by Keay Davidson – San Francisco Chronicle Nov 28, 2006 via TBR News
It's one of the deadliest imaginable poisons, a radioactive substance about 100 billion times as deadly as cyanide — and a Web site run by a physicist and flying saucer enthusiast offers to sell you a trace amount of it for $69 and send it via the U.S. Postal Service or UPS.
Contrary to early news reports, polonium-210 — the poison suspected in the death of an ex-Russian spy in England — is not some exotic material available solely from nuclear laboratories. The isotope is available from firms that sell it for lawful and legitimate uses in industry, such as removing static electricity from machinery and photographic film.
If ingested in large enough amounts, polonium-210 causes a hideous death.
"This is not a way you'd want to die — it's a very slow, painful death," said Kelly L. Classic, a radiation physicist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the media liaison for the Health Physics Society, a national organization of experts on the health effects of radiation.
Polonium is an "alpha emitter," which, when it decays, emits high-speed volleys of subatomic alpha particles — each one composed of two protons and two neutrons bound together — that rip apart DNA coils and bust up the cells within which they reside.
An alpha particle "is huge on an atomic scale," Classic said. "If an electron was a piece of popcorn, the alpha particle (would be) like a bowling ball."
Former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died Thursday in London, the victim of what health officials said was polonium-210 poisoning at a hotel bar or a sushi restaurant on Nov. 1. Before he died, he insisted that he was poisoned on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His illness developed rapidly, causing his hair to fall out and ravaging his immune and nervous systems. Police have reported finding traces of radiation at the restaurant and bar.
Classic, who is not involved with the British police investigation, speculated that, assuming the ex-spy was poisoned, his killer might have done so by sprinkling the poison in liquid rather than powdered form — perhaps on the spy's food. A powder would have quickly traveled around a large area, whereas British police say that traces of the poison seem to be limited to small locations, as one would expect if the liquid were spattered here and there in small drops.
Experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore, declined Monday to say how much polonium-210 would be needed to harm anyone. They said they were calculating how much would be needed — but even if they knew the answer, they wouldn't reveal it publicly for ethical reasons.
"In this day and age, we need to be extraordinarily careful about how to give out 'how-to' instructions," Livermore health physicist Gary Mansfield said, alluding to the threat of terrorism. "We're not going to provide you a recipe to help the bad guys harm (people)."
Polonium-210 is "approximately 100,000 million times more toxic than cyanide," according to "A Guide to the Elements, Second Edition," by Albert Stwertka, published in 2002 by Oxford University Press. (That amount equals 100 billion.)
The isotope has a short half-life of 138 days, which might make it difficult to trace after a relatively short time. Although the alpha particles can wreak devastating damage inside a cell, paradoxically they're too frail to break through human skin — meaning that no one would be able to detect them escaping from the human body.
In the United States, it is legal for vendors licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to sell small amounts of polonium-210 and other radioactive sources without the buyers having to receive special permission from the government.
United Nuclear Scientific Equipment & Supplies of Sandia Park, N.M., will sell you a small amount of polonium-210 for $69 in a small, yellow, disk-shaped container. The firm offers a long list of available radioactive sources on its commercial Web site — which includes buttons marked, "Add to Cart" next to items for purchase.
"Because our products can be potentially hazardous in the wrong hands," the site states, "we will occasionally terminate and refund orders if we feel you are juvenile posing as an adult, inexperienced with the materials ordered, or using our products to make any sort of explosive device. All packages containing hazardous chemicals will require an adult signature on delivery."
United Nuclear is run by Bob Lazar, who attracted national attention when he claimed to have worked on crashed alien spaceships at a U.S. military base in Nevada called Area 51. In May, the Albuquerque Journal reported that agents from the U.S. Department of Justice raided Lazar's firm in 2003. Lazar claimed that federal government officials wanted his firm to stop selling chemicals that they said could be used to make explosives, the paper reported.
A woman at Lazar's company, who identified herself only as "Michelle," said the firm sells polonium-210 in "small, small, minuscule" amounts ... What we carry is so small you can't see it with your naked eye." She said she is only an employee at the firm and doesn't know where Lazar obtains the polonium-210.
Lazar couldn't be reached for comment Monday.
The buzz on polonium
What is it? Polonium-210 is a radioactive isotope that emits high-speed volleys of subatomic particles called alpha emitters, which can destroy DNA in human cells and cause rapid, gruesome death. Doctors can't detect polonium-210 inside the human body because the particles are too weak to penetrate skin.
How poisonous is it? Polonium-210 is 100 billion times as poisonous as cyanide. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission advises against ingesting more than eight-tenths of a million millionths of a gram of polonium-210.
How is it used? The isotope's lawful applications include the use of the alpha particles to remove static electricity from photographic film and industrial machinery. Via a Web site in New Mexico, you can buy a trace of polonium-210 for $69 via U.S. mail or UPS.
Sources: "A Guide to the Elements, Second Edition," by Albert Stwertka.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated 05/12/2006