POLONIUM – The New Weapon of Mass Destruction

Recently, I posted a blog on thallium, a classic drug used as a murder weapon both in novels and in real life.  After posting this, someone commented, “What about polonium?”  I thought he was referring to plutonium and having a momentary crisis with spelling but decided to check it out, anyway.

As it turns out, polonium is a most interesting element of murder.  After Yasser Arafat died of mysterious causes in a French military hospital in 2004, a committee of French judges opened an investigation into the death.  Clinical analysis of the body uncovered significant levels of polonium in his body fluids.  Subsequent testing revealed unusually high levels of the chemical on his toothbrush and articles of clothing.  Israel was suspected of poisoning the late leader but proving that was problematic.

Polonium was discovered in 1898 by the talented team of Marie and Pierre Curie.  The element is highly radioactive.  Later testing found it to be about 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide and it causes significant damage to organic tissue when inhaled, ingested or absorbed.  But the chemical doesn’t penetrate our skin very easily and the use of neoprene gloves provides adequate protection to a person handling it.

Since polonium is easily absorbed by inhalation, it’s transported in a special “glove box” (a sealed container, usually under negative pressure or with a double-layered, separate atmosphere).

Commercial applications of polonium are few: it’s used for heaters in space probes and in antistatic brushes to reduce static electricity.  In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tracks the product, but it’s readily available with little regulation or restriction.  It can be purchased with any general license, such as a license to do business, and the buyer doesn’t need to be registered by any authorities.

Hmm! I’m beginning to get an interesting idea for a thriller utilizing this chemical as a biological weapon.  The drug kills effectively with inhalation or ingestion of miniscule quantities, and it’s easily transported.  It does a better job of killing over several weeks of exposure as opposed to a single dose, however, so some creative writing and plot development are in order here.

Just a word of advice for the protagonist in your story: have a readily available source of Dimercaprol.  That’s a chelating agent (meaning it’s a treatment that removes heavy metals from the body).  The drug was developed by and is available from a British company, so a quick trip to England would be in order for the hero in your story.

A couple of additional facts about polonium could propel your thriller into some interesting back-story twists.  The first is that this chemical is part of the mix of radioactive chemicals lumped in with radon that gets trapped in indoor air.  Of the estimated 160,000 yearly lung cancer deaths, about 20,000 are attributed to this indoor radon mix.

More importantly, polonium is one of the primary causes of lung cancer from tobaccoThe element makes its way into the roots of tobacco plants from phosphate fertilizers.  For over 40 years, the world’s largest tobacco firms have been researching ways to remove the substance from its products but have had little success.

In summary, I offer a new chemical that could be used as a weapon of mass destruction.  The kill could be massive, not necessarily immediate, but very effective for the patient villain.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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15 Responses to POLONIUM – The New Weapon of Mass Destruction

  1. Hey James — as always, another chillingly delightful and insightful research addition to the arsenal of plots for all of us murder/thriller writers to contemplate. Your list of well earned credits continues to expand.
    James O

  2. Jim,
    I get confused as you jump from murder to WMDs. Murder, to me, is very personal. There is one or a small number of specifically identified targets. The motive is usually also personal: money, power, revenge, love, … WMDs are impersonal: the victims are unselected other than probably location. The motive is also likely to be impersonal: military victory, government overthrow, …. But the main motive is likely to sow FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt — across an even wider audience. Often the cost of the FUD is much higher than the cost of the actual attack. Some weapons are only suited for either murder or as a WMD, others might work in both cases but the delivery is likely to be significantly different. I guess your evil agent could use murder to gain the means of delivering a WMD?
    Or am I even more confused than I think?

    • Yes, of course, WMDs sow FUD, but is it not murder also? A quick google search turns up a number of individual murders resulting from Polonium poisoning and I was taking the “what if” of Polonium and stretching it into other plot scenarios.
      Thanks for your comments – always insightful, Walt.

  3. Hi James. See real life poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisoning_of_Alexander_Litvinenko

  4. I remembered hearing also about Litvinenko, thanks for such a great post! I’m going to have to think of some good questions to ask you, hmm….

  5. John S Green says:

    Excellent article. I worked in the medical industry for about ten years after earning my biology degree. This is indeed a fascinating topic for a novel.

  6. I feel evil by just asking but do you think a murderer can use polonium in a humidor to kill his cigar smoking victim and not be caught out until much later? I need it to be a successful murder initially although I will obviously make the miscreant pay in the end. Oh, and where will this evil person be able to get hold of the polonium?

  7. I would think it’s possible to contaminate cigars with Polonium’s destructive radioactive effects, particularly if cigars are smoked on a regular basis. A good source of the chemical is from stockpiles and any anti-static brush manufacturer, since the element is used in producing such brushes. Happy writing!

  8. caden says:

    How would they deliver the poison on a mass scale? And wouldn’t the land that the poison was spread across be uninhabitable, the poison would be in the air, making you have to wear a mask to filter the air, or if you got cut you would risk dining from the poison getting in your wound. The land would also not be able to be farmed due to the polonium being in the soil.

    • Thanks for your very interesting comments, Caden, and your assessment of using Polonium on a mass scale is accurate. Your argument AGAINST using Polonium on a mass scale is correct and excellent motivation for your protagonist/story hero to prevent such a world-class disaster from happening — great thrills for the chase.
      All the best!

      • cadenschoffelman says:

        Do you have any idea how they would spread the polonium? I think dropping quite a large number of shells that contained Po-210 might work, assuming they opened up on impact, but even then, it wouldn’t spread very far, Idk how they would get it to leave the container, and since Po-210 releases alpha particles, it loses most of its energy after an inch or 2 of air, so they would have to find a way for the Polonium to come out of the container, and float around in the air. Also, any sort of large missile, would alert the government of the people it was launched towards, and if the government told the people all they had to do was put something over there mouths and noses, and covered up any open wounds, they would be fine, the missile wouldn’t be very effective, so that wouldn’t work. I think they might be able to “sprinkle” it over a city from a plain, but they would also need to have a lot of very small pieces of it, or else it would just fall straight to the ground and not be inhaled by anyone, and shortly after the “sprinkling” of the Po-210, it would all be sitting on the ground and wouldn’t kill anyone unless they decided to lick the ground for some strange reason.

      • Interesting dilemmas you present, and that’s for the clever writer to figure out and make the plot situation into a “believable lie” – like all good fiction is. Thanks for your comments.

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