Murder by Radiation Poisoning: Implications for Public Health

Article excerpt


On November 23, 2006, shortly before former Russian military intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital, authorities determined he suffered from acute radiation syndrome after ingestion of Polonium-210 ([sup.210]Po). The Metropolitan Police immediately began a criminal investigation.

As a rule, public health authorities do not actively participate in criminal investigations, let alone any that involve a targeted attack resulting in a single homicide. But the unique nature of the weapon used to kill Mr. Litvinenko put many people at risk--people who had nothing to do with the crime. [sup.210]Po is very deadly, and it very easily becomes airborne (Roessler, 2007). If [sup.210]Po is released into the environment, the contamination quickly spreads to surrounding areas. The body takes in [sup.210]Po by ingestion, inhalation, or absorption though skin; thus [sup.210]Po can find its way into virtually all body excreta, including perspiration (Harrison, Leggett, Lloyd, Phipps, & Scott, 2007). People internally contaminated with [sup.210]Po can therefore spread it to anything they or their excreta contact.

In fact, a London Telegraph article reported that the authorities declared Mr. Litvinenko's body a major environmental hazard and held it for two weeks. The body was only released in a sealed casket provided by the United Kingdom Health Protection Agency (HPA). The family was told that if they were to cremate Mr. Litvinenko's remains, they would have to wait for 28 years, until all the radioactivity in the body decayed to safe levels--nearly 80 half-lives of [sup.210]Po (Volodarsky, 2009).

In the days following Mr. Litvinenko's death, the Metropolitan Police used technical experts to track the locations visited by "persons of interest" in the case. The alleged perpetrators stayed in three different hotels and, during their apparent rehearsals of the murder, carried containers of [sup.210]Po to several different public places. Many of these locations showed detectable traces of [sup.210]Po contamination. Investigators initially designated the locations as crime scenes and scoured them for evidence. But more locations than just the crime scenes showed evidence of contamination. Public areas such as hallways, restrooms, and gathering places of various types were also contaminated with [sup.210]Po.

After the Metropolitan Police investigators completed their forensic examination of a site, they released it to HPA for further evaluation (Bailey et al., 2010). HPA, in turn, assumed responsibility for environmental monitoring of all public locations where contamination was positively identified and for taking actions to keep that contamination from spreading (e.g., closing restrooms, painting walls, removing furniture). HPA was also charged with identifying members of the public who had inadvertently come in contact with [sup.210]Po. Eventually, authorities found [sup.210]Po in

* the two hospitals where Mr. Litvinenko was treated,

* various business offices in London,

* coffee bars and nightclubs,

* a football (soccer) stadium,

* airplanes,

* automobiles, and

* three hotels.

Thus what began as a targeted, [sup.210]Po poisoning attack mushroomed into a radiological dispersal incident. A "dirty" bomb is the most commonly feared form of radiological dispersion, where detonation of a conventional explosive device releases radioactive materials into the environment. Here, [sup.210]Po dispersed into many areas of London became, in effect, a nonexplosive "dirty" bomb.


As noted, one of HPA's major responsibilities was to identify persons contaminated with [sup.210]Po. To do so they interviewed many people who worked in or visited locations of interest, such as hospital workers who attended Mr. Litvinenko. They also released carefully worded public statements designed to educate, to alleviate concerns, and to alert persons believed at increased risk for contamination. …