Sunanda murder: Was it really Polonium 210 or something else?

The Sunanda murder case, if we may call it so yet, has taken a number of sharp turns in the past one year. But the biggest and the hardest to believe was the murder angle. The evidences pointed to a well-planned cold-blooded murder, true; and the forensic reports, which suggest murder through poisoning fits with the marks found on her body.

But Polonium 210? rings an alarm and floods our minds with a torrent of questions that suggest otherwise.

Sunanda Pushkar

Polonium 210- Dangerous

Polonium-210 is highly radioactive in nature and emits gamma particles that can travel through walls with high energy. Even when it decays, it emits alpha particles that are still dangerous, but travel shorter distances and cannot penetrate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (PDF), it takes 138 days for half of a given quantity of Polonium 210 to decay. But if injected in a body, it would take 50 days to decay and disappear inside the body.

The substance can be easily carried through eating or drinking contaminated things, breathing contaminated air, or inhaling or ingesting bodily fluids from someone contaminated with it. A wound can also become contaminated.

Cham Dallas, a professor and toxicologist at the University of Georgia's Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense said,"Radiation, just like with any toxic chemical, is related to dose." "If you get a big dose, then you'll die sooner," he further added.

Conclusion: There could be two possibilities: One Sunanda had already been injected in her body a few weeks ago (mark the injection mark on her wrist) or she was administered huge quantities (which could be an amount less than the size of single speck of pepper) at a time that led to a sudden multiple organ failure.

[Sunanda "murder" - Police need to dump the science and get back to basics]


How it works?

Nuclear and medical experts believe that if polonium is ingested, then 50 to 90% of the substance will exit through body faeces. Whatever is left will enter the blood stream. About 45% of polonium ingested gets into the spleen, kidneys and liver, and 10% is deposited in the bone marrow.

As the kidney and the spleen damage ensue, the poisoning takes shape like that of last stage of cancer which include hair loss, extreme nausea and diarrhea. The alpha particles emitted from the decaying substance get absorbed in the body, which is what causes harm. Death may come in a matter of days, sometimes weeks.


Conclusion: None of the above-mentioned symptoms were shown by Sunanda, which rules out the possibility of Polonium. However, on second thoughts, what if she was administered the substance then and there, would she get the time to show these symptoms? Moreover, if the substance takes minimum 50 days to decay, it means it could have been detected had the viscera been sent for forensic lab testing immediately after her death.

[Why Sunanda murder case investigators have a herculean task ahead of them]

But, isn't it contageous and rare?

The radioactive substance is very contageous and is bound to affect the person carrying it, unless precaustions are taken. Since dangerous, it is rare too and can only be bought if one had top political and defence sources that may have contacts with countries producing nuclear power. Consider this, it is also rare and is manufactured by two Russian nuclear reactors only that too just 4 ounces a year. This is very tightly regulated and would be virtually impossible for a layman to have access to it.

Conclusion: It may not be Polonium afterall, but could be a combination of deadly substances as mentioned by the AIIMS doctors. Who will take the risk of smuggling this contageous substance without anyone knowing. Wouldn't that involve a lot of money?

On second thoughts, should the government be concerned, if anything of this sort might have happened?

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Yasser Arafat and Alexander Litvinenko remain a mystery; so may Sunanda

There are earlier high profile instances of suspected Polonum-210 poisoning-one Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the other a former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. Both died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances. Though the symptoms they showed could be linked to Polonium poisoning, but there was no way to prove it.



Known as the 'Ideal POison', Polonium is fast and leaves no trail. It's investigation too is tedious and is time-bound. While there are instruments that can detect low Polonium, almost to the background level which is present naturally. So, if a body is exumed after a year of investigation, there might not be any traces of it at all as was the case with Yasser Arafat. Here, we have Sunanda's year-old viscera only.

Contamination of evidence is also very easy with a small amount of the substance, Dallas said.

"So it's possible that someone could have planted small amounts of polonium-210 in Arafat's belongings" he said. "High levels were found by a team of Swiss researchers at the Institut de Radiophysique. Even through exhuming the body, it's not clear that detection would be foolproof, Dallas said. As time goes on, there's less and less of the radioactive substance left, so it would be more and more difficult to tell how much polonium-210 Arafat was exposed to, if any," he further added.

"It's going to be very hard to determine whether polonium was ever introduced there. There will be a lot of dispute, I guess, depending on who is incriminated by this," he concludes.

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