UPDATE—23rd May 2007: Since this article was first published (21st March 2007), there have been further developments. British prosecutors have announced murder charges against an ex-KGB agent, who denies any involvement in the Litvinenko death.
UPDATE—24th January 2016: Many news outlets again were giving much publicity to polonium and the Litvinenko case, after a British inquiry asserted that the assassination “probably” had been given approval at the highest level of Russian leadership.
The poisoning of Litvinenko’s body—and mind
Cloak-and-dagger spy scandal shoots polonium onto world stage
More than four months since former spy Alexander Litvinenko drank a fateful cup of tea in London,1,2,3 his death from polonium poisoning continues to occupy the headlines,4,5 with the official British murder probe set to run for a few more weeks yet.6 Such is the interest in the case that movie giants Warner Bros have bought the film rights to a forthcoming book on the Litvinenko death, with Hollywood actor Johnny Depp to produce, and likely play the lead role in, the movie.7,8 (And the movie rights to Litvinenko’s 2002 book Blowing up Russia—newly re-released—have also been linked with Warner Bros.)9
‘Polonium? What’s that?’ was a common reaction of many people on hearing the initial reports.
Polonium-210 is a highly toxic radioactive isotope—a by-product of uranium decay discovered by physical chemist Marie Curie (with her husband, Pièrre) who named it after her Polish homeland. As the Litvinenko story unfolded, news agencies reported the following facts about polonium in relation to the spy scandal:
- There are very small amounts of polonium-210 in the soil and atmosphere, and everyone has a tiny amount of it in their body. In such miniscule amounts it is not harmful, usually being about one-millionth the level of a toxic dose (the dose makes the toxin—see Understanding poisons from a creationist perspective).
- From the time that Mr Litvinenko became sick (1st November 2006) until his death (23rd November) there was confusion over what happened to make him ill. Finally, after a post-mortem analysis, it was announced that Litvinenko’s body had been found to contain a massive dose of the radioactive isotope polonium-210.
- In many ways polonium-210 is said to be an ideal poison for espionage—deadly, and undetectable until it’s too late.
- By weight, polonium-210 is at least a million times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide (the poison used to execute prisoners in gas chambers). A single gram of polonium could kill 50 million people.10
- A dose of the white powder smaller than a grain of salt could have been dropped into Litvinenko’s drink without altering the taste.
- Though only a small amount would have been needed, polonium-210 is extremely hard to get. Only about 100 grams are produced worldwide (in nuclear facilities) each year, primarily by Russia.
- Polonium-210 can be hard to detect. While most radioactive elements emit gamma rays, which register on radiation detectors, polonium-210 instead emits alpha particles.
- Unlike other radioactive elements, polonium-210 is relatively safe to transport. Highly lethal gamma rays pass through most substances, but alpha particles can be blocked by a sheet of paper or the thin layer of dead cells on the surface of our skin. ‘I could put it in a tiny Ziploc bag, and I would be fine,’ said one radiation biologist.10
- To kill, polonium-210 must be inhaled or ingested (or in contact with an open wound) so that it is in direct contact with living tissue.11
- Within minutes of ingestion, the energetic particles shooting off the polonium-210 molecules begin killing the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract. The victim suffers nausea, severe internal bleeding and enormous pain. (Several hours after his meetings on 1st November 2006, Litvinenko complained of feeling sick, and spent the night vomiting.)
- Alpha particles ‘play havoc’ with DNA, e.g. snipping it in two, or fusing two strands together, thwarting normal cell repair mechanisms and cell division. According to Professor William Gelletly of the University of Surrey, ‘The result is that eventually the cellular command and control [in the body] falls apart. That is what radiation sickness is all about.’12
- Of polonium’s three isotopes formed in the U-238 decay chain, polonium-210 is the most stable, but compared to most other elements, it’s not really stable at all! After just 138 days, half of it decays into a nonradioactive isotope of lead. It takes 10 half-lives—less than four years—for all of it to be converted into lead.
- Polonium-210 played a key role in World War II, being combined with beryllium to form the neutron trigger that started the atomic bomb’s chain reaction (beryllium emits a neutron when bombarded by an alpha particle from polonium, so these two metals are kept separate until they forced together to begin detonation). Because of polonium’s short half-life, the nuclear triggers lost their effectiveness within two years, necessitating replacement. (By the 1970s, engineers were using the hydrogen isotope tritium instead, with a half-life of 12.3 years.)
- Polonium was considered as a power source for US satellites, but its short half-life again limited its utility, so plutonium was used instead.
For informed creationists, the news that polonium does not hang around for long (as per the last three dot points above) would not have been ‘news’. While polonium can be lethal to the body (as the Litvinenko poisoning showed), it’s also lethal to evolutionary ideas about millions of years—hence creationist literature is replete with references to polonium and its short half-life.
For example, a recent article in Creation magazine13 by Ph.D. geologist Andrew Snelling points out that the claim that granite (rock) takes millions of years to solidify and cool doesn’t stack up given the abundant polonium radiohalos found in granite rocks worldwide. (See, e.g., New record of polonium radiohalos, Stone Mountain granite, Georgia (USA).) Halos can’t form in molten rock—so if granite solidification takes millions of years then the polonium would have decayed long before the granite solidified. This means that radioactive ‘dating’ techniques which ascribe millions-of-years ages to these rocks are hopelessly wrong.
So how did the polonium get into the granite originally? Dr Snelling writes that the polonium radiohalos are evidence of ‘catastrophic geological processes on a young earth’ and equates it to the year-long Flood of Noah’s day, around 4,500 years ago.14
Similarly, polonium radiohalos found in coalified wood utterly demolish ideas of millions-of-years ages—see The collapse of ‘geologic time’, which explains how such evidence ‘speaks of a devastating flood that uprooted and smashed huge trees, depositing the debris with an enormous volume of sediment over a large area.’
