Polonium 210 Facts

Alexander Litvinenko headshot, former Russian spy who died from radiation poisoning. AP

An Italian intelligence expert who was one of the last people to see a former KBG agent alive before he died of radiation poisoning has tested positive for the same poison, according to British media.

What is Polonium 210?
Po-210 is a radioactive material that occurs naturally at very low concentrations in the environment; although it can be produced in university or government nuclear reactors, it requires expertise to do so.

Po-210 emits alpha particles, which carry high amounts of energy that can damage or destroy genetic material in cells inside the body.

Po-210 is a particularly energetic radionuclide, giving off 5,000 times more alpha particles than does the same amount of radium. Po-210 is used in some industrial applications such as static eliminators, which are devices designed to eliminate static electricity in processes such as paper rolling, manufacturing sheet plastics, and spinning synthetic fibers.


Is Po-210 harmful to humans?
Po-210 is a radiation hazard only if it is taken into the body through breathing or eating or by entering a wound. This "internal contamination" can cause irradiation of internal organs, which can result in serious medical symptoms or death. Po-210 is not an external hazard to the body—neither polonium nor its radiation will penetrate intact skin or membranes. Most external traces of it can be removed through careful washing.


Who is at risk for contaimination?
People will not be exposed to radiation (irradiated) simply by being near a person who is internally contaminated with Po-210. Health care workers who are providing care for a contaminated patient will not be exposed to Po-210 unless they inhale or ingest contaminated bodily fluids. Normal hygiene practices in hospitals for microbial contamination will be sufficient to protect workers from radiological contamination.


What should you do if you have concerns about possible exposure?
If you were an overseas visitor during early November 2006 and think you might have had contact with persons or locations involved in the London incident see http://www.hpa.org.uk/. Send an e-mail requesting information to the U.K. Health Protection Agency at overseasadvice@hpa.org.uk.


To learn more about Polonium:
• For more information on radiation protection for health care workers, see CDC's "Radiological Terrorism: Tool Kit for Emergency Services Clinicians" here.

• Click here for a look at the effect of different doses of radiation on the human body.

  • Melissa McNamara

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