Two UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham) physicians with special expertise in radiation poisoning have compiled a fact sheet on polonium-210, the substance implicated in the death of a former Russian spy. Benjamin C. Smith, M.D., is a nuclear engineer, and Ziad N. Kazzi, M.D., is a medical toxicologist. They are in UAB's Department of Emergency Medicine. Kazzi, co-director of the UAB Center for Emerging Infections and Emergency Preparedness, studied radiation poisoning at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training site. They both are available for interviews through UAB Media Relations.
Polonium-210: Fact Sheet
Polonium-210 is a radioactive material that releases alpha particles. Its typical uses include devices that eliminate static charges and dust in textile mills, photographic plates and phonographs/records. It is found in small amounts as a contaminant in cigarette smoke and is likely a significant contributor to lung cancer.
Alpha particles are ionizing radiation that can be stopped simply with a piece of paper, or by the dead superficial layer of skin. The particles release all their energy in a very short distance, so when polonium-210 is placed on the skin, it is not dangerous; however, when taken into the body via inhalation or ingestion, polonium can enter the blood stream and alpha particles can impact organs and vital tissues directly.
Polonium-210 is excreted in feces and urine over a period of several months.
The polonium-210 dose that will kill 50 percent of persons who internalize it is about 100,000th of a milligram, one-million times more toxic than cyanide.
Some commercially manufactured antistatic devices may contain as much as 500 micro-curies of polonium-210, theoretically enough radioactive material to kill 5,000 persons.5 However, this polonium is affixed in a gold foil amalgam; extremely sophisticated techniques and advanced technical knowledge would be required to weaponize such polonium.
In its purest form, the amount of polonium-210 that would fit on the tip of a pen (0.5 mm3), if properly dispersed, could kill 500 persons. In the U.S., access to pure radioactive material such as polonium-210 is heavily government-regulated and requires a license for its handling and use.
Dimercaprol, also known as British Anti-Lewisite, is a chelating agent that may be effective as a treatment for Polonium-210 poisoning.