Monday, December 04, 2006
Poison that killed spy lurks in most everyone
Thanks for all of your comments and questions in response to David Doss' post previewing tonight's special report on the murder of the former Russian spy. We've spent the past few days researching the medical angle of this story. Here is some of what we've found:

First off, polonium-210 can be found in harmless trace amounts everywhere. It naturally occurs in the earth's crust -- in rocks and minerals, even in our own bodies. If any of us took an alpha radiation detector and put it right next to our skin or if we took a urine test, we would most likely test positive for trace amounts of polonium-210. It's that common in our environment. That may sound frightening, but it's important to remember that in order to make it dangerous, you'd need a large amount.

As Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health physicist told us: "In the toxicology world, dose makes the poison."

So, how much was used? Well, far more than what naturally occurs in the environment, but an amount still invisible to the naked eye. We're talking micrograms here. To best see it, you'd need a very powerful microscope.

"We can't see it, feel it, sense it," Whitcomb says.

You could make polonium-210 a few different ways: By extracting it from rocks containing radioactive uranium or by chemically separating it from radium-226. But, in order to get an amount that would be lethal, you'd have to produce it in a nuclear reactor laboratory. Hence, there are only a handful of people and places in the world capable of making polonium-210 such that it could poison someone.

What kind of threat does polonium-210 pose to the general public? The good news is that it poses very little danger. In fact, our skin provides natural protection from polonium-210. You'd have to sniff it or eat it in order for it to pose a health danger. You see, polonium-210 is an alpha emitter, the weakest form of radiation. Alpha radiation waves can be stopped by a piece of paper.

What kind of danger did the assassin face? The fact is the assassin risked very little by carrying the poison. The person could have carried polonium-210 wrapped in plastic or in a vial and been completely safe.

Why use it as poison? How long did it take doctors to determine it was polonium-210? These are just a few of the additional questions we'll try to answer in tonight's report. Please keep your questions and your comments coming. It's a medical mystery in the truest sense.
Posted By Chris Gajilan, CNN Senior Medical Producer: 2:54 PM ET
  26 Comments
Chelation Therapy? BINGO!

Follow that trail and you've got part of the answer. Just guessing.
Posted By Anonymous Mandarin, Dallas, TX : 3:31 PM ET
Hey Chris,

Thank you for all the info. I'm not surprise to learn that we can find traces in our body. With everything surrounding us.

Knowing that you need a nuclear reactor laboratory to make a lethal dose is not a calming thing to learn. When you know some of the countries who have them...

Look forward to the show tonight.

Joanne Ranzell
Laval Quebec
Posted By Anonymous Joanne Ranzell Laval Quebec : 3:44 PM ET
Can't wait sounds like a facinating piece. Keep up the great work guys! :-)
Posted By Anonymous Marcy, Mobile, AL : 3:48 PM ET
Hi Chris
Does that mean it would have to be top scientists to measure the amount? Could it be produced in a Nuclear Power plant? Now they know how to look for and find it in the human body, could they prevent death if they found it sooner? The questions just go on and on don't they?
Posted By Anonymous Bev Ontario Canada : 4:07 PM ET
This is way too deep for me, but if I had to start investigating the nuclear reactor lab sounds like a good place to start! Umm, now let's see. Iran, N. Korea. Don't they all deny working with nukes, but still find ways to test them?

Yes, this is going to be very interesting!

