Polonium poisoning was brought into the public eye back in 2006 due to the mysterious death of Alexander Litvinenko. Prior to those events, polonium had been virtually unknown and there was certainly no record of it ever having been used in this way.
What is Polonium?
Polonium is a highly radioactive and highly unstable chemical element that occurs in Uranium ores. There have been some studies as to what its practical use may be and these have included a report into its possible use for heating spacecraft. Largely due to its dangerous instability however, no such practical usage has yet been uncovered.
Polonium does occur naturally in the environment but in extremely low traces and it is present in tobacco and in some foods.
However, polonium as an entity was largely unheard of, until the death of Litvinenko.
Alexander Litvinenko was something of a modern day Russian dissident – a former member of the Russian Federal Security Service, he was outspoken against the political regime of the mid 2000’s and he was particularly vitriolic towards the President, Vladimir Putin.
Litvinenko wrote controversial books that criticised the government and likened Putin’s rise to office as a Coup D’Etat. Amongst his many claims were that Russian secret services were behind the Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis and that Putin organised the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and Human Rights Activist who was particularly outspoken against the Chechen conflict.
Litvinenko was granted political asylum in Great Britain from where he remained critical of the government from what he would have thought to be a much safer distance.
On the 1st of November 2006, he met in London with two former KGB officers. At the end of the day, he complained of feeling ill and was admitted to University College Hospital.
The ultimate end of his life wasn’t instant and in fact, Litvinenko died a slow and painful death and finally passed away on 23rd November 2006.
Because of Litvineko’s background, the circumstances around his initial illness were immediately deemed to be suspicious.
Initially it was believed that he had been poisoned with Thallium, a substance which was more widely known. However, as investigations continued, more and more polonium was detected and the final post mortem on Litvinenko served to confirm the cause of death.
Traces of Polonium were found across London at five separate locations that Litvinenko was known to have visited that day. It was believed however that the fatal dose may have been sprayed into a tea cup that he drank from.
Acquiring enough polonium to kill would have required specialist knowledge and connections and although police are aware of their suspects, diplomatic immunity has made it impossible to make an arrest. Andrey Lugovoi, the British police’s prime suspect, became an elected Deputy in the Russian State Duma in 2007, a post which confers immunity from prosecution.
While there have been similarities with other deaths, this is believed to be the only case of polonium poisoning thus far. While it may be unique, it has hinted at a return to the bad old days of political assassinations and the dangers of a repeat simply cannot be ruled out.