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 tobacco. The 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!