Peddling Poison

The radioactive poison that was used to kill former Russian KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko is apparently available online—and on the cheap. United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, which aims to "put the 'fun' back into science," according to its Web site, sells 0.1 microcurie of the substance for just $69, plus shipping and handling (a microcurie is a measurement of radiation). The Albuquerque, N.M.-based company says it has supplied radioactive materials to businesses, government agencies, school teachers and "the science hobbyist" since 1998—and assures customers that they run no risk of being tipped off to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Is it time to panic? Now that traces of radiation were found on two British Airways jets Wednesday, has polonium 210 become the new anthrax? The radioactive element turns out to be a fairly common substance that is used, in minute quantities, in fire detectors, spark plugs, antistatic devices, photo-developing equipment and many industrial processes. It's released in cigarette smoke and produced by natural uranium decay in soil. Our own bodies even produce tiny amounts in tissue. And now polonium is readily available to anybody with a Web browser and a little ready cash.

The polonium Web site is the work of Bob Lazar, the head and owner of United Nuclear Scientific Supplies. He is no stranger to oddball publicity. He attracted national attention in the late 1980s when he claimed to have worked on crashed alien spaceships at a U.S. military base in Nevada. In 2003, federal agents raided his firm because they believed its chemicals could be used to make explosives; Lazar and the firm have been involved in two federal lawsuits over those claims. In October, Lazar settled a civil case by agreeing to halt the sale of chemical components the Feds said could be used to manufacture "illegal and potentially deadly explosives." Lazar didn't return messages left at United Nuclear's office in Albuquerque. (The answering machine said that the offices were closed due to "unexpected weather.") Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, says the firm's previous troubles don't have anything to do with the current polonium issue.

Before you dive under the bed, it may be helpful to know that it's actually difficult to get a lethal dose of polonium 210. This isotope of the element emits radioactivity in the form of alpha particles, which can't penetrate paper let alone human skin. And it has a half-life of 138 days, which means a fresh sample decays into lead in only a few months. To be fatal, polonium must be ingested by swallowing or inhalation, in which case it can cause lung cancer or bone failure. (That's what experts believe happened to Litvinenko , whose Nov. 23 death was linked to a "major dose.")

Although the ready availability of a substance as toxic as polonium 210 can't be a good thing, Lazar's Web site appears to be perfectly legal. NEWSWEEK was unable to obtain independent confirmation that the substance being sold was indeed polonium, but United Nuclear says it sells only miniscule 0.1 microcurie doses—about 30,000 times below the toxic dose for a person weighing about 150 pounds, and probably not nearly enough to kill, say, a spy . And each dose comes encased in a foil shell that is insoluble and inert in most chemicals. In this sealed form, the polonium will not be absorbed if swallowed, and therefore, "it's not a health hazard," says David McIntyre, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). "You would need about 15,000 of our Polonium 210 needle sources at a total cost of about $1 million to have a toxic amount," says a recent statement on United Nuclear's Web site. All the isotopes the company sells, according to the statement, are so small the NRC permits their sale without a license.

Even if a "hobbyist" went as far as to order thousands of units from Lazar's Web site, he would run up against the NRC regulation that restricts sales to 10 units per customer. If this restriction were circumvented, you'd still need to convert the polonium from its capsule form into a powder or liquid, which would require some pretty tricky chemistry. And even then, you'd need an awful lot of capsules—between 50 and 90 percent of the polonium would pass through the gastrointestinal tract and leave the body harmlessly, according to the Health Physics Society , a nonprofit group dedicated to radiation safety. Acquiring enough polonium to poison somebody, and finding a way to administer it, still requires skill and knowledge that few people have. "It's a pretty James Bond-ish way to kill someone," says Dr. Oscar Streeter, a radiation oncology professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "If you really wanted to harm someone, polonium is not the easiest way to do it."

What should we make of Bob Lazar? His hilltop property in Albuquerque is reportedly adorned with a sign that says, WARNING: TRESPASSERS WILL BE USED FOR SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENTS. The NRC has seen United Nuclear's Web site, says McIntyre, but doesn't plan on investigating.