Date: ~1 November 2006
Location: London, United Kingdom
Type of event: assasination by poisoning using ingested radioactive substance
Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and recent critic of Russia's Putin administration, fell ill in London and eventually died of poisoning. Litvinenko had been granted asylum in the United Kingdom in 2000 following persecution in Russia. Recently he had been investigating the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist critical of the Putin administration. On 1 November he met with two Russians, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, at Pine Bar in London's Millennium Hotel, then met with Italian Mario Scaramella at a London sushi bar. A few hours later he fell ill and was admitted to a London hospital. Doctors came to suspect poisoning, with poisoning by a radioactive substance suggested on 21 November. Litvinenko died on 23 November, and on 24 November his death was linked to a "major dose" of radioactive polonium-210. Polonium-210 is an alpha emitter with a half-life of 138 days and is a fairly volatile metal; the ingested maximum permissible body burden is 0.03 microcuries, or about 7 nanograms. Reportedly Litvinenko's symptoms and time from exposure to death are consistent with the ingestion of about 5 microcuries of polonium-210 (about 1 microgram, equivalent to a sphere 0.6 millimeters in diameter).
Litvinenko's wife was found to be contaminated with polonium-210 but did not suffer injury. On 24 November unusually high levels of polonium-210 were found at the sushi restaurant visited by Litvinenko as well as Litvinenko's home and a portion of the hospital where Litvinenko was treated; these sites were closed off for decontamination. Trace levels of polonium-210 contamination were reported on 27 November at two other central London locations, on 29 November on two British Airways 767s that served the London-Moscow route, and on 30 November at a total of 12 London locations, including a soccer stadium visited by Lugovi and Kovtun on 1 November. Checks at additional locations proved negative, including some of 30 locations identified as "actually or potentially contaminated" as of 20 December. As of 5 December 3,233 people had called the British health service regarding possible exposures. Of these, 244 were identified for followup and 28 had been referred for assessment of possible radiation exposure. (These figures were up from 1,325 callers, 68 identified for checking, and 21 referred, through 29 November). In addition, 238 workers at the two hospitals where Litvinenko was treated were investigated for possible exposure and 71 were referred for testing. No additional positive exposures were identified through 6 December; this includes negative results on workers at the hospitals where Litvinenko was treated, all staff at the sushi bar, and 3 individuals referred after reporting possible radiation exposure. However, on 7 December it was announced that 7 bar staff of the Millenium Hotel's Pine Bar were found contaminated with polonium-210. Following an interview of Lugovoi by British investigators at the British embassy in Moscow on 4 December, trace amounts of radioactive contamination were found there. Radioactive material has been ruled out in the poisoning of former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar in Dublin, Ireland, on 24 November.
On 6 December UK authorities officially announced Litvinenko's death was being investigated as a homicide. On 7 December Russian authorities announced they were opening a criminal case, additionally stating that Kovtun had fallen ill. Disputed reports state that Kovtun is in critical condition and in a coma. On 8 December Lugovoi was reported ill as well. The use of polonium-210 in a poisoning would require access to the product from a nuclear research-type reactor and/or sophistication laboratory separation techniques. The Russian government has denied any involvement in the poisoning. On 28 May 2007 UK authorities formally requested extradition of Lugovoi from Russia under charges for Litvinenko's murder. Russia formally refused the request on 5 July, asserting that the Russian constitution did not permit extradition of citizens. The United Kingdom and Russia expelled four of each other's diplomats in the rift that followed. In July 2008 it was reported that British officials had concluded there were "strong indications" that the murder was backed by the Russian government.
In 2007 UK authorities reported results of tests on a total of 735 people for Po-210 contamination: 596 were not contaminated; 120 showed probable contact with Po-210 but with levels indicating no health risk; and 17 people (one relative of Litvinenko, probably his wife, and 16 motel staff) with Po-210 levels "not significant enough to cause any illness in the short term and any increased risk in the long term is likely to be very small."
Consequences: 1 death, 2 injuries.
© 2006-2007, 2008 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 7 July 2008.
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