By KEAY DAVIDSON
San Francisco Chronicle
November 29, 2006
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.
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.
Experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear-weapons lab in Livermore, Calif., declined 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.)
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.
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 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 ..." 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.
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