updated 3/7/2007 6:08:20 PM ET 2007-03-07T23:08:20

The U.S. Embassy on Wednesday confirmed that two American women have been hospitalized in Moscow for possible thallium poisoning.

An embassy spokesman identified the women as Marina Kovalevsky and her daughter, Yana, but gave no other details. He said they were hoping to return home soon, but it was not immediately clear when they might be able to do so.

The hospital where they have been treated since falling ill on Feb. 24 said they were in moderately serious condition. Moscow’s top public health doctor, Nikolai Filatov, was quoted by the RIA-Novosti news agency as saying that thallium poisoning had been confirmed.

The Interfax news agency, citing unidentified medical authorities, later reported the women were discharged from the hospital Wednesday morning and left for the United States in the afternoon. The U.S. Embassy and a hospital spokeswoman would not comment on the report.

Russian news reports said both women are Soviet-born and emigrated to the United States in 1989, and that they have visited Russia repeatedly since then. The reports say they arrived in Moscow in mid-February to attend a wedding.

Dr. Arkady Stern, who works at Kovalevsky’s private medical practice in the Los Angeles area, was quoted by The New York Times as saying Kovalevsky left in “perfectly good health” and had been due back at work on Feb. 26. Arkady did not immediately return calls seeking further comment. A nurse who answered the phone at Kovalevsky’s practice refused to comment.

How they may have ingested the poison — a colorless, tasteless substance that can be fatal in doses of as little as one gram — was not clear.

Business, political ties unclear
There was no indication of whether the women had business or political interests in Russia that could have made them a target for poisoning.

Thallium has the reputation as a poison of choice for assassins.

Russian authorities are investigating when and how the women were exposed to the poison, the spokesman said, declining to be identified because of embassy rules.

Moscow police had no comment, but Ekho Moskvy radio said they were investigating cafes and restaurants in the area of the hotel where the women had been staying.

News reports said two women were given an antidote called Prussian Blue to counteract the effects of thallium and had undergone dialysis to help clean their bodies of toxins.

Thallium was initially suspected in last year’s fatal poisoning in London of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was later determined to have ingested the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210.

Slow process
For poisoning purposes, thallium would be in a powdery or crystallized state. The poison works by knocking out the body’s supply of potassium, essential for healthy cells, and attacking the nervous system, the stomach and kidneys.

Its effects are not immediately noticeable and frequently take weeks to kick in; symptoms include hair loss and a burning sensation in extremities.

Thallium has been used in rat poison in the past, and it is still used to make lenses, semiconductors, dyes and pigments.

Thallium was used by Saddam Hussein, who poisoned several of his Iraqi opponents. The CIA also reportedly considered using thallium against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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