TOPICS > Health

Death of Poisoned Russian Spy Sparks Radiation Alert

November 30, 2006 at 6:40 PM EST
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the mystery behind that fatal poisoning in London and new concerns over possible radiation exposure. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story has played out like a Cold War novel and only grown more bizarre by the day.

On November 1st, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, fell ill in London, after meeting two Russians, including another former spy, at this hotel, and an Italian academic at this local sushi bar.

British authorities, suspecting Litvinenko was poisoned, kept him under armed guard in a London hospital and quickly opened an investigation. Doctors struggled to determine the cause of his mysterious illness, as Litvinenko suffered weight and hair loss, and ultimately his major organs failed. He died a week ago at age 43.

In a statement from his deathbed, Litvinenko claimed Putin had poisoned him. A friend read the message upon his death.

ALEX GOLDFARB, Friend of Alexander Litvinenko: You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people.

JEFFREY BROWN: In response, President Putin denied any involvement.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): It is extremely regrettable that such a tragic event as death is being used for political provocation.

JEFFREY BROWN: On November 24th, doctors from Britain’s Health Protection Agency said the rare radioactive element polonium-210, often produced in nuclear facilities, had been found in Litvinenko’s body. Polonium is so potent that even a dust-sized speck can be deadly.

In the days since, authorities have expanded their investigation of places linked to the former KGB agent. Today, British Home Secretary John Reid gave an update before parliament.

JOHN REID, Home Secretary, United Kingdom: To date, around 24 venues have or are being monitored, and experts have confirmed traces of contamination at around 12 of these venues.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the latest twist, those venues now include British Airways jets that traveled between London and Moscow and have been found to have small amounts of a yet-unnamed radioactive substance. Airline officials are notifying more than 30,000 passengers, but the risks to them are said to be low.

And late today, the FBI announced it will assist British authorities with their scientific analysis in the Litvinenko case.

And in yet one more twist, just one day after the death of Alexander Litvinenko last week, former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar also fell ill. Today, doctors treating Gaidar said they believe he, too, may have been poisoned.

The radiation trail

Mary Jordan
The Washington Post
Well, the news tonight is that there are now 12 locations -- and many of them are in Mayfair, which is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the entire world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for the latest on all this, I'm joined from London by Nicholas Priest, a radiobiologist and research professor at Middlesex University. He's one of a handful of international scientists who has worked with polonium-210.

And Mary Jordan, co-bureau chief in London, for the Washington Post.

Mary Jordan, it's beginning to look like there's something of a radioactive trail around London. Give us some sense of how much this investigation has expanded in just the last day.

MARY JORDAN, The Washington Post: Well, the news tonight is that there are now 12 locations -- and many of them are in Mayfair, which is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the entire world. It's where the U.S. embassy is located, and there's some of the most expensive jewelry shops, a lot of foreign embassies.

And so we're hearing now that you can literally walk around this quite small, expensive neighborhood and see police outside a sushi restaurant that's closed, that they've found radiation there, and then walk down the street past the Ritz Hotel and find yet other places, offices, two hotels.

And now we don't know. Will tomorrow bring more cases? As you say, the radiation trail is growing.

Polonium and its effect on the body

Nicholas Priest
Middlesex University
Polonium is a heavy metal, a bit like lead or bismuth or some other heavy metals, but it's radioactive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Priest, tell us a little bit more about polonium. What is it? And where does it come from?

NICHOLAS PRIEST, Scientist: OK. Polonium is a heavy metal, a bit like lead or bismuth or some other heavy metals, but it's radioactive. There's no stable form of polonium, and it's a manufactured product. You find it naturally in some materials, like in uranium ores, but the amount of polonium in these is very, very small.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it require much expertise to produce and to handle?

NICHOLAS PRIEST: Well, you can produce it in four basic ways, OK? One way is you could do in exactly the same way as Marie Curie did it when she discovered polonium in about 1903, and that's take uranium ore and then extract the polonium from uranium ore. But that's a very unlikely way of producing it and a very inefficient way.

Another way it could be produced is that, around the world, there are a number of radium sources. They call these orphan sources. Many of them are in CIS countries. And at least in theory, you could take these and you could extract the polonium from them.

But, again, that's an unlikely way of getting the polonium, because the people would have to be exposed to a lot of radium, and that would be very toxic.

A third way of getting polonium would be to try and extract it from anti-static brushes, which are used in the photographic industry, and you would have about the right amount of polonium there, but it would be very difficult to extract. And these brushes are made so they're difficult to tamper with, and so they're safe.

The fourth way you can get polonium is by producing it deliberately in a reactor, and this is the way which is most likely. And in order to produce it in this way, you put bismuth into the reactor and then you, after a period of irradiation in the reactor, you can take it out and you can extract the polonium-210.

