Polonium-210: something else to be sorry about

Posted: Nov 27, 2006 9:21 AM
 Polonium-210: something else to be sorry about

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.

Polonium isn't something you mix up in your garage by cooking cold tablets containing pseudo-ephedrine. According to one source only about 100 grams are made worldwide annually - about two-tenths of a pound.

Although it is extremely toxic, a tiny amount of polonium is available for purchase by you, or me, or Vladimir Putin (if he uses a fake US address) from an outfit in New Mexico known as United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, LLC for $69.

United Nuclear's webpage states (I suh-wear this is true): "The sole purpose of United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, LLC is to put the "fun" back into science."

NEW TOPIC: The award for the dumbest spam has to go to the dopes who sent this to me yesterday:

From: PayPaI (sic)

To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Re: New email added to your account

Dear Customer, You or some other person have added a new email address [carlos78@comcast.net] to your PayPaI account. If you don't agree and want to change this email or you need assistance with your account, click the link, modify and save your profile. www.mgimmensee.ch/paypal...

A. Pay Pal would not send me an e-mail addressed to undisclosed-recipients.

B. Did they think I wouldn't notice that the link ends in ".ch" which is the two-country Internet code for Switzerland when Pay Pal is located in San Jose, California?

I'll have the tuna sashimi, please.

On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Definitions of half-life and atomic number; a link to a periodic chart of the elements and to United Scientific's web site. Two photos of objects in space, one from my back window, the other from the Hubble.