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Subspecialties Forensics

Perilous Pathology

In November 2006, Russian fugitive Alexander Litvinenko died of polonium-210 (210Po) poisoning in London, UK. Now, the consultant forensic pathologist on the case has spoken to a public inquiry about his postmortem. “It’s been described as one of the most dangerous postmortems ever undertaken in the western world,” Nathanial Cary said to the Litvinenko Enquiry, “and I think that’s probably right.”

The famous case is thought to be the first documented use of 210Po as a poison, and initially left doctors baffled. The chemical is extremely toxic (over 250,000 times more so than hydrogen cyanide), and the body was so radioactive that it was left in situ for 48 hours after Litvinenko died. Cary told the enquiry that he was tasked with disconnecting the body from various drips and hospital equipment, putting the corpse into a body bag and taking a muscle sample from the right thigh in order to confirm polonium poisoning.

He later carried out a postmortem; all those present wore protective clothing and battery-powered ventilation hoods – a radioactive protection officer was standing by in case anyone collapsed. A second pathology exam was not possible because of the extreme radiation hazard. “In protective clothing, you tend to get quite hot and it would have been a disaster if anyone had fainted or had had some acute medical problem,” Cary told the enquiry.

At the time of the postmortem, Cary concluded, “It is apparent that Mr Litvinenko ingested a large quantity of polonium-210 on or around 1 November 2006, largely, if not wholly, by oral ingestion rather than by inhalation. The calculated amount absorbed was far in excess of known survivability limits.”

Thankfully, this is an extreme example of pathology, but one that demonstrates the far-reaching impact the field can actually have – on criminal investigation and even global politics. The inquiry into Litvinenko’s death continues.

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  1. The Litvinenko Inquiry Hearings, “Pathology and Introductory Scientific Evidence”, (2015). Available at: bit.ly/1DxCxbt. Accessed February 3, 2015.
About the Author
Roisin McGuigan

I have an extensive academic background in the life sciences, having studied forensic biology and human medical genetics in my time at Strathclyde and Glasgow Universities. My research, data presentation and bioinformatics skills plus my ‘wet lab’ experience have been a superb grounding for my role as an Associate Editor at Texere Publishing. The job allows me to utilize my hard-learned academic skills and experience in my current position within an exciting and contemporary publishing company.

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