Polonium: Harmless Unless Ingested

Following the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, British authorities are following a trail of radioactive contamination. Litvinenko died from the effects of absorbing a rare radioactive element, Polonium 210.

Polonium is a naturally occurring element. There are trace quantities in the soil, minuscule amounts in seafood and in consumer products, such as anti-static brushes found in photo shops.

Although it is described as one of the "nastier radioactive isotopes," Polonium is harmless unless it gets inside your body, through ingestion or a puncture wound, for example.

Polonium 210 and the Litvinenko Case

Robert Siegel talks with John Emsley, author of The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, about the poisoning of Russian-spy-turned-Kremlin-critic Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko died last Thursday after being poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210.

Emsley is a former science writer-in-residence for the University of Cambridge.

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