Experts have concluded that Alexander Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning. Who is he and why do we care? We care, because it was his murder in London that seems to have started the whole “Arafat died of polonium” rumour. An urban legend that won’t die.
In both cases, there’s a simple explanation and a more long-winded one, and being a scientist, I’m going to give you the “Too Long; Didn’t Read” (TL;DR) explanation up front and you can plough through as much science as you like. The end is good though!
The TL;DR headline here is that it’s very difficult to tell which polonium 210 is natural and which was administered maliciously. We know this definitively because the very first time Litvinenko’s urine was sent to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) they detected polonium but thought it was just contamination from the plastic bottle!
That very first detection of polonium, therefore, was dismissed because polonium does occur naturally and one of the greatest nuclear research establishments in the world thought they’d just detected natural contamination in a sample collected hours earlier from a living patient. Is this natural contamination that scientists in Switzerland found in the exhumed remains of Arafat and put in a report that was dramatically and falsely spun to indicate deliberate poisoning of Arafat.
The media are responsible for keeping the Arafat radiation myth alive because of “balance”. If some loony-tune idiot (or actually a brilliant propagandist) says something, the media can “report” it, run a rebuttal next to it, and then they have balance. Even today, after the “moderate” Arab list member Ayman Odeh again makes completely unsubstantiated allegations that Israel killed Arafat, Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) has to insert a reference to the polonium story.
That’s pretty much what happened with claims, 8 years after his death, that Arafat had been dug up and evidence of polonium-210 found in his underpants. As I said, at the time of these reports:
Detecting polonium 210 after 8 years is like trying to hear someone whispering on a busy street in New York. While you’re standing in London.
So why am I bringing it up again? Well since the last time I covered this, the UK government has released the complete findings of the massive criminal enquiry conducted by Sir Robert Owen into the world’s only publicly confirmed example of real life assassination by polonium 210 poisoning. The murder in London of the former KGB spy, Alexander Litvinenko.
Buried in the massive report is that one sentence which gives the clear indication of how difficult it is to detect polonium 210 poisoning. And even more so if you don’t actually figure out it’s polonium 210 poisoning while the patient is still (barely) alive.
I have a completely tangential association with this case: I was working in a building directly opposite the University College Hospital where he died and looked out each day on the satellite broadcast trucks of the media covering the case. I also have some scientific experience with radiation. I have a Physics PhD (admittedly in another branch of physics) but I did study medical physics at university including the effects of medical radiation on the body. So this post is way too long but that’s my prerogative, I’m having fun with science!
The centre of the report is a 328 page PDF and that links to extensive other evidence on the web. I’ve read through most of it and it’s fascinating. I’ve highlighted some interesting parts in the version I’m uploading here.
The death of Litvinenko
This is the conclusion about the medical circumstances of the death of Litvninenko (from the report):
- As to the medical cause of Mr Litvinenko’s death, I am sure of the following matters:
- Mr Litvinenko died at 9.21pm on 23 November 2006 in University College Hospital, having suffered a cardiac arrest from which medical professionals were unable to resuscitate him
- The cardiac arrest was the result of an acute radiation syndrome from which Mr Litvinenko was suffering
- The acute radiation syndrome was caused by Mr Litvinenko ingesting approximately 4.4Gbq of polonium 210 on 1 November 2006
This is how he died:
- I am sure that Mr Litvinenko ingested the fatal dose of polonium 210 whilst drinking tea in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel during the afternoon of 1 November 2006.
- I have carefully considered the possibility that Mr Litvinenko ingested the fatal dose of polonium 210 as the result of an accident. I have also considered whether Mr Litvinenko might have taken the poison deliberately, in order to commit suicide.
- I am sure that Mr Litvinenko did not ingest the polonium 210 either by accident or to commit suicide. I am sure, rather, that he was deliberately poisoned by others.
- I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun placed the polonium 210 in the teapot at the Pine Bar on 1 November 2006. I am also sure that they did this with the intention of poisoning Mr Litvinenko.
- I am sure that the two men had made an earlier attempt to poison Mr Litvinenko, also using polonium 210, at the Erinys meeting on 16 October 2006.
- I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun knew that they were using a deadly poison (as opposed, for example, to a truth drug or a sleeping draught), and that they intended to kill Mr Litvinenko. I do not believe, however, that they knew precisely what the chemical that they were handling was, or the nature of all its properties.
The way in which Sir Robert arrives with such certainty at these conclusions is what’s relevant here. Litvinenko was still alive (just) by the time the medical teams figured out what was killing him. It took a lot of work to figure out exactly where, how and why he had ingested a fatal dose of polonium 210 (delivered via a nice, hot cup of tea).
- Many scientific investigations and tests have been conducted on Mr Litvinenko’s body, and on samples taken from it. This process started before Mr Litvinenko’s death with the array of tests that were commissioned by the treating clinicians. At the same time, frequent observations were taken and recorded in Mr Litvinenko’s medical notes. I have referred to some of the tests and observations above. I have also referred to the tests conducted on samples of Mr Litvinenko’s blood and urine at AWE, which revealed for the first time excess levels of polonium in his body.
