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Radiation, Lies and the Internet

First, the fine print: this blog post has nothing whatsoever to do with electricity produced from nuclear reactors. It's not really related to radiation protection or health issues. I submit to this audience only for input due to your astute critical thinking skills.

I heard in the office and then found on the 'net the news about a former Russian spy, who died suddenly of radiation poisoning under suspicious circumstances. The British investigation is expanding. I wondered what people must think, when trace amounts of radioactive material (possibly evidence of a crime, don't forget) are reason to ground 3 planes and notify 33,000 other passengers.

But while I wondered, I found this inflammatory accusation that rare, deadly material is being openly marketed to anonymous buyers on the cheap, produced on demand by an NRC-licensed US Company. And with no more information that what is in the linked article, I was alarmed, and angry, and disturbed.

How much truth is here? What does Los Alamos National Lab really say about Polonium-210? First I found that yes, LANL says "Weight for weight it is about 2.5 x 10E11 times [250 billion times] as toxic as hydrocyanic acid." And the maximum permissible body burden is an invisibly tiny amount.

"Body burden" sounds bad. (It can be. It's the hazard to person's tissues from a toxin, whether chemical or radioactive). But how is the permissible burden determined? According to Dr. Hylton Smith, biochemist and Former Scientific Secretary of the International Commission of Radiation Protection:

The maximum permissible total body burden expressed in microcuries, or the maximum permissible concentration in air or water expressed in microcuries per cubic centimetre, were intended to indicate the amount of radioactive isotope accumulated in the most heavily irradiated (critical) tissue or organ of a worker, such that the tissue or organ would receive an average dose of not more than 0.3 rem per week.

I know that it takes about 25 rem acute exposure (all at once) to produce observable changes in the body tissues (slight changes in the blood).

So: are my regulators (the NRC, charged with protecting the public health) allowing deadly quantities of this stuff to be sold indiscriminately? Of course not!!

The regulatory limit for Polonium-210 is 0.1 microCurie. Below that level, the risk to health is not considered of regulatory significance. Yes, that quantity is an invisible speck. But Polonium-210 emits alpha radiation, which is of little health concern when it's outside your skin. If you want more of the technical details, the Health Physics Society is honored to help out with this information sheet, indicating a lethal dose is at least 30 times the size of what is for sale in a check source. A quantity small enough to be legally obtained for under $100 is not lethal or even enough to produce detectable illness. And it's ignorance or a manipulative deceit - picked up and spreading across the Internet - to tell people otherwise.

If that's enough to make you lose your sense of humor, maybe this can help revive it. Particularly if you want to cure someone from stealing your coffee...


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Anonymous said…
1/10th microCurie is the legal amount that US citizens can own in a sealed source without a license. Licensed sources can be owned by anyone, since the license is attached to the item and the manufacturer. Typical items in this category are smoke detectors ( Am-241, not legal in ANY unlicensed quantity), and antistatic devices ( 500 microCuries of Po-210, or 1 to 10 lethal doses.
Also tritium devices that contain far in excess of exempt quantities are readily available in devices.

A list of allowed unlicensed quantities can be seen on the NRC website under section 30.71, Schedule B.

Anonymous said…
1/10th microCurie is the legal amount that US citizens can own in a sealed source without a license. Licensed sources can be owned by anyone, since the license is attached to the item and the manufacturer. Typical items in this category are smoke detectors ( Am-241, not legal in ANY unlicensed quantity), and antistatic devices ( 500 microCuries of Po-210, or 1 to 10 lethal doses.
Also tritium devices that contain far in excess of exempt quantities are readily available in devices.

A list of allowed unlicensed quantities can be seen on the NRC website under section 30.71, Schedule B.

robert merkel said…
It seems that it is possible to buy items which contain potentially lethal doses of radiotoxins. However, that task of extracting them and putting them into a readily soluble form, without killing oneself in the process, would seem to be somewhat complex.

But this really misses the point. There are about one squillion other ways to kill somebody just as effectively that are much easier to obtain.

The bizarre thing about this whole case is why somebody has gone to such efforts to find a spectacular way for poor Mr Litvinenko to die. A couple of possible reasons spring to mind, but speculation along these lines is probably getting rather offtopic for this blog.
Randal Leavitt said…
People are now implanting magnets under their skin to give them another means for sensing the world. It appears that we all need some radioactivity sensors as well. It might not be a bad idea for everyone to really know what their personal radioactivity environment is like.
gunter said…

Toxicity; another interesting hazard of nuclear waste in addition to its radioactivity.

This particular poisoning occurred with a volume of Polonium-210 the volume equivalent of just two grains of salt. Geez, imagine the toxicity contained on a football field piled high with nuclear waste.

