who met with a former Russian spy on the day he fell fatally ill has also tested positive for the radioactive substance, British media reported Friday.

Mario Scaramella has tested positive for a significant amount of polonium-210, which also was found in the body of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, according to Sky Television and the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Scaramella had come from Rome to meet with Litvinenko at a sushi bar in London on Nov. 1 — the day the former intelligence agent first reported the symptoms that ultimately led to his death at a central London hospital.

This is sending up red flags for a number of reasons.  The first thing that's odd is the actual nature of the poison.  Let me see if I can break this down quickly. 

Polonium-210 is a highly radioactive isotope that has certain very specific uses, for instance in anti-static brushes for photographic film.  It's incredibly complicated to make and under normal circumstances, it's not harmful to humans because it emits alpha radiation, which is defined thusly by US Army Environmental Glossary:

alpha radiation

The most energetic but least penetrating form of radiation. It can be stopped by a sheet of paper and cannot penetrate human skin. However, if an alpha-emitting isotope is inhaled or ingested, it will cause highly concentrated local damage.

Unless you eat, drink, or inhale polonium, or take it in through a break in the skin, it's basically harmless.  So, that would lead us to believe that it was in Litvinenko's food at the London sushi bar where he was poisoned.  My question is how sick is the Italian who met with him?  Has he, too, received a lethal dose or was he exposed by proximity, getting a lower dose? According to this story on NPR's All Things Considered, the amount of polonium-210 that would make up a lethal dose would be approximately the size of a grain of sand, so if Scaramella received a non-lethal dose, the amount would have to be minuscule.

But here's the thing.  Once polonium is ingested through the mouth, it meets another impediment to lethal poisoning, the gut-transfer barrier.

Salon interviewed nuclear expert John Large, who explains it thusly:  

I was very surprised, because it's an alpha emitter, which is a heavy ionizer, but generally it's a difficult one to use if you were to have it ingested in food or something like that. One of the things about human beings is that our gut is designed to protect us from being poisoned. So the gut lining doesn't pass toxins into the blood. This would be seen as a metal, and if you look — health physicists have what they call gut-transfer factors, and the gut-transfer factor for polonium is quite low. Not a lot of it can get through.


That's what's so strange about this. First of all, how was it administered? Was it administered through the ingestion pathway or the respiration pathway? The respiration pathway would require some quite sophisticated chemistry, and if it was [administered that way], it seems a bit too effective. So was there some trick, not only a chemical trick but a radiological trick, applied to this?

This has massive implications.  Radiological medicine operates on this principle, given that radioactive isotopes, once introduced to the system, naturally settle in various organs, depending upon the nature of the isotope.  We use this for radiological imaging and chemotherapy, where radiation is used to disrupt the reproduction of rogue cells like tumors.  But in these methods, because of the gut-transfer barrier, the isotopes must be introduced intravenously.

That doesn't seem to be the case with Litvinenko.  There is the chance that he inhaled polonium-210 rather than eating it, but due to the slow uptake polonium in the lungs, it would take some months for a lethal dose (5 units of radiation) to (in Large's words) "do its evil work".  He could have been injected with the poison, but how would that account for Scaramella's exposure?  These questions raise the possibility of nanotechnology, which is basically a fancy word for chemistry that works with matter on a scale smaller than 100 nanometers (1/10-9 meters).  

From Wikipedia:

Two main approaches are used in nanotechnology: one is a "bottom-up" approach where materials and devices are built from smaller (molecular) components which assemble themselves chemically using principles such as molecular recognition; the other being a "top-down" approach where they are synthesized or constructed from larger entities through an externally-controlled process.

We're talking about the "bottom-up" version of nanotechnology here, where whoever engineered this poison has potentially made it so that its chemical signature allows it to elude the body's normal defenses and concentrate in the victim's organs, disrupting the cells and setting in motion a systemic collapse.  In Litvinenko's case, the poison settled into the surface and marrow of his bones, where blood cells are minted and put into circulation.  The polonium killed his blood, which in turn killed him.

A poison this complicated is rather beyond the means of most chemists, requiring an elaborate set of tools and laboratories. 

John Large:

Polonium, although it does occur naturally, is at the very end of the uranium decay train.

You need a nuclear reactor, you need a radiochemical laboratory that can handle radioactive material, and then you need a clinical laboratory that can cut it into a designer drug. Now, those facilities are simply not available in other than state enterprises. So countries like the United States, the Russian Federation, Britain, France and Israel are the sort of countries that can do this.

Large feels that this therefore directly implicates the Russian government.  By his reasoning, a state apparatus is an absolute necessity to this equation.

But that's the second thing that strikes me as odd about this whole deal.  If the Russian government wanted to take down an enemy, don't you think they would do it in some less public and spectacular way?  Is this a message to other enemies of the Putin regime?

And here's where I am going to venture into the realm of rank speculation.  My personal theory is that this and other recent murders of Putin's ideological opponents (that link is to a story about journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building) may not in fact be the work of the Kremlin, but rather the work of some agency with a direct interest in bringing down the Putin government.  

In the years since the introduction of the free-market system in Russia, the Russian mafia has amassed a huge amount of wealth and power, as well as private citizens like jailed petroleum oligarch Mikhail Kordorkovsky.  Moscow now has the highest concentration of millionaires of any city in the world.  When capitalism came to the former USSR, some savvy operators seized that opportunity to suck up and horde most of the money in the country. 

There are very powerful interests at work here, and it would not surprise me to find that this plot has layers on layers of intrigue.  You may need a state apparatus to make polonium-210, particularly what appears to be a "weaponized" form, but all you need to buy it is money.  At every stage of the process, there are people who could potentially be bought out or threatened.  And one thing the power players in the former Soviet Union have in abundance is money.

So, I would not be so eager to lay the blame for this and other seemingly politically motivated murders at the feet of the Putin administration.  Not because I believe that they are particularly good or just, but because I think it would be hasty to assume that they are the only malevolent actors in this particular drama. 

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