Is Polonium Harmful to Humans?

Reviewed on 10/19/2021
is polonium harmful to humans
Polonium is extremely deadly if ingested or inhaled. It can cause severe damage to internal organs and even a tiny amount is lethal

Although polonium cannot travel more than a few centimeters and cannot pass through the skin, it is extremely deadly if ingested or inhaled. It can cause severe damage to internal organs, and even a micro amount equivalent to the size of a dust particle can be lethal.

Ingesting just 50 ng or inhaling 10 ng of polonium can cause death. One gram of polonium-210 is sufficient to poison and can kill about 10 million people.

What is polonium?

Polonium is a rare but highly radioactive element that is found naturally in the atmosphere and on the earth’s crust in very small quantities. In its natural state, polonium is solid, silver-colored metal. Purified polonium is volatile, but polonium isotopes are radioactive. 

Polonium has about 25 known radioactive isotopes. One of the most common and well-known polonium isotopes is polonium-210, which emits highly radioactive, positively charged particles called alpha particles. Once a victim has polonium-210 poisoning, the effects are likely to be fatal.

Polonium-210 has a short half-life and ceases to be dangerous relatively quickly by decaying into lead, which is a stable metal. Polonium-210 has:

  • Physical half-life period (138 days): This means half of its radioactivity expires in 138 days.
  • Biological half-life period (40 days): It takes 40 days to eliminate half of polonium-210 in the body through biological processes.

How does polonium cause damage to the body?

When ingested, polonium quickly enters the bloodstream, attacking blood cells with millions of radioactive alpha particles before spreading to the liver, kidneys, bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, and testicles or ovaries. 

As polonium spreads through the body, it leaves a trail of reactive free radical ions that damage vital organs at a cellular level. First, the liver and kidneys are damaged, causing jaundice. Then, the gastrointestinal tract gets damaged, causing toxic shock syndrome. Finally, it attacks the heart, leading to death within days or weeks.

Polonium-210 is also a known carcinogen. When inhaled, it causes lung cancer over time. Alpha particle radiation of polonium damages DNA and can cause apoptosis or even cell suicide. Even a small amount of DNA damage can cause genetic changes that affect cells’ ability to reproduce.

What are the symptoms of polonium poisoning?

Symptoms of polonium poisoning depend on the strength of polonium someone is exposed to. Common symptoms may include:

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How is polonium poisoning treated?

Although there is no cure for severe polonium poisoning, a few experimental treatments are being researched. Careful washing will remove most external traces of polonium-210 from the clothes and body.

Mild polonium poisoning may be reversible, but success of treatment depends on the strength of the dose received.

If a person knows that they have swallowed polonium, gastric aspiration or lavage may be useful if performed soon after ingestion.

Studies have shown that chelation therapy may be beneficial. Chelating agents, such as dimercaprol and penicillamine, have been used in studies to treat polonium poisoning. The chelating agent can bind to the metal and prevent its absorption, leading to its elimination from the body.

How and where is polonium produced?

Polonium-210 is present in very small quantities in soil and the atmosphere, but the concentrations are not lethal. Polonium is naturally present in uranium ores in extremely low concentrations. As low as 100 mcg of polonium is present in one ton of uranium ore.

Polonium can be produced by bombarding isotope bismuth-209 with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Worldwide, only about 100 grams of polonium are produced each year. Most of the world’s supply of polonium is produced in Russia.

Polonium has been used as a source of power for satellites and other space crafts and as a trigger for nuclear weapons because of its radioactive properties.

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References
National Research Council (US) Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations. Health Risks of Radon and Other Internally Deposited Alpha-Emitters: Beir IV. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1988. 3, Polonium. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK218121/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Polonium-210. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/polonium-210.htm

Delaware Health and Social Services. Polonium-210. https://dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dph/files/poloniumfaq.pdf

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