The medical reports are absolutely clear: he went to hospital on November 3rd and doctors didn’t immediately suspect radiation. They ran through many other causes of vomiting and diarrhoea and hair loss. It wasn’t really until his wife mentioned that people might be trying to kill her husband, that the hospital doctors explored this unusual diagnosis. By this point his white blood cell counts had dropped dramatically (something all radiotherapy cancer patients know all about because the same thing happens to them). This led to his transfer to the more central and much bigger University College Hospital in the centre of London on November 17.
Once at UCH the main diagnosis centred around thallium poisoning. That’s a different agent, and can also be radioactive. It’s not nearly as rare as polonium 210 though.
On 21 November his blood and urine was sent to the Atomic Weapons Research agency.
- A meeting between police officers, the forensic science service, AWE and Dr Nicholas Gent from Porton Down had been arranged for the following day, 22 November. During the meeting, the results of the urine tests at AWE, which revealed that polonium was present in Mr Litvinenko’s urine, were discussed. However, it was thought that this reading was an anomaly caused by the plastic bottle in which the sample had been stored.
The very first detection of polonium, therefore, was dismissed because polonium does occur naturally and they thought they’d just detected contamination from the plastic bottle! Litvinenko had been poisoned just two weeks before and still it wasn’t clear that there was polonium in his urine. It might have been on the plastic bottle. This is key to understanding the Arafat case (sorry it took so long to get to this!). So they got more from him:
- The further urine sample arrived at AWE in the early afternoon of 23 November. Further testing was conducted. The results, which confirmed polonium contamination, were communicated to the police between about 3.00pm and 5.00pm
Tracing polonium-210 all over London
The other fascinating part of the report is how the investigation then set out to measure levels of radiation all over London. It’s staggering where they found this and it allowed the investigation to tie the death directly to two Russian agents:
- The monitoring of the scenes for contamination was a highly complex task. As various sites were identified as having been contaminated in the days and weeks following Mr Litvinenko’s death – hotel rooms, restaurants, aircraft, of offices – the police were faced with competing requirements, on the one hand to clean up the sites in the interests of public safety, but, on the other hand, to obtain forensic evidence of the contamination for the purposes of their investigation. Detective Inspector (DI) Mascall said that the task that faced the police and the forensic scientists in this respect was unprecedented, certainly in the United Kingdom (UK). In the course of his evidence he explained the system of sequential testing that was adopted involving the police, scientists from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) and scientists from the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
This massive effort led to the discovery of polonium 210 traces on seats in the Emirate Football Stadium, various hotel rooms and bars and an Itsu Sushi restaurant where an earlier attempt to poison him seems to have failed. Especially interesting is the U bend of a hotel room sink where it appears high levels of contamination were found that indicate a comparatively large quantity of the poison was poured down the sink. That was just following the failed attempt in the middle of October. The surfaces of the sink were relatively free from contamination because they’d been washed by the time they were tested.
All of these test were for the existence of radiation, not directly for the polonium 210 (Uranium 232 produces almost identical alpha radiation) but through other technical means they can be highly confident that all the contamination was from polonium 210.
It is very important to remember that these tests were conducted largely in December 2006 following the contamination in October and November putting them well within only one half life of polonium 210 (135 days). This is important. With each passing period of 135 days the measurable radiation from any given polonium 210 contamination will drop by half making detection and measurement that much harder. I did the maths about this in my post two years ago.
I’ll highlight this as my favourite piece of evidence. The specific tea pot into which the polonium 210 was placed, and from which Litvinenko poured and drank the cup of tea that killed him. The designation “full scale deflection” means that the Geiger counter went off the scale when pointed at the lip of the teapot and the tip of the spout. This was amongst the highest levels of contamination they found anywhere in London.
One thing I’ve learned is how little cleaning it really takes to render this poison harmless: clearly this teapot was used for weeks after delivering the fatal dose and even with these measurable levels of radiation, it didn’t harm anyone else as far as the enquiry knows. At least I hope that’s the case!
These are the specific tables and seats used by Litvinenko when he drank the fatal tea.
This final act of poisoning took place in the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel on Grosvenor Square (where the Goons once wished that the Union Jack would once again fly over that square). It’s hard to picture a more John Le Carré setting for a spy vs spy assassination.
From the Hotel’s website:
The elegant and sophisticated Pine Bar is furnished with luxurious leather banquettes and comfortable armchairs. Wood panels and dramatic flock wallpaper exude glamour, while the gorgeous black chandeliers cast a warm glow over the tables, creating a perfect setting for afternoon tea.
No mention of polonium tea I notice.
So if you do plan on visiting, some 10 years later, I can assure you lead underpants are completely unnecessary. Just like in Arafat’s grave, it is completely impossible to claim that any trace of polonium there now is anything other than normal (tiny) environmental polonium.