A study of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko contributes to research into radiation protection

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

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A Visiting Professor at Oxford Brookes University has completed a study looking into the toxicity of polonium-210 and its use in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

Professor Harrison, former Director of the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards at Public Health England (PHE), based in Didcot, Oxfordshire, worked with colleagues at PHE on the study and at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the USA.

Alexander Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006 following poisoning with the radioactive material polonium-210. The much publicised case has been the subject of a criminal investigation and a public inquiry chaired by Sir Robert Owen which was published on 21 January last year.

This study focuses primarily on both pre and post-mortem tissue samples, looking at the intake of polonium, organ dose levels and the resulting decline in physiological function leading to death.

Most of the information we have on the acute effects of radiation is for external exposures to gamma rays. This study increases our knowledge of effects for the very different situation of internal contamination with high levels of an alpha-particle emitting radioisotope.

John Harrison, Visiting Professor, Oxford Brookes University

It looks at how death was the inevitable consequence of multiple organ failure, with the destruction of red bone marrow as well as damage to the kidneys and liver.

Professor John Harrison said: “The study involved radioactivity measurements, measuring the polonium-210 content of post-mortem tissue samples and samples of urine and blood showed the presence of large amounts of polonium-210. These were used to estimate intake by ingestion and organ doses. 

“Autoradiography of hair samples also showed two regions of 210Po activity, providing evidence of an earlier poisoning attempt, as detailed in the inquiry into the case.

“Most of the information we have on the acute effects of radiation is for external exposures to gamma rays. This study increases our knowledge of effects for the very different situation of internal contamination with high levels of an alpha-particle emitting radioisotope.”

The study was published in the Journal of Radiological Protection.