KIEV, Ukraine, Dec. 11 -- The illness that disfigured the face of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko resulted from poisoning by the toxic substance dioxin, which might have been placed deliberately in his food, Austrian doctors who treated him told reporters in Vienna on Saturday.
"The criminal investigation does not fit within our purview but . . . there is suspicion of third-party involvement," said Michael Zimpfer, director of Vienna's private Rudolfinerhaus clinic, where the candidate went for treatment in September after falling ill while campaigning.
Michael Zimpfer, right, with Nicolai Korpan, said a higher dioxin dose could have been deadly.
(Ronald Zak -- AP)
The face of the once youthful-looking Yushchenko, 50, was mysteriously transformed into a blotch of lesions after he reached Austria. He also suffered severe abdominal and back pain and paralysis on the left side of his face. His appearance has continued to worsen, raising public concern about his health despite his claims he is fully recovering.
Yushchenko contends he was poisoned in an assassination attempt by "government officials" who feared that he would defeat Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in elections. His opponents have dismissed the charge, saying he got sick after gorging himself on bad sushi and too much alcohol.
Yanukovych was officially declared the winner of a Nov. 21 runoff vote. The country's Supreme Court soon overturned the result, citing widespread poll fraud, and a new election will be held on Dec. 26.
The Austrian doctors said on Saturday that Yushchenko's long-term prognosis was good, though it could take several years for his face to heal. For now, Yushchenko is "fully capable of working," said Nikolai Korpan, another doctor.
"If this dose had been higher, it may have caused death," Zimpfer said, noting the dioxin could have been administered through food such as soup.
Dioxins are a group of organic compounds that contain chlorine. They are a common byproduct in the manufacture of many industrial chemicals, and are also a common contaminant from waste incineration. They are a component of the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange and many researchers have labeled them a cause of cancer and other diseases among people living in areas where the defoliant was used.
Debate over dioxins' potency as a poison, as opposed to a cancer-causing agent, has swirled for decades. But the compounds are known to cause reproductive and developmental problems, in addition to extreme skin eruptions known as chloracne.
Documented cases of acute dioxin poisoning are rare.
One notable case occurred in Seveso, Italy, in 1976, when an explosion at a Hoffman-LaRoche chemical plant released a cloud of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, exposing several thousand people to the chemical and an estimated 45 pounds of dioxins, which typically arise as a byproduct in the synthesis of 2,4,5-T.
Many people near the plant developed severe skin problems within hours. In the months that followed, many who experienced heavy exposures developed chloracne. Another case occurred in 1997 in Vienna, where two employees of a textile institute developed chloracne on their bodies, according to Olaf Paepke, a scientist at a Hamburg institute, who conducted chemical analysis for the investigation. The employees had levels of dioxin in their systems thousands of times higher than normally found. Police were never able to determine how the poisoning occurred, including if it was deliberate or accidental, Paepke said. The employees survived.
Dioxins are not commercially available, Paepke said, but can be obtained through industry contacts or made in a laboratory by people with the proper skills. A tiny, unnoticeable amount placed in food is sufficient to cause severe illness, he said.
Arnold Schecter, a dioxin expert at the University of Texas School of Public Health at Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said dioxins can be highly effective poison in people who are sensitive to their effects. If Yushchenko was deliberately given dioxin, it was done by someone who "was very clever and very knowledgeable," Schecter said.