Published online 20 December 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news061218-9

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Polonium official danger rating may get upgrade

Atomic agency considering revising opinion of spy poison.

How dangerous is polonium-210How dangerous is polonium-210Getty

The poisoning of former Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko has prompted the International Atomic Energy Agency to consider whether the safety rating of the substance involved — polonium-210 — should be upgraded.

Litvinenko died in London last month after ingesting an unknown amount of polonium-210, which decays by emitting α particles and is fatal in doses of milligrams or below. Distribution of the substance is strictly controlled in Europe and the United States, but tiny sub-lethal amounts are present in products that can be bought without a government licence, such as antistatic brushes used by photographers.

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Officials at the atomic energy agency say they are considering whether the danger rating used to compare polonium-210 with other radionuclides used in industry needs to be revised. The substance currently rates 4 out of 5 on a scale in which the most dangerous radiation sources — such as the cobalt used in cancer treatments — are rated at 1.

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