Mags
Posted By Anonymous Maggie, Grain Valley, MO : 4:17 PM ET
Hi Chris~
it is amazing how many toxins we are exposed to in our daily environment that we are totally unaware of. For example; A couple of years ago my daughter set up large aquarium with lots of expensive fish from a well know pet chain.( I know I can't mention the name because you can't give them free advertising) We did everything by the book setting up the aquarium. De~clorinators,PH balance, ya da ya da. After everything tested perfect, we added the fish. Within 24 hours all the fish died. The pet chain was baffled. Finally, the expert at the pet store told me to check the amonia in my tap water. He said that he never heard of tap water being high enough in amonia to kill the fish but it was the only thing he could think of since everthing else tested negative. It seems that sometimes there are traces of amonia in tap water that occur naturally. Sure enough, the tap water in my town was too high in amonia for human comsumption, and apparently for any other living creature! I phoned my local water company. They "ha ha~ed" at my report saying that amonia levels that high in the tap water would be impossible. However, within 20 minutes they were at my residence to test it, still laughing. Within 30 minutes after they collected the sample at my home, I recieved a call from the supervisor telling me NOT to drink the tap water until they got all the amonia cleared out! Of course this never made the local media so I wondered how many people were ingesting this poison! We adready had high levels of chlorine in our tap water. I'm no chemist, but doesn't chlorine and amonia make something really bad like sulfuric acid? Needless to say I NEVER consume the tap water. I wonder how much we are breathing, ingesting, or just having skin contact with that is possibly causing health problems such as cancer and other deadly diseases. Ok~ thats my 2 cents. Thanks Chris~ A very interesting report!
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches TX : 4:23 PM ET
Hey, I think don't think that N. Korea and Iran is a very comprehensive list of folks with nuclear reactors. To think that security is relative poor in the USA around these facilities is a no brainer. Cargo is shipped around the world without inspection and undocumented workers have been found in many high security areas in the US. From what we've learned Brown could easily deliver a package containing Polonium without much fear of it being detected. Such a small amount is needed and look at the tons of 'baled' illegal drugs that come into the US with money going back to the NARCOs and terrorists at an alarming rate.
Posted By Anonymous linda, bella vista,ar : 4:51 PM ET
Didn't his wife have traces of radiation in her system too? More than a naturally occuring amount? I am still unsure about our safety. Any one of us could be ingesting it and before we know, it would be too late.
Posted By Anonymous Jess, Paris, KY : 4:54 PM ET
The NY Times piece by Robert Proctor on Dec 1 ("Puffing on Polonium") notes that smoking is a little-known way that millions of us become exposed to polonium-210, which is one of the mechanisms for lung cancer among people who smoke. A pack-per-day smoker will get the radiation equivalent of about 6-7 chest x-rays per year from the polonium in cigarette smoke. The source is from the phosphate fertilizers used in tobacco farming--the tobacco companies have known about the radiation in smoke for many years.
Posted By Anonymous Tom Houston MD, Columbus Ohio : 5:19 PM ET
It has to be done by an expert. I still believe it is the FSB/KGB and the government. What a coward to do this to a human being.
Posted By Anonymous bertha, Window Rock AZ : 5:26 PM ET
so according to the last poster, polonium could have been concentrated in cigarettd tobacco or even the filter, and if the former spy smoked, which most russians do, he may have gotten a lethal dose by literally killing himself. if he offered the other russian a cigarette from the same pack, it means they met. its a perfect way to trace a spy, from shared radioactive cigarettes; moral of the story? if your a spy, dont smoke another spys cigarettes or you could be connected. yes as i see it, a carton of polonium cigarettes was given as a gift to some suspected counter spy, the counter spy shares packs with other counter spys and they all light up in the dark. the chain of spys lights up like a christmas tree and the whole line gets taken down
Posted By Anonymous drmitch stonybrook, ny : 5:43 PM ET
I wrote to the show earlier today and I am doing it again trying to clarify that Alexander Litvinenko was not a former Russian SPY but rather a lieutenant-colonel in the Russian security service: "Litvinenko was never a 'spy' and did not deal with secrets beyond information on operations against organized criminal groups", reads an encyclopedia article on the former KGB officer. Defining Litvinenko as a 'spy' over and over again definitely sends the wrong message to people ignoring who he was. You could rather say he was fighting for justice and equality for his nation, and that he was punished for having publically told the truth about Putin and his governement. It seems he was willing to sacrifice his life and did indeed pay with it in his fight against crime and corruption. Latvinenko's last statement on Nov. 21, 2006, three days before his death, clearly shows this:

"... As I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like. I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition.

You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.

You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value.

You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women.

You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people."

Litvinenko was a patriot, one of the few remaining in the world today. He was a man who could not be bought and who chose to die young rather than to live like a coward. As he put it himself, to 'fly' in the wings of an angel, be it the angel of death, rather than to crawl in the dirt like a worm. He should be remembered for what he really was -- a fighter for justice and peace, a man of ideals and enourmous moral good ... not a spy.
Posted By Anonymous Torn, N.Y, New York : 5:46 PM ET
Thanks for this blog. My questions are the following:

1) You said that you need a large amount of polonium contamination to be considered poisonous. Define large (e.g., how many micrograms, etc.).

2) Is there a way to know you've contaminated a large amount, and if so, what immediate steps can you take before it's too late?

3) Is there an antidote that can reverse the effect once ingested?

4) Was it used because it is so rare, so that the perpetrator hoped that the poison and they themselves wouldn't get found out?

5) The chelation therapy that I've heard about, how is this exactly done, and how long will the person survive after the therapy? Will the person be fully rid of the poison, is the treatment done every so often, how expensive is it, etc.

