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Polonium, then and now: chilling experiments and assassinations

SANTA FE, N.M. — A highly dangerous radioactive element that made headlines two decades ago when it was revealed it was used by Los Alamos lab scientists in human experiments is back in the news as a poison of choice for Vladimir Putin’s spies.

A new book details how a British judge concluded that Putin probably orchestrated the assassination of a rival with the hard-to-trace polonium-210, also the element used to detonate the A-bombs dropped on Japan.

“A Very Expensive Poison,” by journalist Luke Harding of The Guardian newspaper, is a chilling account of how polonium is just one of a number of exotic poisons apparently in the arsenal of Russian intelligence services. It lists nearly a dozen suspicious deaths under Putin.

The human experiments in the U.S. got their start in 1944 when a young chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory “was working with the entire Los Alamos supply” of plutonium. A chemical reaction spilled it into the scientist’s face, with some of it entering his mouth, according to a 1995 report by The President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, commissioned by Bill Clinton.

The scientist’s stomach was pumped, but there was no way to know how much radioactive material was still in the man’s body.

As a result, the lab’s health director pressed lab director J. Robert Oppenheimer to conduct studies to develop ways of detecting plutonium in the lungs, and in urine and feces.

Oppenheimer agreed and in an August 1944 memo, he speculated that studies “might involve human experimentation.” He wrote: “I feel that it is desirable if these can in any way be handled elsewhere not to undertake them here,” according to advisory committee’s report.

Nine days later, health officials at Los Alamos and for the Manhattan project “agreed to conduct a research program using both animal and human subjects.”

From 1945 to 1947, patients at four hospitals, including the University of Rochester in New York, were injected with plutonium, polonium and uranium, some of it under the direction of Wright Langham, a biomedical scientist at LANL known as “Mr. Plutonium.” Despite experimenters’ assertions that the patients were terminally ill, that wasn’t necessarily true, the 1995 advisory committee found.

Polonium, which can be extracted from huge amounts of uranium or produced in nuclear reactions, is extremely rare and has not been produced in the U.S. for decades.

The Clinton-era advisory committee of ethicists, historians and scientists was created after Congressional hearings and Pulitzer Prize-winning reports in The Albuquerque Tribune about experiments in which plutonium was injected into 18 people. The committee found there had been thousands of human radiation experiments, including in cases with “little evidence” that consent was given by the patients.

Assassination by green tea

“A Very Expensive Poison” recounts how former KGB spy, British citizen and Putin rival Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in London in 2006 when Russian agents laced his green tea with polonium. They left a radioactive trail all over London that was discovered once authorities knew what to look for.

Polonium is 400 times more radioactive than uranium and “toxicologists estimate that one gram of polonium could be enough to kill 50 million people, on top of another 50 million who would become ill; in the case of Litvinenko, less than one millionth of that amount would have been enough to cause his death (less than a microgram),” according to the Medical News Today website.

Decades ago, LANL investigators believed small radiation amounts would not “produce any immediate side effects or reactions,” but long-term effects were unclear.

Did patients in the 1940s know they were guinea pigs? “The Advisory Committee found no documents that bear directly on what, if anything, the subjects were told about the injections and whether they consented,” according to the report produced under the Clinton administration.

The advisory committee held a meeting in Santa Fe in 1995. Milton Stadt, living in Santa Fe at the time and whose mother was a Rochester subject injected with plutonium in 1946 at age 41, said neither of his parents was ever “told or asked for any kind of consent to have this done to them.”

“My mother went in [to the hospital] for scleroderma … and a duodenal ulcer, and somehow she got pushed over into this lab where these monsters were,” Stadt told the committee.

In 1950, Langham asked Rochester staff to get follow-up x-rays of the test subjects “in a completely routine manner. Do not make the examination look unusual in any way.”

Then-LANL director Siegfried Heckler wrote a 1995 article in response to the Human Radiation report. “The doses involved in the tracer studies were extremely small, the volunteers were appropriately informed, and the studies were important both for radiation protection and nuclear medicine,” he asserted.

“The press often wrongly states that the tiniest amount of plutonium can kill you. To the contrary, we know from our own plutonium workers that individuals carrying accidental intakes comparable to the amount given to the injectees have lived healthy, vital, and productive lives, some for over 50 years from the time of intake.”

Judge: Putin approved hit

Fast forward to 2017, with former Fox host Bill O’Reilly’s statement to President Donald Trump that “Putin is a killer,” Russian meddling in the presidential election and an “alternative facts’ zeitgeist. “A Very Expensive Poison” has been thrust into the current conversation, cited as nefarious evidence against the Russian leadership.

Litvinenko, probably the most prominent of Putin’s alleged victims, had become a journalist and was on the payroll of MI-6, Britain’s CIA, after receiving political asylum in 2000, according to the new book.

It details how Russian intelligence agents Andrei Lugovoi, known to Litvinenko, and Dmitry Kovtun, entered the U.K. with polonium on Oct. 16, 2006, and after unsuccessful attempts were able on Nov. 1 of that year to induce Litvinenko to take a few sips of green tea at a hotel bar, according to a British government inquiry.

That night, he became violently ill and died Nov. 23, but not before he helped the Scotland Yard investigation with several hospital interviews. Lugovoi and Kovtun were charged with murder, but extradition was impossible. After a yearlong inquiry ordered by the British government concluded in July 2015, High Court judge Sir Robert Owen released his findings on Jan. 21, 2016.

“I am sure that Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun placed the polonium-210 into the teapot at the Pine Bar and did so with the intention of poisoning Mr. Litvinenko … . I have further concluded that the FSB (the former KGB) operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev, then head of the FSB, and also President Putin.”

Stiny is a freelance journalist and former Journal North reporter.