‘Po’ is a Tamil word that is generally used to express a kind of disgusted dismissal. Something like ‘go away’. It has been said to me multiple times, usually in a female voice, inside darkened movie theaters around 1975/76. I must have gone too far and done something really inappropriate and the female voice (my date) had demanded that I leave. Me being what I was, back in those early days of long hair, bell-bottoms and awakening body parts, the only test I regularly used ta pass with an A+ was the test of sterone.
Po is also the chemical symbol for Polonium, discovered by Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, in the dying days of the nineteenth century. Named in her honor after her native country, Poland, Polonium is a metal that is so heavy that you’d need both hands and hunch your shoulders, to hold just a tiny lump of 100 gms. If you see a guy with a crick in his armpits, could be he had been carrying Polonium around. Though, that would make him a schmuck too. Polonium is a highly radioactive alpha emitter and you don’t want to have it lying around near you. Don’t worry about the ‘alpha emitter’ bit. Will explain what an alpha emitter is, a little later on. Just get yourself a beer and set yoreself down, make shore you can read English.
Placed just ahead of Bismuth in the periodic table, Polonium is known to exist in many forms or isotopes, 33 different isotopes in fact. Don’t know what an isotope is? I’d guessed as much. You cannot possibly know everything I do. Isotopes are like siblings from the same parents. All have the same number of protons but behave very differently because they have a different number of neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. I’m just showing off, you can skip the page if you like. But this is really my Timeline and if I want ta fill it with isotopes, I will.
Polonium continuously loses mass, in a spontaneous process called radioactive decay. Because the numbers of protons and neutrons don’t match in isotopes, they are unstable, or in other words, radioactive. From the moment they are formed, they try desperately to reach a more stable state, by letting go of the excess neutrons protons so that the number of neutrons and protons in the nucleus get to match. In this process of trying to reach stability, they form entirely new elements. Polonium, for instance, morphs into Lead. Radioactive decay, happens spontaneously and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make it change it’s mind. Like Helen and that short, stout guy in skin-tight pants, in those old R.D.Burman dance sequences. The moment Helen entered a scene, you knew she was going to take her clothes off and Shorty would soon be writhing around her dancing figure, on the shiny nightclub floor. No way you could stop them from doing that.
All radioactive elements go through this kind of spontaneous decay and the time it takes for an element to decay down to half it’s original mass is termed it’s half-life. Let’s take Polonium 210 which has a half-life of 138 days. A 10 gm sample will have 5 gms remaining after 138 days, while the rest is converted to Lead. After the next 138days, there will be only 2.5 gms. And so on. Thus, the content of Po 210 will get smaller and smaller exponentially, halving in mass every 138 days. Radioactive stuff get converted, transformed into other stuff, all the effin’ time. In some cases, like in the case of Polonium 210, even the element it decays or breaks down to is also radioactive and undergoes decay of it’s own.
Of the 33 known isotopes of Polonium, only three are the rock stars, Po-208, 209 and 210. They’re like the three evil step sisters. The others have half-lives in microseconds. The step sisters stand out with appreciable half-lives and are therefore available for experimentation. Highly toxic, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near these m—er f—ers, trust me. I’d love to tell you about all three and I know, your breath must be baited by now. However, Pierre, my carpool partner will be here soon and I have to get ta work, so I’ll focus on only the zinger, Polonium 210. As a start, let’s assume it is feminine, being toxic, and therefore call her PollyTwoTen. I always give objects names. Who knows, maybe they’re alive and it’s us who are dead.
A dull, sinister-grey metal, PollyTwoTen constantly and spontaneously keeps releasing massive amounts of energy in the form of intense heat and alpha particles, transforming itself in the process, to an altogether different element, Lead. A Polly210 disc, such as the kind used as an initiater in a nuclear bomb will cast an evil greenish glow and remain really hot, 500deg celsius hot, as it decays to Lead206. Handling and storage of this mother is a science you could do a PhD thesis on. An alpha particle is an unstable clump of matter, made up of just two neutrons and two protons.
PollyTwoTen exists in nature in such insignificant concentrations that the metal has to be extracted, either from Uranium238 or Radium226 inside a nuclear reactor. The extraction process is extremely expensive and highly classified, the technology available with only a few governments round the world. And given it’s predominantly military uses, it is unlikely that any private commercial enterprise will be able to or even be allowed to produce the stuff. Only around 100gms of the metal are produced worldwide every year, mostly in Russia.
Since it has extra neutrons lying around, Polly is used as an initiater in a nuclear bomb, to bombard a lump of Uranium-235 with a blizzard of neutrons to hasten the chain reaction that causes an atomic explosion. Besides use in a nuclear bomb, Polly210 also finds application in static eliminators that neutralize electrical charge build-up in manufacturing set-ups. And due to it’s natural heat emission, the metal was also used widely as a heat source in satellites in the early 60s, though, due to it’s short half-life of only 138days, it has since been replaced by a hotter babe with a much longer half-life of 24100years, Plutonium239.
