For better, for worse

One for the toxicologists and one for the immunologists today: polonium and astatine – the two elements I have struggled with most so far to find something I could work into a design. Both are radioactive – a property that can be harnessed for good or for harm.

Astatine (from the Greek astatos meaning unstable) is found in vanishingly small quantities in the Earth’s crust and was not known until it was synthesised in 1940 by bombarding bismuth with alpha-particles. It has only ever been created in miniscule amounts and decays radioactively, with its most stable isotope having a half-life of just eight hours. Little then is known about its bulk properties, and who would have thought it would find a use? But scientists are exploring ways to utilise its emission of alpha-particles to target cancers, by tagging it to antibodies that recognise and bind to cancer cells.

Polonium, discovered by Marie Sklodowska Curie in 1898 and named after her native Poland, is best known to most as the poison used to murder Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Polonium is highly toxic as a result of its radioactivity and its solubility in water. Once ingested, it spreads easily via the bloodstream and accumulates in soft tissues where the radiation does its damage. Just one microgram is sufficient to kill – undetectable in a cup of tea.

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