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Home News centre National Press Releases 2007 Press Releases ›  Public health response to the polonium-210 incident

Public health response to the polonium-210 incident

19 September 2007

The poisoning of Mr Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London in November 2006 had political consequences internationally and presented the Health Protection Agency with some unique public health challenges. Professor Pat Troop, Chief Executive of the Agency, will open a session on the response to the incident at the HPA conference at Warwick University today and give a keynote address on how it was handled.

Chief Executive Professor Pat Troop said, "The detection of the polonium-210 that killed Alexander Litvinenko is a tribute to British medicine and science, and to police detective work. I am particularly proud of the Agency's response to the unique public health challenges the incident posed. We rapidly established a monitoring scheme for people and places and this was the scientific evidence base for all our public health advice. This gave the public great confidence in our advice."

The Agency had to adapt its emergency plans for the particular circumstances of the incident and had first to establish monitoring schemes for people and places. The extent of contamination by polonium-210 had to be measured as a priority and information from the Metropolitan Police provided an indication of where monitoring had to take place. Two hospitals and their healthcare staff were also a major priority and close co-operation with Westminster City Council was also needed because the Agency had to monitor people at a variety of hotels, restaurants and offices.

The monitoring of people in the UK will be described. Nearly 800 people were offered monitoring to check levels of polonium in their bodies. Of these, 139 showed evidence of contact with polonium and levels in 17 people were relatively elevated and warranted further monitoring. The people with elevated levels included hotel workers and a member of Mr Litvinenko's family.

Because contamination was found in hotels and other public places in London frequented by tourists, there was a significant international dimension to the monitoring programme. Also at the conference, Dr Charles Miller from the CDC in Atlanta will describe how the United States organised its monitoring effort and some of the challenges it posed for health authorities there.

Two presentations will be given on the particular challenges posed by monitoring places for alpha radiation produced by polonium-210. A wide variety of locations had to be monitored, including some commercial aeroplanes and the Arsenal's Emirates Football stadium. Speed and good communications were necessary so that decisions on public access to areas could be made safely and speedily.


Notes for Editors:

  1. The Health Protection Agency ' s Annual Conference takes place at Warwick University from 17 to 19 September. Further information can be found at the conference website at

  2. The conference press office can be contacted each day of the conference on 07976 245633 or 07884 265449

Last reviewed: 29 December 2008