ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Suddenly, with the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the toxic properties of Polonium 210 have moved from the stuff of chemistry books to the front pages of newspapers all over the world.
John Emsley is a British science writer and chemist who wrote the book “The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison.” Welcome to the program.
Mr. JOHN EMSLEY (Author, “The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison”): Very nice to be with you.
SIEGEL: Speaking of elements and history, is there any known history of poisoning people with this isotope of the element polonium?
Mr. EMSLEY: No. It's extremely rare for this to happen. I mean, everybody who deals with Polonium 210 knows how dangerous it is. In fact, I think it's generally regarded as one of the most toxic substances that we know.
SIEGEL: You spoke of all people who work with polonium, which of course raises the question who has access to polonium? Is it easy to get hold of polonium, or is a very rarified group the only people -
Mr. EMSLEY: Well, no, you're quite right. It isn't easy to get. I mean, you can only make it - it's made from another element called bismuth, but you need to expose bismuth to neutrons, and you can only do that, really, in a nuclear facilities. But it has one use, in that it gives off a lot of heat.
And I know when the Russians sent their space ship, which landed on the moon, that the electricity that was generated for that was generated from a polonium thermoelectric cell because one gram of polonium, just left to itself, will reach a temperature of about 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and you can use that heat, of course, to make electricity, and it was a very powerful source for that reason.
SIEGEL: Well, if we were - this is highly hypothetical - if we were in the business of poisoning people, what would be the advantages or drawbacks of using Polonium 210?
Mr. EMSLEY: Well, it's a very sinister way of poisoning people, Robert, if you think about it because the dose is incredibly tiny. A piece of polonium the size of a speck of dust would be quite a serious hazard if that got into your body. Now, I suspect, you know, when this poor man was poisoned, they would use something like a milligram, a thousandth of a gram, so tiny, and it would be dissolved in something, and it's very easy, I think, to slip that into somebody's drink.
And I mean, there's been speculation here that it was put into a cup of tea that he drank -
SIEGEL: But just the idea of dealing with a milligram of something, or such a tiny part -
Mr. EMSLEY: Well you know, a milligram's about the size of a grain of sand. You know, you're talking, I think, incredibly tiny amount. Perhaps the most famous death from Polonium 210 was Marie Curie's daughter.
Marie Curie was the woman a hundred years ago who discovered polonium, and her daughter, Irene, died, it's suspected, from polonium because there was a vial of this which exploded in her laboratory, and it's thought that she inhaled the vapor and the dust from this. It took her a long time to die, but actually she died of leukemia.
And the thing about polonium is like all radioactive material, it gives off alpha particles. Once it gets inside your body, then of course these particles could easily damage the DNA of the cell. And of course when that happens, there's always the possibility that the cell reconstructs in a slightly different fashion. You then get a cancerous cell.
SIEGEL: Now do I have it right that if, in fact, someone is given a large dose of Polonium 210, large enough to kill as quickly as it seems Alexander Litvinenko was killed, that the person would actually excrete Polonium 210?
Mr. EMSLEY: Oh yes because they - it's a curious element because it's got - it tends to stay around in the body for anything up to about a month. But of course, all the time, your body knows it doesn't want it, and it's excreting it through, you know, your urine and your feces.
So perhaps everywhere you've been, there will be traces of Polonium 210 to be found. I mean, this is perhaps why it was found in the sushi bar. Now, we don't know - it's not been revealed where in the sushi bar that it was found, but I suspect it was perhaps found in the gents' toilet. It's been found in his home, but of course there will be ample evidence of it there. It's been found in a hotel.
It's difficult to know when he was given this, but of course, after perhaps a day or two, he'd begin to excrete it, and then everywhere he went, there will be traces.
SIEGEL: Having studied poisonings yourself, is it a truism of the field that, let's say, institutions that go in for poisoning people typically would also have antidotes that they would be familiar with, or not necessarily?
Mr. EMSLEY: Oh, yes. I think this - the sophistication at which this poisoning was done, the people who prepared the poison or the dose of the poison would certainly know how to deal with any accidental contamination. I mean, this would be produced in a highly sophisticated nuclear facility where, of course, people are geared up to not exposing themselves to it and to coping with accidents if they were to happen.
SIEGEL: John Emsley, thank you very much for talking with us about -
Mr. EMSLEY: Well, thank you very much, Robert. It's been a most interesting conversation.
SIEGEL: That's John Emsley, who is a chemist by trade and a science writer and the author of “The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison.”
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.