Why should we concern ourselves with the Litvinenko/polonium poisoning saga?
The shooting of polonium into the world headlines very conveniently raises the profile of an element (polonium) that evolutionists have tried to ignore and/or hide. As such, it’s an opportunity for Christians to draw attention to what we know about polonium, demolishing the long-age arguments that are set up ‘against the knowledge of God’ (2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV).
The Apostle Paul told the Colossians (my emphasis in bold font):
‘Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.’ Colossians 4:5–6 (NIV)
The ongoing publicity surrounding the Litvinenko poisoning presents an opportunity for Christians to undo the poisoning of people’s minds that has occurred through evolutionary teaching.
Such poisoning has not been limited to those outside the church, but has affected large numbers inside as well, with many church leaders opting to downplay (or worse—e.g. ‘reinterpret’ or even deny)15 the biblical account of our origins.
The resultant ignorance/blurring of history in the minds of many in the church left them ill-equipped to resist—or even to recognize—attacks on the Bible’s historicity from rival accounts of history (see Darwin’s real message—have you missed it?).
Many Christians only became alarmed at last when they saw the Bible’s historical account of the person of Jesus being overtly challenged (see The Da Vinci Code: The church is mobilizing!).
However, by this time it was too late for many, with evolutionarily-derived ideas that ‘all religions are equally valid’ or that ‘there are many paths to “God”’ having taken hold, despite Jesus’ clear teaching that He alone is ‘the Way’ (John 14:6). Tragically, it seems that Alexander Litvinenko’s mind was subject to such poisonous teaching, with the news that, although ‘born an Orthodox Christian’, he converted to Islam on his deathbed.16
Litvinenko’s father, Walter, told Moscow’s Kommersant daily newspaper:
‘He said “I want to be buried according to Muslim tradition.”
‘I said, “Well son, as you wish. We already have one Muslim in our family—my daughter is married to a Muslim. The important thing is to believe in the Almighty. God is One.”’
How utterly tragic—much more so than Litvinenko’s slow-and-painful death by polonium poisoning. Because let’s not forget that because of the first man’s sin, all of us are facing death—as the Bible says, ‘it is appointed for man to die once’ (Hebrews 9:27). However, it is the second death that we ought to consider in sober thought, remembering Jesus’ promise that He alone is the way we can ‘not be hurt at all by the second death’ (Revelation 2:11; also 20:6,14; 21:8). So the greater tragedy is that this knowledge seems to have been hidden from Alexander Litvinenko.
If only his father had instead pointed out to him that the ‘Allah’ of the Koran is NOT the same as the Almighty Creator God of the Bible. (See The Koran vs Genesis.)
If only his father had alerted the daughter to 2 Corinthians 6:14 before she ever even considered marrying a Muslim.
If only Walter Litvinenko had known to show his children that the Bible’s account of history is trustworthy—in contrast to all opposing counterfeits; see Holy Books?—and that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we can assuredly know we’re safe from the ‘second death’.
- ABC News Exclusive: Murder in a Teapot, blogs.abcnews.com, January 2007, accessed 27 February 2007. Return to text.
- BBC News, Timeline: Former Russian spy case, news.bbc.co.uk, January 2007. Return to text.
- BBC News, Polonium-210 found in restaurant, news.bbc.co.uk, January 2007. Return to text.
- BBC News, Litvinenko’s friend’s attack probed, news.bbc.co.uk, March 2007. Return to text.
- Conviction seems unlikely in Litvinenko case, ABC TV ‘Lateline’ program broadcast 1 March 2007, transcript at abc.net.au, accessed 7 March 2007. Return to text.
- BBC News, Litvinenko inquiry ‘nearing end’, news.bbc.co.uk, February 2007, accessed 27 February 2007. Return to text.
- ABC News Online, Depp to make film on Litvinenko poisoning, abc.net.au, February 2007. Return to text.
- van Druten, R., Eye on the Spy, ABC News, abc.net.au, February 2007. Return to text.
- Groskop, V., Secrets and spies, The Observer, observer.guardian.co.uk, January 2007. Return to text.
- Kaplan, K., and Maugh, T., Polonium-210’s quiet trail of death, Los Angeles Times, latimes.com, January 2007. Return to text.
- BBC News, What is polonium-210?, news.bbc.co.uk, January 2007. Return to text.
- Reaney, P., The perils of polonium, ABC News in Science, abc.net.au, December 2006. Return to text.
- Snelling, A., Radiohalos—Startling evidence of catastrophic geologic processes on a young earth, Creation 28(2):46–50, 2006; creation.com/radiohalos-evidence. Return to text.
- Creationist physicist Robert Gentry originally suggested that polonium radiohalos in granites dated from Creation Week (around 6,000 years ago)—see, e.g. Dismissing creation lightly for an insight into the opposition he faced from long-age opponents. Today, however, the majority of creation scientists recognize that polonium radiohalos in granites date from the Flood (around 4,500 years ago)—see New radiohalo find challenges primordial granite claim; and: Snelling, A., Polonium Radiohalos: The Model for Their Formation Tested and Verified, Impact 386, August 2005, Institute for Creation Research, icr.org. Return to text.
- See e.g. Evangelical church promotes ‘peace with evolution’; War Cry? Or whimper?; A right royal interpretation?; What’s wrong with Bishop Spong?. Return to text.
- British police arrive in Moscow to hunt for spy death clues, The Times Online, timesonline.co.uk.Return to text.