In 1898, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered the element Polonium and its radioactive isotopes. Marie Curie named it after her native country, Poland. Less than 100 years later, one of those radioactive isotopes, Polonium-210, would be used to poison someone in the middle of London.
Polonium-210 is rather unique as a radioactive substance: it emits very little gamma radiation, but a high number of alpha particles. Because the alpha particles cannot penetrate human skin, or even a sheet of paper, Polonium-210 is virtually undetectable to radiation detectors, and therefore an ideal poison.
Polonium-210 is only dangerous when either ingested or inhaled. Once ingested, it goes to work attacking the cells of the body, and scientists estimate that one gram of Polonium-210 is enough to kill 50 million people and sicken another 50 million.
During the cold war, and into the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in the development of chemical weapons, and in particular, deadly nerve agents often referred to as fourth-generation chemical weapons.
Of those created in Russia, the "bad boy" was Novichok, which means "newcomer" in Russian. It is five to eight times more deadly than the nerve agents sarin or VX, and it is harder to identify. VX was the poison used to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half brother in 2017.
Like the other nerve agents, Novichok blocks messages from the nerves to the muscles. Symptoms of exposure to Novichok include excessive constriction of the pupils, loss of consciousness, convulsions, nausea, and vomiting, and profuse sweating. There are no known antidotes.
Here are the stories of how Polonium-210 and Novichok were used to poison several people in Great Britain in 2006 and 2018, respectively, and what the authorities did to unravel the mysteries.
A really deadly pot of tea, Alexander Litvinenko
In 1986, Russian soldier Alexander Litvinenko was recruited by Russia's spy agency, the KGB, to become a counterintelligence officer. He went on to specialize in counter-terrorist activities and the infiltration of organized crime.
In 1994, Litvinenko met the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky when he helped investigate an attempt on Berezovsky's life. At one time, Berezovsky controlled Russia's main television channel, Channel One, and he would be found dead in his UK home in March 2013. Litvinenko began moonlighting as head of Berezovsky's security.
By 1997, Litvinenko had joined the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and on July 25, 1998, he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to report on corruption within the FSB. On November 17, 1998, Litvinenko, along with four other FSB officers, held a press conference confirming allegations made by Berezovsky that the FSB was behind an attempt on his life.
Litvinenko was immediately fired, and in October 2000, he fled Russia, along with his family, to Turkey, where he applied for asylum at the U.S. embassy. When his application was denied, Litvinenko flew to London and applied for political asylum there. His application was granted on May 14, 2001.
Litvinenko became a British citizen in October 2006, and he wrote several books about conditions in Russia, including Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within and Lybyanka Criminal Group. He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was killed in her apartment in Moscow in October 2006.
On November 1, 2006, Litvinenko had tea with two men, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, London. Lugovoy was the former chief of security for the Russian TV channel ORT, and Kovtun was a Russian businessman.
Litvinenko ordered a pot of tea, and their waiter would later tell the Telegraph newspaper that he was distracted by Lugovoy and Kovtun while delivering a gin and tonic and a pot of tea to the table, and that he thought something had been sprayed into the pot of tea.
Investigators later found Polonium-210 on the table, on Litvinenko's chair, on the floor and on a picture that been hanging above where Litvinenko had sat.
A car that Litvinenko rode in later that night had so much radioactivity in it that it had to be disposed of. Everything Litvinenko touched in his home over the next three days was contaminated, and the home was uninhabitable even six months later.
The day after the meeting, Litvinenko began experiencing severe vomiting and diarrhea, and he was admitted to London's University College Hospital, where his blood and urine were tested for radiation.
There was only a small gamma ray spike, at the energy of 803 kilo-electron volts (keV), and it was only by accident that a scientist who had been part of Britain's early atomic bomb program happened to be in the lab that day. He immediately recognized the gamma ray spike as coming from the radioactive decay of Polonium-210.
Investigators with Britain's Health Protection Agency (HPA) swang into action. Their purview was infectious diseases, chemicals, radioactive threats, bio-weapons, and new technologies. Now that the investigators knew what they were looking for, they were able to literally follow the trail of Polonium-210 "bread crumbs" around London.
They found that Lugovoy and Kovtun had made two previous attempts to poison Litvinenko, one on October 16, 2006, and one on October 25, 2006. An analysis of the men's hotel room showed that the container holding the Polonium-210 had leaked and that they used hotel towels to wipe up the leaks. Before flying home to Russia, they disposed of the Polonium-210 in the hotel room's toilet.
