Saturday, November 25, 2006

Litvinenko & Polonium 210 

Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died last Thursday in a London hospital from massive multiple organ shutdown. British investigators said that traces of polonium 210 were found in his urine.

Although the Brits aren't prepared at this time to call the death a murder, a little research into polonium 210 suggests strongly that the death was either homicide or suicide.

According to Wikipedia, "this isotope of polonium is an alpha emitter that has a half-life of 138.376 days. A milligram of 210Po emits as many alpha particles as 5 grams of radium." Alpha particles are helium nuclei, which are composed of two protons and two neutrons. Alpha particles are heavy but slow and can be stopped by a sheet of paper, but if an alpha emitter is ingested into the human body it wreaks havoc because the particles cause a lot of molecular damage in the short distance they travel.

So the stuff is very harmful when ingested. The question is, could Litvinenko have ingested it accidentally? I don't think so, and here's why, again relying on Wikipedia:
"A very rare element in nature, polonium is found in uranium ores at about 100 micrograms per metric ton (1:1010). Its natural abundance is approximately 0.2% of radium's.
"Polonium is so exceedingly rare that only about 100 grams is believed to be produced each year."
With polonium being so rare, it borders on impossible that Litvinenko could have accidentally been exposed to it. It must have gotten into his body as a result of someone's intentional act.

The only unanswered questions, then, are whether Litvinenko was murdered or committed suicide. Quoting from the Fox News story linked above:

Litvinenko, 43, had told police he believed he had been poisoned on Nov. 1 while investigating the October slaying of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another of Putin's critic.

Litvinenko worked for the KGB and its successor, the FSB. In 1998, he publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill tycoon Boris Berezovsky and spent nine months in jail from 1999 on charges of abuse of office. He was later acquitted and in 2000 sought asylum in Britain.

It therefore appears that Putin and his allies in the Russian government had a motive for getting Litvinenko out of the picture. Former KGB operative Putin certainly would be aware of many techniques available for assassinating, um, "inconvenient" persons, so he certainly has the means. For their part, the Russian government blames exiled Russian dissidents, claiming that they murdered Litvinenko to discredit the government.

I imagine we'll be hearing more over the next few days, but we may never know for sure why Litvinenko died, or whodunit.

Thanks for the science. I unerstand that this is being passed off in Russia as a suicide. Goebbel's didn't live for nothing.
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