Science, Tech, Math › Science Polonium Facts Share Flipboard Email Print Polonium is a radioactive element. Steve Taylor/Getty Images Science Chemistry Periodic Table Basics Chemical Laws Molecules Projects & Experiments Scientific Method Biochemistry Physical Chemistry Medical Chemistry Chemistry In Everyday Life Famous Chemists Activities for Kids Abbreviations & Acronyms Biology Physics Geology Astronomy Weather & Climate By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Chemistry Expert Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of Tennessee at Knoxville B.A., Physics and Mathematics, Hastings College Dr. Helmenstine holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and is a science writer, educator, and consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. our editorial process Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Updated August 12, 2018 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.