Thanks for the opportunity to ask questions. I look forward to the show tonight.
Posted By Anonymous Lilibeth, Edmonds, WA : 6:35 PM ET
Memo to the Kremlin:
Tom Clancy called. He wants his plot device back.
Posted By Anonymous Sue, NY NY : 6:48 PM ET
I don't see what this story has to do with what is important to us (the war, homeland security, congressional corruption,illegal immigration, educaton reform, trade deficits, outsourcing of jobs, energy alternatives, deliberate wildfires,displaced citizens, healthcare,etc, etc). And before those people from Canada start calling me ignorant, Yes, I am another self absorbed American. Other countries are self absorbed, that's why they refuse to help fight a war(hint). The world hates us and we do know it because we are the richest, most powerful country in the world, however, when we try to help around the world, we get criticized and hated. Therefore, our govt is afraid to do what it needs to(the war could have been over) fearing world criticism from people who do nothing but wait for the US to take charge. I say, YES, let's focus on ourselves and rebuild our strength. Since AC360 is international, but has assumed the job of policing our government, I think they should focus on America and what benefits us. My only comment on the poisoned Russian expatriate is that it is unfair for the media to keep reporting without proof that Putin is suspected of orchestrating his murder. We don't even know that it was a murder, he could have poisoned himself. I'm not saying he did, but shouldn't the world community WAIT before they lay blame.
Posted By Anonymous Cecilia, Houston Texas : 7:44 PM ET
Hi Chris~
In regard to a previous blogger who said that polonium 210 is in cigarettes and that a pack a day smoker will get the radiation equilvilent of 6~7 chest x~rays per year. The blogger stated that the source of the polonium is from the phospate in the fertilizer. My question, is what about all the people out there that smoke weed (marijuana)? If cigarettes are legal and the tobacco companies are allowed to kill people, what about illegal pot? Isn't it fertilized with phosphate and God only knows what else? Don't get me wrong. I don't smoke ANYTHING, but I was in college once! Let's get real. There is a lot of pot smoking going on out there! How much radiation and other toxic debris is in this stuff other than THC????
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches TX : 8:19 PM ET
Thank you. This is the first correct information I have seen in the media about the risk from Po-210. I say this as a Ph. D. Nuclear Engineer with 28 years experience in radiation protection .
Posted By Anonymous Jeff Ryman, Las Vegas, NV : 10:27 PM ET
Your story regarding the Russian spy was informative. However, I think there comes a point where your focus could be harmful; providing our enemies a new idea to attack the US. and our troops fighting in the Middle East.
Posted By Anonymous Nancy Wishmeier, New York, NY : 11:03 PM ET
Chris,
The Po-210 attack has been discussed a lot on the health physics list server, RADSAFE. The calculations show that about 3 micrograms would be lethal.
Posted By Anonymous Kjell Johansen, Whitefish Bay, WI : 11:21 PM ET
If someone flew with Polonium-210 in British Air flights, would it have been possible to detect this in baggage or via carry on check in luggage? If yes, then it sounds like someone may have collaborated with the guilty parties in smuggling it into UK??
Posted By Anonymous Dan, Denver, Colorado : 11:52 PM ET
This is like the clock has turned back and the Cold War era has returned. What about the repercussions on the international diplomatic scene? Please discuss that too. Also, is the media dramatizing this too much?
Posted By Anonymous Ivy, Pondicherry, India : 2:34 AM ET
You said it could only be made in a nuclear laboratory. My question is do laboratories actually make this stuff? If so for what beneficial purpose? Otherwise why have nuclear laboratories creating this toxic stuff?
Posted By Anonymous Eddy Bangkok, Thailand : 8:19 AM ET
After watching 360 last night, I'm wondering:what the hell did this man know that got him murdered?? I think this has huge implications and it's quite unnerving.
Posted By Anonymous Debbie Darby, Denham Springs, LA : 9:00 AM ET
Polnium-210 is not as rare as some have reported. StaticMaster� brushes are readily available and are used in many industries to clean optics and they contain a cartridge of polonium-210.
Posted By Anonymous Paul, Burlington, ON : 9:10 AM ET
If the Kremlin is indeed guilty in this case, is there any other word that applies here but "terrorism"? Is it not "terrorism" to poison people and contaminate commercial airliners with deadly radiation?
Why is the media (and the US and British politicians that control their reporting) not using this word to describe what has been done?
Oh, I forgot.
In order for it to be "terrorism", the perpetrators have to have policies that do not coincide with US foreign political agendas.
But when the Kremlin does it, or China does it, it is merely "disappointing."
Posted By Anonymous Danny Casolaro, Martinsburg, VA : 9:31 AM ET
Such story is one for the books or movies
Posted By Anonymous Maria Luz Bustos Gutierrez, Los Angeles, CA : 4:00 PM ET
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