Spy's Death Spotlights Radiation Risks

The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 6, 2006; 3:57 PM

VIENNA, Austria -- The poisoning death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has turned the world spotlight on polonium. But other potentially deadly radioactive substances are also around us, in smoke detectors and other household, industrial or hospital items.

Normally, they are either securely shielded or locked away. And like polonium-210, some of the most common are not dangerous unless eaten or inhaled, which safeguards normally prevent.

Still, the Litvinenko case showed the possibilities for misuse. Scotland Yard said Wednesday it was treating his Nov. 23 death in London as murder.

In the United States, loopholes allow just about anyone to buy radioactive material, either privately or by masquerading as a company with legitimate uses for americium, thorium, tritium and similar potentially hazardous substances.

Earlier this year, a report for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs found that "with ease, investigators purchased, received and transported radioactive sources" into the United States from Mexico and Canada.

U.S. government officials posing as employees of a fictitious company were able to "purchase a small quantity of ... radioactive sources from a commercial source," according to the report by the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

That shows that "anyone can purchase small quantities of radioactive sources for stockpiling because suppliers are not required to exercise any due diligence in determining whether the buyer has a legitimate use for the radioactive sources," the report said.

Although polonium would be an unusual weapon, it is less exotic than it appears. Like other toxic radioactive substances, polonium has a variety of domestic, medical and industrial uses.

Traces of polonium-210 are found in antistatic brushes, though far less than the estimated 3,000 microcuries needed to kill someone. Larger quantities _ more than enough to kill _ are used in some specialized antistatic fans.

One company, Sandia Park, N.M.-based United Nuclear, sells it online in tiny amounts of 0.1 microcuries exempt from U.S. federal licensing restrictions.

In a note on the site http://www.unitednuclear.com/isotopes.htm// company founder Bob Lazar says it's not a practical poison: You'd need 15,000 orders from him, more than $1 million worth, to potentially harm anyone, and each order comes electroplated on the inside of the eye of a needle.

Even more readily available is americium, a gamma and alpha particle-emitting byproduct of decayed plutonium, commonly thought to be lethal when ingested.

Americium-241 is a key component of many home smoke detectors, acting as sort of conductor that sets off an alarm when disrupted by smoke. It is safely sealed, and someone looking to misuse it would need to crack open about 5,000 detectors to isolate the one gram of the substance believed needed to seriously sicken or kill.

Still, "if you took enough material from smoke detectors, you could make someone very sick _ or worse," said Dr. Andrew Butterfass, director of emergency medicine at Cabrini Medical Center in New York, who nonetheless emphasized that cases of radiation poisoning are "extremely rare."

Some brands of gas lantern mantles still contain traces of thorium-232, which emits light when burned by the gas and can kill if ingested.

Other toxic radioactive sources can be found in many clocks and watches, some ceramics, antique glassware and glass lenses. The quantities are so minute that they are not dangerous unless amassed by someone seeking to do harm.

Hospitals and clinics worldwide, meanwhile, have untold thousands of potentially hazardous radioactive sources in diagnostic equipment or devices used to treat cancer. Irradiation equipment for sterilization is also found in hospitals, as well as in the food and agriculture industries.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear monitor, has described industrial equipment as containing "potentially lethal quantities of radioactive material."

An IAEA report warns of the risks posed if "a radioactive source becomes out of control and unshielded or dispersed as the result of an accident or a malevolent act."

Such cases are relatively rare _ but not unheard of, even before Litvinenko, a critic of the Russian government who on his deathbed blamed President Vladimir Putin for the poisoning. The Kremlin has denied it.

In 2003, a Russian newspaper Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye reported that KGB agents poisoned Soviet defector Nikolai Khokhlov by putting radioactive thallium in his tea while he was attending an anti-communist conference in Frankfurt in 1957. German and British doctors were able to save him.

In another possible case of radioactive poisoning, Yuri Shchekochikhin, a liberal Russian lawmaker and journalist who investigated high-level corruption for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, died three years ago after a brief, mysterious ailment that caused him to loose his hair and suffer severe skin problems. His friends and associates said they suspected radiation poisoning.

In 1995, federal investigators said they believed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher had been deliberately poisoned by someone who knew about radioactive material. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigators said the case could be linked to other unsolved cases of malicious radiation poisoning, dating to 1978.

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