Traces of radiation linked to the poisoning death of a former KGB agent turned up Monday at two more sites in London, and three people who showed symptoms of contamination were being tested for the deadly toxin. The government has ordered a formal inquest into the death.
Britain’s Home Secretary John Reid appealed for calm, saying the tests on the three people were only a precaution. High doses of polonium-210 — a rare radioactive element usually manufactured in specialized nuclear facilities — were found in the body of Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-spy turned Kremlin critic who died Thursday at a London hospital.
“The nature of this radiation is such that it does not travel over long distances, a few centimeters at most, and therefore there is no need for public alarm,” Reid said in a special address to the House of Commons.
Litvinenko, 43, died of heart failure Thursday after falling ill from what doctors said was polonium-210 poisoning. The substance is deadly if ingested or inhaled.
Six sites showed traces of radiation linked to the poisoning, including a bar in London’s Millennium Hotel, a branch of Itsu Sushi near Piccadilly Circus, Litvinenko’s house in North London and a section of the hospital where he was treated when he fell ill on Nov. 1. Two other sites — an office block in London’s west end and an address in the posh neighborhood of Mayfair — also showed traces of radiation, according to residents.
All the locations except Litvinenko’s home are in west London, separated by about a mile.
The sushi restaurant and part of the hospital have been closed for decontamination.
Low public health risk
Of hundreds of people who called a hot line over concerns they may be at risk, three exhibited symptoms that health officials thought should be examined, said Katherine Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Health Protection Agency. She refused to elaborate.
Derek Hill, an expert in radiological science at the University College London, said the public health risk was low.
Although an autopsy has not started yet because of concerns over radioactivity, an inquest into his death could begin as early as Thursday, according to Matt Cornish, a spokesman for Camden Council. The local government body oversees the North London Coroner’s Court. The opening is a legal formality, and such inquests are almost always adjourned immediately, sometimes for months.
Coroner’s inquests in Britain are meant to determine the cause of death but they sometimes cast blame.
British officials have avoided blaming Moscow for the Litvinenko’s death but emergency talks continued Monday and the issue threatened to overshadow negotiations over energy and Russia’s cooperation on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In the strongest comments leveled at Moscow since Litvinenko’s death, Cabinet minister Peter Hain on Sunday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of presiding over “huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy” and said that relations between London and Moscow were at a difficult stage.
Earlier 'murky murder'
Hain said Putin’s tenure had been clouded by incidents “including an extremely murky murder of the senior Russian journalist” Anna Politkovskaya. Litvinenko had been investigating her murder.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
Reid, responding to opposition demands for an explanation of how the deadly polonium-210 came to be in Britain, said the radioactive element is strictly regulated and is used by about 130 sites in Britain. He did not elaborate.
“There has been no recent report of the loss or theft of a polonium-210 source in England or Wales,” Reid said.
Litvinenko told police he believed he was poisoned Nov. 1 while investigating the October slaying of Politkovskaya, another critic of Putin’s government. The ex-spy was moved to intensive care last week after his hair fell out, his throat became swollen and his immune and nervous systems suffered severe damage.
London’s Metropolitan Police said they were investigating it as a “suspicious death” rather than murder. They have not ruled out the possibility that Litvinenko may have poisoned himself.