A teaspoon full of Polonium-210?

Saturday, December 02, 2006
Does that make any sense?

News of the World reports:

It has neem revealed that Litvinenko was poisoned with a massive overdose of the deadly polonium-210. A Whitehall source told the News of the World: "A few microbes would be fatal, but we think he had a TEASPOON’S worth—more than a billion times what was needed to kill him."

A few microbes? What the H*ll is a microbes worth of Po-210? And what's with the teaspoon's worth? A teaspoon is about 4.9 cm^3, Po-210 has a density of about 9.3 grams/cm^3, so we are talking about 9.3*4.9 ~ 45.6 grams of Po-210. At 140 watts/gram, that amounts to 6379 watts, or the equivalent of about 3.5 7" electric stove top burners at full power. Litvinenko should have fried, or at least burst into flames in an astonishing display of spontaneous combustion. Not to mention the boiling water in which the Polonium was dissolved, not to mention the fearsome blue glow. Now, maybe the Whitehall source is talking about an isotopic mixture with the Po-210 a small fraction thereof, but that isn't what is written.

Twelve years ago I let my subscription to Time magazine lapse after one too many utterly crap science articles. On the evidence of this current excrescence journalism hasn't improved much since. All that is required to do better is that the reporter have a little bit of curiosity and a capacity for basic arithmetic, two qualities that seem sadly out of fashion in the profession. And how the heck did AllahPundit let that one go by without comment? Something is very wrong with education in this country.

Update: How big is a microbe? The typical size range is about 1-10 microns, with some recently discovered giant microbes ranging up to 1mm, and some smaller microbes down to a few tenths of a micron. To be generous, say about 10 microns. So the equivalent mass of Polonium would be about .01 μg, which is about the LD50/30 dose. So that part of the article is not so far off. But I think the quote should have been elucidated by adding something along the lines of "a few microbe sized particles of Polonium".


Skookumchuk said...

Well, if you know what an integral sign means, or understand a chemical formula, or Ohm's Law, or how to give somebody an IV, or how to build a brick wall, or drive a backhoe, you know, useful stuff, you don't become a reporter.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

So, must we update the adage to "Those who can't do, report."?

truepeers said...

Ok, dumbass that I am, why didn't they just shoot him?

No doubt there is something to the appeal of poisoning that I don't get. For the Greeks, a pharmakon was a remedy and a necessary but poisonous form of violent sacrifice.

Skookumchuk said...

"Those who don't know, report".

Seneca the Younger said...

Tru, I can think of several reasons. First off, 210Po is pretty exotic, and the symptoms match a lot of other things besides bone marrow absorption of an alpha emitter; the killer may have hoped it would be just a mysterious death by illness. From the sound of things, they overshot the necessary dose by maybe an order of magnitude --- a couple weeks is actually pretty fast --- but I'd be real interested tom hear if there have been an other unexpected cases of aplastic anemia among Russians recently.

Second, it's an unpleasant death, extremely unpleasant: besides the lost hair and increasing weakness, you get violent nausea, violent diarrhea, hemorrhage from pretty much all orifices. If it is identified, as this was, then you also have the knowledge for weeks that you're doomed, you're already dead.

Third, it's an effective terror weapon. It can be concealed easily, the amount in much smaller than a single grain of salt, and it's undetectable. Since no one knows who actually delivered it, or how, then the whole Russian community in London has to start wondering if they should eat anything except canned food bought randomly away from home. What's more, one not only has to be afraid for one's self, but for one's family, neighbors, even people they meet in passing.

truepeers said...

So it's all about fear and terror, eh?

Well then, add another reason to the list: if the Brits find out about it, they will engage in a series of consultations and studies that never get at the "root cause" of the Russian terror problem, but will declare that we must find a way to live in respect and peace with these people and not close any doors. This will give our cousins and friends in Britain access to jobs and perks, and perhaps make it easier for us to get Chelsea tickets.

Or 2) now that terror is a multi-"racial" thing, the Brits will find the nerve to get serious at home and will actually understand what we are doing in our home and they will help stop all hte whining about human rights.

Trying to think like a KGB man.

Seneca the Younger said...

Yeah, Tru, I'm pretty sure that the answer to horrific poisonings by a fascist is to forget about that human rights nonsense.

truepeers said...

Sen, you're not thinking like a KGB man.

Anonymous said...

So how many people could teaspoon kill? I cannot find it out anywhere.