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Polonium postscript

The mystery over former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko's death by radiation poisoning is getting curiouser and curiouser, with Russian prosecutors pointing the finger at the managers of a now-bankrupt business empire. It's yet another bizarre twist in a tale that has already entangled the Russian government. But even though the murder investigation is getting murkier, it's no mystery that the murder weapon, radioactive polonium-210, could be produced in virtually any chemistry lab.

Last month we noted that polonium-210 can be found in many walks of life - usually in forms that don't threaten the public. However, some Cosmic Log correspondents observed that the polonium from innocuous products such as anti-static brushes could be extracted to produce a potentially harmful dose.

Over the holiday weekend, self-styled radiation watchdog Walter Wagner said this was indeed the case. I got to know Wagner years ago because of his work with uranium-glazed tiles as well as his concerns about the "Big Bang machine" (a.k.a. the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Here are some excerpts from his letter on polonium-210.

"I began writing about polonium-210 circa 1980. You can find a letter I wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine regarding polonium-210 in cigarette smoke (as naturally occurring radioactive fallout from radon gas in the air that falls onto the leaves of plants such as tobacco) if you Google my name, and Po-210, which should result in [this] Web page. You have to scroll down a ways.

"That article was written, of course, long before I taught myself about uranium tiles. I also point out in that letter the fallacy of statutorily asserting that the RBE (relative biological effectiveness) of alpha emitters is 20 (as the EPA, NRC and DOE regs assert), when at low doses it is closer to 1,000. I won't go into why that is so in this brief e-mail, though I've well-detailed how that error arose in other writings, not yet incorporated into the regulations.

"Anyway, I also read the responses to your article, which were quite interesting, and some from very knowledgeable persons.

"It is true that static eliminators can be used to extract polonium-210 in deadly amounts. The larger eliminators contain millicurie amounts, and 3 millicuries is a nominal lethal dose. Polonium-210 is one of the most lethal materials on Earth if ingested or inhaled (about 63,000 times worse than plutonium; it's simply roughly the ratio of the half-lives), yet it is ubiquitous in the form of static eliminators. Here's a Web site for one source. ...

"I suspect that the regulations will be tightened in the future to provide better control over dissemination of such radioactive sources.

"However, it is not certain that that was the origin of the polonium-210, since Russian reactors make the polonium-210 for the international static eliminator market, and they have worldwide distribution. ..."

I've left out some of the technical material about how nuclear reactors help increase the neutron output - as well as Wagner's detailed instructions for turning $200 worth of static eliminators into a hazardous dose of polonium-210. However, I will pass along Wagner's comment that "anyone with a smidgen of a chemistry background, and some nuclear science background, would be able to do this."

Authorities tend to dismiss Wagner as being too alarmist, about uranium tiles as well as mini-Big Bangs. I have a feeling the same might hold true for polonium-210. But if you ever spot someone suspicious buying up cartloads of static eliminators - consider yourself warned.