Polonium210 has found another more sinister use. Assassinations. State-sponsored assassinations. When ingested through food or a cut or wound, the alpha particles being spontaneously emitted from Polly, smash through bone and tissue at the atomic level, combining and changing the very molecular structure of the organ itself, mutating cells irreversibly, in a sort of drunken binge. They start a chain reaction that sees the body gradually turn upon itself when it realizes that it’s now made of something else other than healthy blood and tissue. The process is terminal and the poor sod who got the dose is history within a matter of two to three very painful weeks. There is a silver lining though. Alpha particles don’t get too far, just a couple of centimeters actually and they can be easily stopped by an ordinary sheet of bond paper or even the epidermis, the outer crust of the human skin, provided it isn’t ruptured as in a wound. The risk therefore of contamination is minimal, unless inhaled or ingested through food or the blood.
You have no doubt heard of Alexander Livinenko. As a lieutenant-colonel in the FSB in the 1990s Litvinenko investigated corruption and organized crime in Russia that all too often led to the doors of senior bureaucrats. In 1998, he went on TV with four other agents to denounce the order to assassinate the billionaire dissident, Boris Berezovsky. By now he had pissed of the establishment big time.
He wouldn’t let it go at that, the schmuck. Soon he began to tell anyone who’d listen that the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were carried out not by Chechen terrorists but by FSB agents, on orders coming straight from the very top. The purpose – to justify the start of a brutal campaign of suppression in Chechnia. Exactly the same strategy the Nazis used to win support for Hitler’s extreme policies, when they burned down their own parliament, the Reichstag.
In 2000, Litvinenko fled to the UK where he wrote two damning books further infuriating his erstwhile masters, ‘Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within’ and ‘Lubyanka Criminal Group’. Litvinenko also accused Putin of ordering the now infamous killing of Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. By levelling these and many other grave accusations, Litvinenko stepped over a lakshman rekha and signed his own death warrant.
On an overcast November 2006 evening in London, Alexander Litvinenko put on his favourite hunting jacket, kissed his wife, Marina, lightly on her cheek and walked over to Soho to meet an ex-FSB buddy by the name of Andrei Lugovoi for drinks and dinner. Immediately after, Livinenko started feeling stomach pains and had to be hospitalised, where he initially suffered from severe diarrhoea and vomiting. The hospital, at first, diagnosed him with a stomach infection and began treatment for it. However, Litvinenko’s condition continued to worsen and doctors discovered that his white blood cell count had plummeted, impairing his immune system. After a while, his skin turned yellow, indicating possible liver dysfunction. Having no clue initially, doctors had him tested for the two most likely causes, hepatitis and AIDS, but both tested negative. At this point Litvinenko’s hair began falling out in clumps and this led the doctors to deduce that he was suffering from radiation poisoning. Further tests identified Polonium210 as the culprit. Alexander Litvinenko died on November 23, 2006.
Something similarly sinister is now believed to have befallen Yasser Arafat. One afternoon in October 2004, the 73 year old leader of the PLO collapsed during a meeting, suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. An hour earlier he had ingested medications that were routinely imported for him, into the Ramallah Compound on the Gaza Strip, in an ambulance that had to pass through several Israeli check points. This time, it is believed that the ambulance was made to do a detour due to road work in progress on the route.
Within hours, Arafat began developing symptoms very similar to Litvinenko’s and as his condition deteriorated, he was airlifted to the Percy Military Hospital in West Paris. His illness galloped through his body unchecked, refusing to respond to treatment and Arafat passed away on November 11, 2004. The French doctors did not suspect radiation poisoning and therefore he was not tested for it. These specialists were never questioned and are known to have gone to ground since.
A few months back, the results of an investigation by Al Jazeera, done with the consent of Arafat’s widow, Suha, were released. The Institut de Radiophysique, Lausanne, Switzerland, conducted an examination of Arafat’s last-worn clothes, his iconic kaffiyeh, his toothbrush and other personal belongings and found 180 millibecquerels of Polonium210, more than 20 times the dose necessary to kill a human being. Considering the fact that the examination was carried out 8 years after he had died and that Polly210 has a half life of only 138 days, this might mean either that the original dose had been massive enough so that lethal traces still remained or that there is a means to identify Po210 by the presence of the breakdown product that it decayed to, in this case, lead.
There is also a possibility that Polly had been added to Arafat’s effects afterwards to make it look like an assassination. Suha Arafat had the Palestinian Authority exhume his body for more detailed tests. Samples were sent to three different labs, in Switzerland, Russia and France. The Swiss test results have just been announced and they show abnormally high levels of Po210 in Arafat’s body making it seem virtually certain that Arafat was murdered. The Russian results are negative, while the French investigations are still on.
