Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Not to worry . . .

The media here and across the pond are having a massive feeding frenzy over the discover of traces of radiation at various places around London and on British Airways planes, in connection with the investigation into the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Cancel the apocalypse. The Polonium 210 which apparently killed Litvinenko is an alpha emitter. Alpha particles are helium nuclei. They cannot penetrate a piece of tissue paper, let alone your skin. You could hold a pound of Polonium 210 in your hand and it would not hurt you. Well, actually, that's not quite true -- it would be too hot to hold without getting an ordinary thermal burn. But the radiation would be harmless. Swallowing it is, indeed, a bad idea, because the element accumulates in certain tissues and the radiation can penetrate cells and damage DNA, which is what supposedly happened to Litvinenko.

When the authorities went around to these various places looking for alpha emitters, they no doubt had equipment which could detect incredibly low levels. So they found some. These may or may not have had anything to do with polonium 210 or the Litvinenko case. Various alpha emitters occur naturally, and they are found ubiquitously in rocks and water. The most common is radon 222, which is in the air in many people's basements. Exposure does increase the risk of lung cancer, especially among smokers. Alpha emitters are used in smoke detectors, cancer treatment, and to remove static charges from the air. They are found in mining tailings, and enter the environment from there.

I'll bet if you went into every aircraft and every bar in the world and looked hard for alpha particles, you'd find some in about the same percentage as the British are finding now. My vote: this is a whole lotta nothin'.