JEFFREY BROWN: And staying with you, we've been hearing that it must be ingested or injected into the body. How exactly does it work on the body? What happens?

NICHOLAS PRIEST: OK, it's absolutely true. Polonium emits a type of radiation which we call alpha particles, which is the same sort of radiation as produced by plutonium. But although this is very energetic, it doesn't travel very far, so it won't penetrate the skin. So in order to be toxic, you have to get it inside you.

And there are several ways of doing this. One, it could be injected into you. Or another way, you could inhale it, and it gets into the lung and then into the bloodstream from there.

But the most likely method of administration is in the diet, either in drinking water or liquid which you've drunk, or in food, and then the material would just be added.

When it gets inside of the body, in the gut, then the vast majority -- perhaps 50 percent, perhaps 90 percent of it -- is excreted. It's not absorbed by the body at all. It just takes 24 hours to go through the gut.

However, a small fraction of it is ingested. It gets absorbed into the bloodstream. And when it's in the bloodstream and in tissue fluids, then the alpha particles irradiate all the issues in the body, and it can close organs down, especially organs which depend upon processes which require a lot of cell division, things like hair growth, blood cell production in the bone marrow, sperm production in the testes, and also the production of cells which are needed to replace the cells which are being killed in the gut wall.

And if you get the material into these places and you kill these cells, then gradually these organs fail, and you lose your hair, you become sterile, your bone marrow stops producing blood cells, particularly white cells, which are used to fight infection. And your gut wall becomes thin, becomes leaky. You can get material coming out into the abdomen and causing septicemia, and then people can go into shock and they can die.

Degree of contamination

Nicholas Priest
Middlesex University
[W]hen you're dealing with large amounts of activity like this, then it's very easy to detect the contamination, which might be -- which the person who dispensed it might have on his skin or on his clothes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mary Jordan, the contamination that's being found in the planes, for example, do investigators have any idea of how that has happened or any more information about these flights?

MARY JORDAN: Well, the reason there's so much interest in the planes is because there's two big questions out there: How did the polonium come into England? And was there an assassin? I mean, who did it? And if they came in with it, did they leave?

So we're hoping -- everyone is hoping -- that these planes lead to clues about the source of the polonium and, if there was a killer, where is he?

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor, what does science tell us about that? How easy, for example, is it to spread polonium?

NICHOLAS PRIEST: Well, you've got to look at it from the point of view of how much was administered to the person, OK? And it's difficult, but you've got to have around a thousand million counts per second of polonium in the body.

Now, when you're dealing with large amounts of activity like this, then it's very easy to detect the contamination, which might be -- which the person who dispensed it might have on his skin or on his clothes. If you put a container containing polonium down on a surface, then the nature of polonium is it tends to creep up the sides of the wall of the container and over the surface.

So it's very difficult to contain once you break the seal on a source. But when it's actually just inside a glass vial or something like this, it's very difficult to detect the radiation outside.

Limitations on the investigation?

Mary Jordan
The Washington Post
Well, this is the most spectacular spy-related case since the end of the Cold War. I mean, it's been a long time since we've had dead spies, though it has happened in London before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mary, looking at the broader investigation, yesterday Tony Blair was pretty blunt, saying his government wanted to find out what happened. He said, "No diplomatic or political barrier will stand in the way of the investigation."

Where does that stand, in terms of looking at the source of all this, and particularly the charges against President Putin?

MARY JORDAN: Well, this is the most spectacular spy-related case since the end of the Cold War. I mean, it's been a long time since we've had dead spies, though it has happened in London before.

And so, at first, Tony Blair was pretty hesitant to say anything. But as the case has gone on and there's been more and more allegations about links to Moscow, he had to say something, and he was still careful.

But you'll note that, while the friends of Alexander Litvinenko are pointing to Putin, saying the president of Russia did this, the Kremlin is pointing back and saying, "No, no, it is Russians in London who hate me who are doing this to smear my reputation internationally." So, in many ways, it's like we were back, you know, in the Cold War again.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mary, I mentioned in the setup the new case of Yegor Gaidar. Is there any more information on that? Is there any link at the moment to this other case or to polonium?

MARY JORDAN: Well, there is one link in that a former bodyguard of Mr. Gaidar actually was here in London and talking with Alexander Litvinenko the day he died. That man is now in Russia, and police are talking to him, and he is saying, you know, "I'm being set up as the fall guy."

There is a link, but it must be clear that we still don't know what happened to Mr. Gaidar. And this kind of poisoning, apparently, takes quite a long time, you know, to figure out what kind of poison it is and if it was, in fact, the same one that felled Alexander Litvinenko.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Mystery continues, I guess. Mary Jordan and Nick Priest, thank you both very much.