Polonium-210 as a poison

J Radiol Prot. 2007 Mar;27(1):17-40. doi: 10.1088/0952-4746/27/1/001. Epub 2007 Mar 6.


The death of Alexander Litvinenko on 23 November 2006 has brought into focus scientific judgements concerning the radiotoxicity of polonium-210 ((210)Po). This paper does not consider the specific radiological circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Mr Litvinenko; rather, it provides an evaluation of published human and animal data and models developed for the estimation of alpha radiation doses from (210)Po and the induction of potentially fatal damage to different organs and tissues. Although uncertainties have not been addressed comprehensively, the reliability of key assumptions is considered. Concentrating on the possibility of intake by ingestion, the use of biokinetic and dosimetric models to estimate organ and tissue doses from (210)Po is examined and model predictions of the time-course of dose delivery are illustrated. Estimates are made of doses required to cause fatal damage, taking account of the possible effects of dose protraction and the relative biological effectiveness (RBE) of alpha particles compared to gamma and x-rays. Comparison of LD(50) values (dose to cause death for 50% of people) for different tissues with the possible accumulation of dose to these tissues suggests that bone marrow failure is likely to be an important component of multiple contributory causes of death occurring within a few weeks of an intake by ingestion. Animal data on the effects of (210)Po provide good confirmatory evidence of intakes and doses required to cause death within about 3 weeks. The conclusion is reached that 0.1-0.3 GBq or more absorbed to blood of an adult male is likely to be fatal within 1 month. This corresponds to ingestion of 1-3 GBq or more, assuming 10% absorption to blood. Well-characterised reductions in white cell counts would be observed. Bone marrow failure is likely to be compounded by damage caused by higher doses to other organs, including kidneys and liver. Even if the bone marrow could be rescued, damage to other organs can be expected to prove fatal.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Lethal Dose 50
  • Models, Biological
  • Polonium / pharmacokinetics
  • Polonium / poisoning*
  • Radiation Dosage
  • Relative Biological Effectiveness
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Polonium