Polonium-210 poisoning: a first-hand account

Amit C. Nathwani*, James F. Down, John Goldstone, James Yassin, Paul I. Dargan, Andres Virchis, Nick Gent, David Lloyd, John Harrison

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Background Polonium-210 (210Po) gained widespread notoriety after the poisoning and subsequent death of Mr Alexander Litvinenko in London, UK, in 2006. Exposure to 210Po resulted initially in a clinical course that was indistinguishable from infection or exposure to chemical toxins, such as thallium. Methods A 43-year-old man presented to his local hospital with acute abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and vomiting, and was admitted to the hospital because of dehydration and persistent gastrointestinal symptoms. He was initially diagnosed with gastroenteritis and treated with antibiotics. Clostridium difficile toxin was subsequently detected in his stools, which is when he first raised the possibility of being poisoned and revealed his background and former identity, having been admitted under a new identity with which he had been provided on being granted asylum in the UK. Within 6 days, the patient had developed thrombocytopenia and neutropenia, which was initially thought to be drug induced. By 2 weeks, in addition to bone marrow failure, he had evidence of alopecia and mucositis. Thallium poisoning was suspected and investigated but ultimately dismissed because blood levels of thallium, although raised, were lower than toxic concentrations. The patient continued to deteriorate and within 3 weeks had developed multiple organ failure requiring ventilation, haemofiltration, and cardiac support, associated with a drop in consciousness. On the 23rd day after he first became ill, he suffered a pulseless electrical activity cardiorespiratory arrest from which he could not be resuscitated and was pronounced dead. Findings Urine analysis using gamma-ray spectroscopy on day 22 showed a characteristic 803 keV photon emission, raising the possibility of 210Po poisoning. Results of confirmatory analysis that became available after the patient's death established the presence of 210Po at concentrations about 109-times higher than normal background levels. Post-mortem tissue analyses showed autolysis and retention of 210Po at lethal doses in several organs. On the basis of the measured amounts and tissue distribution of 210Po, it was estimated that the patient had ingested several 1000 million becquerels (a few GBq), probably as a soluble salt (eg, chloride), which delivered very high and fatal radiation doses over a period of a few days. Interpretation Early symptoms of 210Po poisoning are indistinguishable from those of a wide range of chemical toxins. Hence, the diagnosis can be delayed and even missed without a high degree of suspicion. Although body surface scanning with a standard Geiger counter was unable to detect the radiation emitted by 210Po, an atypical clinical course prompted active consideration of poisoning with radioactive material, with the diagnosis ultimately being made with gamma-ray spectroscopy of a urine sample. Funding UK NHS, Public Health England, and the UK Department of Health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1075-1080
Number of pages6
JournalThe Lancet
Issue number10049
Publication statusPublished - 10 Sep 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the UK NHS, Public Health England, and the UK Department of Health. We thank the staff of Public Health England (formerly of the Health Protection Agency) for polonium-210 measurements and dose calculations. We are grateful to Mike Holland for his assistance with the writing and formating of the final report. The high global media coverage and unique circumstances of this case preclude the customary patient anonymity. This report has been published with the agreement of the patient's relatives.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd


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