Rich Galen

Russian spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital last week having been poisoned by what authorities now believe was a lethal dose of an isotope of a rare element known as polonium-210.

British investigators believe the substance might have been sprinkled over his food at a sushi bar in London.

It's not enough that I have to worry about what the incoming Democratic Congress will do to taxes and to universal health care and to minimum (and/or maximum) wages and to labor law and to who knows what-all; now I have to worry about some Russkie sprinkling polonium-210, like so much Jane's Crazy Salt, on my sushi?

I did Fox & Friends yesterday morning and we were going to discuss the whole Putin-Alexander Litvinenko polonium business, so I studied Saturday night and now know way more about polonium and its isotopes than I ever wanted to.

And now, you will, too.

To start with, the first five or so times I heard a cable news anchor say the word "polonium" I thought he was mispronouncing "plutonium" and made a big deal of spitting coffee and laughing derisively in the little restaurant where I ate breakfast every morning in Great Barrington, MA where we had spent the Thanksgiving holiday.

Then I realized it really was "polonium" having been named by Marie Curie who discovered in it 1897 and wanted to pay homage to Poland where she had been born in 1867 but which, at the time, wasn't a country at all having been divvied up among Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Mme. Curie and her hubby found the weird little metal which barely stuck its head out of the chemical sand when they analyzed pitchblende. Pitchblende is the stuff from whence uranium comes so you can see the glow of their work.

I learned that polonium has an atomic number of 84 which places it between bismuth (83) and astate (85) on the periodic chart of elements of which my previous sum of knowledge was: Hydrogen has an atomic number of 1 and helium has a number of 2.

Polonium has a half-life in nature of a touch over 138 days, but will diminish to half its radioactive strength in the human body in between 30-50 days.

Polonium is a raging emitter of alpha particles. Alpha particles don't have much penetrating capability. The alpha bits hit the side of whatever container it is in, but can't get through which produces heat, thus polonium has been used as a heat source for unmanned lunar exploration vehicles.

That lack of penetration capability is why you have read that polonium can't be administered as a poison through the skin. Your skin is too thick (especially if you are in politics) for alpha particles to get through.

Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at