Then, there's the radioactivity. Alexander Litvinenko had been tracking radioactivity in locations all around London, two international airplanes flights and who knows where else. Even brief association with him resulted in low dose radioactive contamination. I note one physician quoted in the Washington Post this morning who said his wife was found to have low levels of polonium-210 in her urine, adding that she did not face significant risk of any “short term” health risks.

Eh, You’d think the guy had a fuel flea?.

Speaking of which, just how many fuel flea incidents have we had so far? Anybody know how many people have tracked tiny and extremely radioactive particles of irradiated fuel which have walked though portal alarm systems and out the front gate of nuclear power plants and contaminated motel rooms, airplane seats as well as inadvertent, casual radiation exposures associated with proximity and contact?

Gunter, NIRS
Anonymous said…
I was thinking the same thing as Robert stated. It is an awfully exotic way to kill someone. And once found out, it kind of points back in a rather unambiguous manner at who might have had a hand in arranging it. There are bajillions of unlicensed firearms out there that likely can't be traced. Common household chemicals can be brewed into lethal toxic amounts. Even a common everyday automobile can be used to lethal effect, or rigged to cause an "accident" that will do in almost anyone you'd want to target. This whole incident makes me think that not only was the intent to kill someone, but to intimidate a larger population as to what might somehow "just happen" to you if you cross the wrong people.
Michael Stuart said…
Paul, you seem to think that the only way for someone to be exposed to "radioactivity" is from nuclear power stations. You'll go to great lengths to connect anything remotely having to do with radioactivity to the so-called "dangers" of nuclear energy.

Let's ignore the fact, just for a moment, that nuclear energy has saved literally millions of lives from avoided pollution alone - let alone the spin off technologies in nuclear medicine...

I'm trying to imagine the toxicity associated with nuclear waste and can only conclude that the people that have actually been *working* at these facilities over the last 50 years ought to be dropping like overripe grapefruits.

So, Paul, if nuclear power plants are spewing out toxic radioactive fleas and waste, why doesn't the actual data on the humans that work for them support your claims?

This oughta be good...
gunter said…

Well, who do you think generates more radioactivity by curie count,

a) the nuclear weapons complex;

b)commercial nuclear power stations

How about the undisclosed legal settlement to the NRC inspector who walked out of the reactor (was it SONGS? Yes) with one statically charged to her and how she got leukemia, right?

Just a matter of saying in both cases, "A little dab will do you."

Michael Stuart said…
Paul, How long have you lived in DC? You sound like a politician.

I'll restate the question in case you missed it:

IF nuclear power plants are so dirty and dangerous (are you with me so far?) THEN *why* have the hundreds of thousands of workers who have spent millions of hours at 'ground zero' displayed no statistically measureable adverse health effects from it?

Several studies have been done, including one by Johns Hopkins University involving thousands of workers, which can find no connection to adverse health effects. Why is that?

Now, since you asked me a multiple choice question and limited the choices to just two, I'd have to guess B. But, you ought to well know that natural processes account for FAR more Curies by comparison to both of the choices you offered - combined.

The radiation dose received from just one cross-country flight is the equivalent of living next to a nuclear power station for 50 years. Yet, I don't see you campaigning to shut down the airlines?

Heck, you probably flew down to Mississippi last year to protest against Grand Gulf? But, that was just a "little dab" in the grand scheme of things, right?
Anonymous said…
You have a sample size of one? One case of an individual who happened to work for NRC and got leukemia and you're going to use that to assert a general conclusion? Man, the uncertainty bands on that one are going to be huge.
gunter said…
A recent article in Financial Times (12/13/2006)makes revisiting this blog item worthwhile.

"Murder Weapon: Atomic watchdog reviews 'safe' classification of polonium" reported that the IAEA is underatking a review of its relatively safe classificatin of polonium 210 following the death of Alexander Litvinenko. Currently a class 4 isotope, polonium 210, has been classified "unlikely to be dangerous" because the category of isotopes did not take into consideration ingestion.


A cube of polonium 210 measuring 0.35 mm square and weighing a mere 400 micrograms (which could sit on the period of this sentence is enough to deliver 3400 lethal doses.

While a gram of radium sends off 37 billion disintegrations/second the equivalent weight in polonium 210 sends off 185 trillion disintegrations per second or 5000 curies.

What other isotopes do you think are perhaps miscatagorized as catagory 4? We'll see...

Kelly L. Taylor said…
Even water is bad for you if you misuse it.

Of course you're not supposed to injest Polonium - or pencils or concrete or carburetors, either.
That doesn't mean we should ban even beneficial sources of it.

"Radiation is a two edged sword: its usefulness in both medicine and anthropological and archaeological studies is undisputed, yet the same materials can be used for destruction. Human curiosity drove inquiring scientists to harness the power of the atom. Now humankind must accept the responsibility for the appropriate and beneficial uses of this very powerful tool."


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