It is at this point not unreasonable to ask why an element that leaves traces all over is used as an assassination tool. Why use a messy element like Polonium210? The answer lies in it’s short half-life beyond which, very sophisticated detection methods have to be employed, to detect the presence of the breakdown products. PollyTwoTen is a state-sponsored assassin’s darling also because only an amount, equivalent to a grain of salt (ie: roughly 3milligrams) is needed, to kill the average Joe and the symptoms come on gradually, making it hard for attending physicians to pinpoint a cause. The assassin finds it easy to handle the stuff provided he does not himself accidentally ingest it. Another important reason is that an alpha emitter like polonium does not set off most radiation detectors in most airports and therefore can be smuggled from country to country, easily. And, of course, it is reliable, it can be counted on, to ‘get the job done’, without the victim even suspecting he has been had.
PollyTwoTen does have a major disadvantage though – traceability. Every batch has a chemical signature that can be traced to it’s source of manufacture. In the case of Litvinenko, the production source was found to be a Russian nuclear reactor. In Arafat’s case, the source is being traced as you read this. So, while you can’t tell who did it, at least you can pinpoint it’s source. The negative results from Russia may be an effort by that country, to distance itself from the murder. Al Jazeera has quoted an unnamed Russian source alleging that the Russian forensic team had been instructed by the Russian foreign ministry to announce negative results. Strange behaviour, given Arafat’s historically warm relations with the Soviets as well as Putin’s Russia, unless the Russians didn’t want to upset the Israelis by publishing findings that pointed to murder. Of the other Polonium producers, US, UK, France, Israel and India, Israel seems the most likely source and also the culprit, though it vehemently denies having anything to do with Arafat’s death.
Arafat had many enemies, both within and without. His longevity, his makeover from terrorist to good guy and winning the Nobel for peace, his iconic stature, his charisma, his secular credentials, all of these attributes were a thorn to the Israelis who might have been desperately looking for extremists like the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to fight, in order to justify the huge amounts of military aid that they demanded from the west. I’m just a two-bit wannabe writer who loves conspiracy theories. As long as I’m not the one being conspired against.
Polonium210 is also believed to have killed several other people, including Marie Curie’s daughter Irene, also a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist, and four nuclear scientists working on Israel’s nuclear program in the 60s. There is no foul play suspected in these cases. Ingestion of Polly severely impairs the functioning of the kidneys, spleen and liver. The organs irradiated, undergo unstoppable progressive degeneration. Tobacco too contains polonium and inhalation of cigarette smoke causes the polonium to be deposited on the mucous lining of the respiratory tract. It starts emitting alpha particles from there, damaging the linings of cells, leading to lung cancer.
Marie Curie herself died from aplastic anemia, brought on by radiation poisoning, from another hottie called Radium, an element she discovered on her way to winning her first Nobel Prize in chemistry. In addition to alpha emission, radium also emits highly dangerous gamma rays that are virtually unstoppable and can penetrate through thick lead shields. Marie would casually stuff vials of the glowing stuff in her lab coat pocket and repeatedly let it come in contact with her freely. “Radium, my beautiful Radium,” she would be heard whispering to it, as she brought the vial up, to stare at the stuff inside. Those days, radiation sickness hadn’t even started being researched as a separate science, as it is taday.
You might have heard of the ‘Radium Girls’, young American girls in the 1920s who painted watch-dial faces with a radium based luminous paint, using fine-pointed brushes. Nearly all died of radiation poisoning, resulting in bone cancer, within months of being hired. It appears they would habitually point the ends of the paint brushes with their lips, ingesting the radium-laced paint as a result. The radioactive radium deposited itself on their bones, literally dissolving them. Radium, being chemically similar to calcium, is easily accepted by the bones when ingested, where it quickly goes to work, degrading bone marrow and mutating cells.
Five of the dying Radium Girls took their employers to court. During the litigation, it became apparent that, while the company’s scientists and executives had taken considerable precautions to protect themselves from the effects of radiation, they had not seen it fit to protect their employees. Worse, the company attempted to deflect liability by insisting that the Radium Girls had led promiscuous lives and were suffering from syphilis. The brazen disregard for employee welfare and it’s exposure to the media led to the formulation of occupational diseases labor laws in the US.
Sigh…the beer inside my fridge must be radioactive. It has a half-life. The goddamn tostitos and salsa, they have a half-life too. In weedend minutes. Cool, patio, rocking chair, waiting-for-the-BBQed-shrimps-to-be-ready-to-ingest minutes. The beer is ice cold…sniff…attishoo! Excusez-moi!
My tisshoos need alterin’. At the molecular level.