Probe of radioactive poison traces its spread in London

The Baltimore Sun

LONDON -- An Italian KGB expert who warned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko that his life might be in danger the day he was poisoned has a "significant quantity" of radioactive polonium-210 in his body, authorities said yesterday.

British health officials also said they had detected a small quantity in a close relative of Litvinenko's, though neither of the new victims has shown signs of illness. The revelations came as police zeroed in on traces of radiation found on British Airways jets that flew between Moscow and London, one of which may have carried suspects transporting the radioactive poison.

Through days of painstaking investigations, police have begun to draw a trail of radiation across London hotels and offices and airline flight manifests that security experts said could pinpoint how the radioactive substance was brought into London and possibly by whom.

Italian academic Mario Scaramella's exposure raises the likelihood that the poison was administered at the sushi restaurant in central London where the two men met briefly Nov. 1 - shortly before Litvinenko became sick - especially since the radiation trail appears to follow Litvinenko's movements across London after that rendezvous.

Scaramella has cooperated in the investigation, and authorities have not identified him as a suspect. After he arrived at London's University College Hospital yesterday wearing a mask, hospital officials said he had been admitted for examination.

"Tests have detected polonium-210 in Mr. Scaramella's body but at a considerably lower level than Mr. Litvinenko. He is currently well and shows no symptoms of radiation poisoning," hospital spokesman Dr. Keith Patterson said.

Scaramella had done exhaustive research into the archives of Vasily Mitrokhin, a KGB major who had defected to the West in 1992, taking numerous secret files with him. He had become acquainted with several former KGB agents, including Litvinenko - who had accused his former colleagues of involvement in several murders and attempted murders, and had obtained political asylum in Britain.

The Italian summoned Litvinenko to the meeting after he came upon an e-mail suggesting that criminals in St. Petersburg were behind the recent murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and were preparing to strike against Litvinenko and Scaramella.

Litvinenko discounted the threat, and the meeting was brief. Scaramella, who had already eaten, had a glass of water. Litvinenko had lunch. He died 22 days later in a London hospital.

There was no diagnosis in Moscow in another possible poisoning. Former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar fell ill suddenly during a conference in Ireland this week and remained hospitalized in Russia.

British police are investigating whether there are any links between the two cases.

After his meeting with Scaramella, Litvinenko met with his former partner in the KGB, Andrei Lugovoi. A Gaidar aide confirmed yesterday that Lugovoi acted as part of Gaidar's security detail in the early 1990s. Lugovoi subsequently left the KGB and became head of security at the Russian television network ORT, and remained friends with Litvinenko.

Lugovoi had traveled to London with his family and a large number of other Russian soccer fans to see a game between Moscow's popular CSKA team and London's Arsenal, according to the Moscow daily Kommersant. A Russian businessman, Dmitry Kovtun, accompanied Lugovoi to the meeting at London's elite Millennium Hotel, where several traces of polonium-210 have reportedly been found.

Litvinenko, who left a deathbed note alleging that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was responsible for his impending death, was convinced that he was poisoned at one of the two meetings but was not sure which, close friend Alex Goldfarb said in an interview.

"He clearly said that he knows it's one of them, but he didn't want to accuse anybody because he would hate to put a shadow on an innocent person," Goldfarb said. He works for a foundation funded by exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, whose offices, visited by Litvinenko after his poisoning, also showed traces of polonium-210.

Another finger pointed at the Russian security services yesterday with a letter to Litvinenko three days before his death from Mikhail Trepashkin, another former agent who is serving time on a charge of revealing state secrets. Trepashkin was the primary source for Litvinenko's book accusing the Russian government of organizing several explosions at apartment buildings across Russia in what became a prelude to the second Chechen war.

Trepashkin said he reported in 2002 that he had met an officer of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, who told him that "a very serious group" had been created that will "be snuffing out everybody connected with Berezovsky and Litvinenko."

He said the man asked for details about Litvinenko's family.

A copy of the letter was provided to the Los Angeles Times by sources in Russia. Goldfarb released a second, similar letter from Trepashkin, written on the day of Litvinenko's death, and called on British authorities to attempt to question Trepashkin.

"He names names," Goldfarb said.

The Guardian newspaper, quoting unidentified British intelligence sources, reported that London police are coming closer to the view that it is probable that "rogue elements" within the Federal Security Service or its former agents were involved in the murder.

It said police are looking closely at five or more men who arrived on the flight with the soccer fans and returned to Moscow afterward.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Radiation and its human hazards


A coroner in Britain formally opened an inquest this week into the death in London of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with a radioactive substance.

An introduction to radiation and why it can be dangerous to humans:

What is radiation?

Radiation is the transfer of energy. There are two basic types of radiation: ionizing radiation (X-rays, infrared light, gamma rays) and non-nuclear emissions (ultraviolet light, microwave radiation, cell phone waves). It is usually only ionizing radiation that concerns health officials.

Why is ionizing radiation dangerous?

Ionizing radiation has the potential to change molecules in living cells, changing their genetic makeup. Substantial change in a cell's genetics might kill it, or its DNA might be altered. Because human cells regularly die and are replaced, this is worrying only if massive amounts of cells are killed. But altering DNA might result in cancer at a later stage.

How are people usually exposed to radiation?

Radiation is naturally present in the environment - in the air, water, food, soil and all living organisms. Most of the radiation absorbed by humans comes from natural environmental sources. People are also exposed to radiation through X-rays taken for medical reasons.

What are the symptoms of radiation sickness?

Radiation can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss and burns. It is also thought that people exposed to large amounts of radiation are more prone to developing cancer.

What constitutes a dangerous dose of radiation?

Radiation is measured in Sieverts, named after Rolf Sievert, a Swedish physicist who worked extensively on radiation doses. Mild radiation sickness can occur with exposure to 0.5 to 1 Sieverts - as little as one-millionth of a gram - and a dose of 80 Sieverts or more is thought to result in immediate death. A dose of four to 10 Sieverts - less than .04 ounces - could cause death in two to four weeks.

How is radiation detected?

A Geiger counter generally is used to detect radiation.

What is polonium?

Polonium is an extremely rare radioactive heavy metal found in uranium. It can also be manufactured artificially in nuclear reactors.

Is polonium dangerous?

As long as polonium does not penetrate the human body, it is not dangerous. Polonium is only lethal when swallowed.

Is it possible that trace amounts of radiation could have been left by Alexander Litvinenko after he was poisoned?

Yes. Theoretically, Litvinenko could have excreted small amounts of polonium through perspiration. Trace amounts of polonium radiation will be detectable on surfaces for approximately 260 days - more than eight months - after it is left.

Is there a public health risk to people who were in areas found with traces of radioactive material?

The public health risk to people who might have come into contact with trace amounts of radioactive material is thought to be extremely low.

Associated Press

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