Sunday, December 03, 2006

How Polonium 210 kills you

I have noticed a few people seeming to wonder over here from google to find out, so I thought I would explain.

Polonium 210 is one of 25 isotopes of polonium all of which are radioactive. It is also a rare earth heavy metal. It is toxic as are metals like lead and mercury however you are unlikely to have enough polonium in your system to be greatly affected by the toxicity before the radiation gets you.

There are 3 sorts of radiation, alpha, beta and gamma. Imagine if you will that you are trying to shoot a target on one side of London from the other. Gamma radiation is like a fine laser beam, beta radiation is like a snipers bullet and alpha radiation is like firing a double decker bus out of a very large cannon. It won't get very far but is bound to damage something on the way.

Polonium 210 decays to lead 206 by emitting an alpha particle. Aplha particles are in essence a helium nuclei. That's 2 protons and two neutrons. It is the heaviest radiation some 7500 (approximately) times heavier than a beta particle and carries twice the electric charge.

It won't go far but on the way it will rip 2 electrons from other atoms and this is where the problem lies. When you do that to an atom in a stable compound like haemoglobin in blood or DNA that atom stops being a full part of the compound. In short ionising radiation (which is what it is) rips small bits of the body apart.

That is not a problem in itself as this happens in small numbers all the time. Cells repair and move on. However what happens with radiation is that more cells are damaged than would otherwise be the case so it makes recovery harder.

Polonium 210 is very radioactive, 1 gram gives off 166 trillion (yes that is a very big number) of alpha particles a second. Even a milligram gives off 166 billion alpha particles a second and frankly the body can't cope with that level of sustained damage every second. Bits of your body just break down and cease to function.

You can read more articles from this blog on polonium here.


Anonymous said...

That was a very helpful artical, it made understand just how harmful polonium-210 is.

Benedict White said...

Anonymous, Many thanks for the compliment. Please remember though that it is very rare.

Feel free to browse around, or indeed email this article to anyone you may feel it is helpful to.