Polonium Facts

Polonium is a radioactive element.
Polonium is a radioactive element. Steve Taylor/Getty Images

Polonium is a rare radioactive semi-metal or metalloid. The toxic element is believed to have caused the death of former intelligence agent, Alexander Litvinenko, in November 2006.

Polonium is a radioactive element that occurs naturally in the environment at very low levels or can be produced in a nuclear reactor.

Physical Properties of Polonium

Polonium-210 emits alpha particles, which can damage or destroy genetic material inside of cells. Isotopes that emit alpha particles are toxic if they are ingested or inhaled because the alpha particles are very reactive, but polonium isn't absorbed through the skin, nor does the alpha radiation penetrate deeply. Polonium generally is considered toxic only if taken internally (breathing, eating, through an open wound).

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered polonium in 1897. Marie Curie named polonium for her homeland, Poland.

Polonium dissolves readily in dilute acids. Po-210 readily becomes airborne and is soluble enough to circulate through body tissues. Polonium is the only component of cigarette smoke to produce cancer in laboratory animals. The polonium in tobacco is absorbed from phosphate fertilizers. A lethal amount of ingested polonium is 0.03 microcuries, which is a particle weighing 6.8 x 10-12 g (very small).

Pure polonium is a silvery-colored solid.

Mixed or alloyed with beryllium, polonium can be used as a portable neutron source. Polonium is used as a neutron trigger for nuclear weapons, in making photographic plates, and to reduce static charges in industrial applications such as textile mills.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Polonium Facts." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/polonium-facts-606578. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). Polonium Facts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/polonium-facts-606578 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Polonium Facts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/polonium-facts-606578 (accessed June 1, 2023).