Besides the hotel, Lugovoy and Kovtun left traces of Polonium-210 at a bar, a restaurant, inside taxis, and in four airplanes. In all, investigators tested 733 people for Polonium-210 poisoning, and 17 were found to be mildly contaminated.
Mercifully, Polonium-210 has a half-life of just 138 days, and it decays to the stable isotope lead-206 relatively quickly.
During an agonizing three weeks in the hospital, Litvinenko changed from the man seen on the left side of the photo above, to the man on the right. On November 22, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko died, leaving behind a wife and three children. He is buried at Highgate Cemetery in North London. On May 28, 2007, Britain's Foreign Office submitted a formal request to Russia for the extradition of Andrey Lugovoy to face charges for Litvinenko's murder. That request was denied.
A nice lunch and then, Sergei and Julia Skripal
During the 1990s, Sergei Skripal was an officer in Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). He was also a double agent, working for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service.
In December 2004, Skripal was arrested in Moscow, and two years later he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Then, in 2010 the U.S. uncovered the Illegals Program.
Like something out of the TV series The Americans, ten Russian sleeper agents were arrested in the U.S. on June 27, 2010. A prisoner swap was arranged, and on July 9, 2010, the ten Russian agents were traded for four Russians, three of whom had been convicted of high treason.
Skripal settled in the English city of Salisbury and became a British citizen. On Sunday, March 4, 2018, his 33-year-old daughter Yulia was visiting him from Russia. The Skripals stopped off at a pub for a drink, then had a late lunch at a local restaurant. They left the restaurant at 3:35 p.m., and at 4:15 p.m., a call came into emergency services.
Both Skripals were found sitting upright but unconscious on a bench in the center of Salisbury. Yulia was foaming at the mouth. They were taken to a hospital, and given who Skripal was, concerns about poison were immediately raised.
While investigators struggled to identify the poison that had been used on the Skripals, local police officer Detective Sargeant Nick Bailey was sent to Skripal's home. He used the front door handle to let himself in.
Within three days, Bailey too was deathly ill, and he was taken to the hospital where he would remain for over two weeks. The extent of his injuries was such that on his release, Bailey said, "Normal life for me will probably never be the same."
Investigators at Britain's Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down identified the poison used on the Skripals and Bailey as the nerve agent Novichok. Novichok was designed with four objectives in mind:
- To be undetectable to NATO chemical detection equipment at the time;
- To be impervious to NATO chemical protective equipment;
- To be safe to handle; and
- To circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention list of controlled precursors.
Until 2016, little was known about Novichok. Then Iranian chemists synthesized it and published its mass spectral signature. Recognizing the imminent danger, British investigators fanned out, examining the pub and restaurant where the Skripals has been, the bench where they were found, and Skripal's home and car.
Novichok doesn't break down over time, so intense cleaning of the area was undertaken to remove the poison, costing millions of pounds. Bailey and his wife and two children were forced to leave their home and all their possessions due to the contamination.
Both Skripals survived their poisoning and were released from the hospital, Yulia on April 9, 2018, and Sergei on May 18, 2018. However, their condition has never been made public. Both were taken to a secure location that has also never been made public.
On September 5, 2018, Britain identified two Russians who traveled under the names Alexander Petrov and Rusian Boshirov, as the assassins. Traces of Novichok were found in their hotel room in London.
Rusian Boshirov was ultimately identified as Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, and Alexander Petrov was identified as Alexander Mishkin, both agents of Russia's G.U. Intelligence Service.
A gift of perfume, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley
Over three months after the Skripals had been poisoned, on June 30, 2018, Charlie Rowley, a resident of Amesbury, a town just 7 miles (11 km) from Salisbury, and his girlfriend Dawn Sturgess, were rushed to the hospital with worrying symptoms. Tests confirmed that the couple was suffering from Novichok poisoning.
Investigators swarmed the hostel for the homeless in Salisbury where Sturgess had been living, but nothing was found. It was only when they examined Rowley's house in Amesbury that they found a bottle of a well-known brand of perfume that contained Novichok. Rowley told investigators he had picked the bottle out of a refuse container in Salisbury, then had lovingly given it to his girlfriend.
On July 8, 2018, Sturgess died, leaving behind a young daughter. Rowley was discharged from the hospital on July 20th, then readmitted again in September 2018 showing symptoms of meningitis.
In June 2020, the BBC aired a three-part series entitled, The Salisbury Poisonings, which portrayed the events of 2018.