Friday, September 25, 2015

Polonium-210, The Perfect Poison

Figure 17.27 in the 5th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology shows the decay series arising from the radioactive isotope radon-222, which itself is produced by the decay of the long-lived isotope uranium-238. The last step in this long chain of reactions is the alpha decay of polonium-210 to the stable isotope lead-206. The half-life of this decay is 138 days. This is not the only isotope of polonium in radon’s decay series. A heavier isotope polonium-214 has a half-life of 160 microseconds, and polonium-218 has a half-life of 3 minutes.

Polonium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898 when analyzing pitchblende, a uranium containing ore. It was named after Marie’s homeland, Poland. Now 210Po is produced by bombarding bismuth-209 with neutrons, forming bismuth-210, which undergoes beta decay to 210Po.

210Po is infamous for being a deadly poison. For a given mass, 210Po is 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. Its toxicity comes from the 5.3-MeV alpha particle it emits. Because alpha particles are easily stopped by clothing and even skin, 210Po is dangerous primarily when breathed or ingested, so that the alpha particles are emitted inside the body. A nearly pure alpha emitter, 210Po rarely emits a gamma ray, making it difficult to detect this poison unless one measures the alpha particles directly. A lethal dose comes from ingesting about a microgram.

210Po was used in the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who was apparently given some polonium-laced tea by Russian agents (the investigation into this complicated murder continues--see here and here--and the details are still debated). Death by 210Po is slow; the 44-year old Litvinenko needed 22 days for the radiation to eventually take his life.

Polonium was also suspected to play a role in the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Just this month, a French investigation has concluded that there is not enough evidence for pressing charges. The issue is complicated because 210Po is found in cigarette smoke, and Arafat was a heavy smoker. The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements reports that the annual effective dose equivalent to a smoker from radiation in tobacco is about 13 mSv, which is over four times the average annual dose of 3 mSv we are all exposed to (see Section 16.12 in IPMB), but is still a tiny dose.

The Environmental Protection Agency has published a report titled “Occurrence of 210Po and Biological Effects of Low-Level Exposure: The Need for Research.” As with all studies of low-level radiation exposure, the results are difficult to assess, and depend on our assumptions about radiation risks at small doses. But Alexander Litvinenko’s death proves that at high doses 210Po is very dangerous indeed; it’s perhaps the perfect poison.

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