reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Fueling Panic over Polonium-210

4 MINS READDec 1, 2006 | 08:55 GMT
British Home Secretary John Reid said on Thursday that investigators looking into the death of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko have found traces of radiation at a dozen locations in and around London, including on some British Airways aircraft. British medical personnel reported that Litvinenko, who fled to the United Kingdom and subsequently became a British subject, died from being poisoned by polonium-210, a highly lethal radioactive substance (he was initially thought to have been poisoned with thallium). A vocal critic of the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Litvinenko was allegedly exposed to the polonium-210 around the time he met with Mario Scaramella, an Italian academic who helped investigate KGB activity in Italy during the Cold War. British Airways, Europe's third largest airline, took three of its aircraft out of service after they were linked to the investigation into Litvinenko's death. Two are in the United Kingdom, while the third remains grounded in Moscow pending further investigation. Approximately 33,000 passengers traveled in these aircraft between London's Heathrow Airport and multiple European locations, including Moscow, between Oct. 25 and Nov. 26 — and the airline is attempting to contact each passenger to inform them of the possibility that they have been exposed to radioactivity. Helplines have been set up for passengers to call British Airways for advice, which usually consists of nothing more than "call your doctor if you think you should." Scotland Yard is not calling Litvinenko's death a murder as of yet, but authorities are referring to his death as a "deliberate act." Going through the airlines may seem like a good way to trace the movements of Litvinenko's killer, but it is unlikely that the British can realistically narrow down their list of suspects by contacting all 33,000 British Airways passengers. Even running background checks on the passengers listed on the flights' manifests would take months. Furthermore, anyone smuggling a lethal radioactive substance would be unlikely to give their real name to the airline. What contacting thousands of people to inform them that they may or may not have been exposed to something radioactive does accomplish is to spread fear and apprehension — emotions that are already high in the United Kingdom since Litvinenko's death raised the specter of Russian spies killing people in London with radiation. Most people, when told that they may have been exposed to radiation, react with fear and panic, even though it is very difficult to be accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of polonium-210. Polonium-210 is very difficult to detect — you have to be looking in a specific area to find it. Investigators knew where to look by interviewing Litvinenko on his deathbed and backtracking his whereabouts and the people he came into contact with prior to his death. Traces of polonium-210 have been found at many of the locations tested for radiation by investigators in London. It is not clear whether polonium-210 was actually found on the aircraft — which, incidentally, are exposed to a fair amount of radiation anyway when they fly at high altitudes. However, if polonium-210 was transported on any of these aircraft, the chances of any passengers being adversely affected by it are extremely low — and indeed, the British Health Protection Agency and British Airways have been emphasizing that the health risks are actually very low. The element polonium is found everywhere — in such things as dirt and tobacco, for example — and is not especially harmful in its normal form. The polonium-210 isotope (which is found only in nuclear reactors) is lethal, and also extremely rare; but in order for it to kill someone, it has to be either eaten or inhaled. It emits alpha radiation, which cannot pass though paper, much less human skin. This makes it valuable for a targeted killing — it is lethal, and there is little chance of affecting people other than the target. Within hours of meeting Scaramella at the sushi restaurant, Litvinenko was admitted to a hospital. Sixteen days later, he was transferred to University College Hospital in London, where he died one week later. If any of the passengers on one of the British Airways flights had ingested polonium-210, they — like Litvinenko — would probably be dead already. In any case, they would not need a helpline to let them know that they need medical attention. They would probably have headed for a hospital by the time their hair fell out and their organs began failing — and if, by some astronomical chance, someone was actually exposed to polonium-210, there would be nothing that could be done for them anyway.

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