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As a British inquiry finds Russian President Vladimir Putin "probably" approved the assassination of spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko, take a look at polonium-210, the rare, radioactive element used in his poisoning.

What is polonium-210?

A rare, naturally occurring, highly radioactive element that is said to be a trillion times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide.

An 80-kilogram person would die from just a 0.000001g drop, which is no larger than a speck of dust.

It was discovered in 1898 by Polish scientist Marie Curie - who named it after her homeland - during her research into uranium.

As uranium atoms decay into other atoms, it eventually ends up as lead but with polonium as a stop on the way.

Midi Swing Loose 2 Floral Black Flare Casual Sleeve Print Elastic Women's AVTOSRNO Wrinkle Long Dress Because of the decay, polonium atoms are continually being formed and decomposed.

It does not naturally accumulate in significant amounts, with a half-life of 138 days.

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How does it kill a person?

Once ingested, polonium is rapidly distributed around the body, leaving a trail of reactive radicals in its wake.

The element steals electrons from any molecule it encounters, the Royal Society of Chemistry said on its website.

It breaks apart the chemical bonds in living cells and strikes the DNA.

In low levels it can cause genetic changes that affect cell replication, a high dose will cause cells to die.

Who has died from polonium poisoning?

In 2006, Russian spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko died an agonising death after drinking green tea laced with polonium-210.

Starting with diarrhoea and vomiting, his hair then fell out and his immune system broke down, dying three weeks after the poisoning in a west London hotel.

A British inquiry found today that ex-KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun placed the poison and Russian President Vladimir Putin "probably" approved his assassination.

In 1956, Curie's scientist daughter Irene Joliot-Curie died from leukaemia that she believed was contracted from a laboratory accident a decade previously, when a sealed capsule of polonium exploded.

In 2013, traces of polonium were initially found in the exhumed remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

However French experts later ruled out poisoning, and instead suggested he died of natural causes.

How it is made and used?

Today, polonium can be artificially made by bombarding atoms of the metal bismuth-209 with neutrons in a nuclear reactor.

It can be transported using glass or paper, and it is feasible to smuggle a tiny amount.

It was used in Russian lunar landers to keep the craft's instruments warm and can also be used to eliminate static electricity in machinery.

Sources: Royal Society of Chemistry, Reuters, Royal Australian Chemical Institute.

Topics: science-and-technology, food-poisoning, health, australia

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