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Polonium, the poison that may have killed Sunanda

Polonium, the poison that may have killed Sunanda
NEW DELHI: In a sensational revelation, Delhi Police Commissioner B S Bassi on Tuesday confirmed that the wife of former Union minister Shashi Tharoor, Sunanda Pushkar, who was found dead on January 17, 2014 in her hotel room in Delhi, had been murdered.

Delhi Police Commissioner BS Bassi said: 'Polonium 210, a radioactive isotope, is suspected to be the poison that may have caused her death. The viscera samples may now be sent to an FBI lab in the US or a lab in the UK.'

So what exactly is Polonium 210 and how dangerous can it be?

Polonium first hit the headlines when it was used to kill KGB agent-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.


Polonium-210 is one of the world's rarest elements, discovered in 1898 by scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and named in honor of her country of origin, Poland. It occurs naturally in very low concentrations in the Earth's crust and also is produced artificially in nuclear reactors. In small amounts, it has legitimate industrial uses, mainly in devices to eliminate static electricity.


Very. If ingested, it is lethal in extremely small doses. Less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces) of the silver powder is sufficient to kill. A 2007 study by radiation experts from Britain's Health Protection Agency concluded that once polonium-210 is deposited in the bloodstream, its potent effects are nearly impossible to stop. A poisoning victim would experience multiple organ failure as alpha radiation particles bombard the liver, kidneys and bone marrow from within. The symptoms shown by Litvinenko — nausea, hair loss, throat swelling and pallor — are also typical.


The good news — not too many people. The element can be a byproduct of the chemical processing of uranium, but usually is made artificially in a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. These nuclear facilities are monitored and tightly regulated under international agreements.

John Croft, a retired British radiation expert who worked on the Litvinenko case, said a dose large enough to kill would likely have to come from a government with either civilian or military nuclear capabilities. That category includes Russia — producer of the polonium believed to have killed Litvinenko — and Arafat's foe, Israel. But it also includes dozens of other nations, including the United States.


Polonium makes a good weapon. Its large alpha particles of radiation do not penetrate the skin and don't set off radiation detectors, so it is relatively easy to smuggle across international borders. Polonium can be ingested through a wound or inhaled — but the surest method would be to have the victim consume it in food or drink. Litvinenko drank tea laced with polonium during a meeting at a luxury London hotel.


Polonium poisoning is so rare that it took doctors several weeks to diagnose Litvinenko's illness and security experts struggled to think of a previous case. More than five years after Litvinenko's death, no one has been arrested. British prosecutors have named ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi as their chief suspect, but Russia refuses to hand him over.

Some speculate that the Curies' daughter Irene, who died of leukemia, may have developed the disease after accidentally being exposed to polonium in the laboratory.

Israeli author Michal Karpin has claimed that the cancer deaths of several Israeli scientists were the result of a leak at the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1957. Israeli officials have never acknowledged a connection.

There were also rumors that the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was due to acute Polonium poisoning.

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