Fears about spy-slaying polonium-210 are reaching fever pitch, with traces of the radioactive poison discovered at 12 different locations. But, as MSNBC's ace science reporter Alan Boyle informs us, the stuff is "actually not so rare to find it in everyday life."
In minute quantities, polonium-210 has been used over the years to spark up spark plugs and banish static cling. Polonium is one of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke, and you can buy a smidgen of it over the Internet at $69 a pop... Heck, there's even radioactive polonium in plain old dirt."It's present in all of us, in trace amounts - say, in nanocuries," said Keith Eckerman, a senior research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.The amount is key. We might notice no ill results from billionths of a curie (which serves as a measure of radioactive intensity). In contrast, Litvinenko is thought to have been exposed to something around 5 millicuries (thousandths of a curie)...That's a minute amount - a speck of polonium that active would weigh less than a millionth of a gram, according to the Health Physics Society's information sheet on polonium. But getting that much polonium together would probably require going to the source, which usually involves a nuclear reactor. This is why investigators are thinking the hit on Litvinenko was a high-level spy-vs.-spy job.The amounts used in industrial applications - yes, including those $69 polonium samples, which are typically used to calibrate radiation detection devices - are far more minute: a speck of a speck of a speck.