Saturday, November 25, 2006
Effects of Nuclear Weapons Tests: Scientific Facts: "Incompetent medics failed to diagnose acute radiation poisoning from internal exposure to the heavy metal nuclide polonium-210, the most deadly radioactive material on earth due to its short half-life of about 140 days (plutonium-239 has a 24,400 years half life so each atom of that emits only one alpha particle per 35,100 years, which is a comparatively low dose rate - the average life for exponential decay is always 1.44 times the half-life)."

Okay, let's try to kill off a couple of idiotic thoughts I'm already seeing around.

First: not spotting Polonium poisoning is not incompetent medical treatment. Just how many polonium poisoning incidents do they think happen in a year? (Hint: not damn many.) In fact, how many radiation sickness incidents show up in hospitals in a year? Compared to other illnesses that present in pretty much the same way --- leukemia, pernicious anemia, various much less exotic toxins.

And no, most hospitals don't check people for radiation on admittance.


chuck said...

If I were a terrorist, I'd be thinking, "I've got to get me some of that". I wonder how difficult it is to obtain? The short half life means there has to be a short link from manufacture to transport. I don't think the transport itself would be difficult, because the alpha radiation isn't very penetrating and easily shielded.

Yeah, the medical incompetence part is a stretch. I'll bet they found the Polonium after analysing a urine sample with a mass spectrometer looking for Thalium. Surprise!

Syl said...

I heard that polonium is quite common. In fish. In cigarettes. In dirt. And, in fact, one forensic guy on tv said to wait for the autopsy because just finding polonium in someone's system is not really all that surprising.

chuck said...

Don't know, Syl. Given that Po-210 was found localized in spots where Litvinenko had been -- a bar, a hotel room, a table -- and given that the man died from what looks to be radiation sickness, I think it is a stretch to say this was an ordinary amount of Polonium. Besides, it ain't that common, a human body (70kg) contains about 0.2 pg (2e-13 grams), contributing 1 nCi of radiation. Much less than, say, C-14 at 400 nCi.

Another way at looking at natural abundance:

One ton of uranium ore contains only about 100 micrograms (0.0001 grams) of polonium.

Makes you appreciate Madame Curie's work ethic. BTW, Po-210 is pretty amazing stuff.

Polonium-210 is a very strong emitter of alpha particles. A single gram of polonium-210 creates 140 Watts of heat energy and is being considered as a lightweight heat source for thermoelectric power for spacecraft. Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138.39 days.

Given that a nickle masses about 5 grams, that means a nickle's worth of Po-210 could power your iron. But only for about 1/2 year, after that you would need a fresh charge.

More here, note that it isn't that easy to manufacture. And whatever you do, don't eat reindeer.

Residents of the north who subsist on caribou and reindeer. Reindeer eat lichens that absorb trace elements in the atmosphere (210Po and 210Pb). The 210Po content of Lapps living in northern Finland is ~12 times higher than the residents of southern Finland. Liver dose in the Laplanders is 170 mrem/year compared to 15 mrem/year
for those in the south.

Seneca the Younger said...

Syl, it's not that it's polonium, it's the amount: the amount of polonium you get from cigaarettes is in the neighborhood of picograms, the lethal amount is micrograms ... that is 10,000 or 100,000 times more.

Wikipedia has a good article.

Syl said...


The vast wasteland proved its worth again.