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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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January 2015

An act of nuclear terrorism...but did it really put thousands at risk?

Amid growing tensions between the UK and Russia, the Alexander Litvinenko case has been hitting the headlines. On Wednesday 28th January national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Mirror, and Independent led with the story that a ‘radioactive trail’ left by the assassins over London meant that “many thousands of members of the public, both British residents and visitors from overseas, might have been at risk from the radioactivity” Robin Tam, QC.

But with quotes like “could have massacred thousands of people” how real was the risk to the general public? How much danger were the capital’s residents and visitors actually in?

We asked nuclear expert Dr John Roberts, Nuclear Fellow at the University of Manchester, about the level of risk posed by polonium-210 (210Po) – the substance used to poison Litvinenko.

“Polonium-210 is an alpha emitter, with a half life of 138 days, and is only dangerous if it somehow gets inside your body, as in the Litvinenko case.” In Dr Roberts opinion, for 210Po to have been a risk it would “require the person to have touched the polonium and then to have maybe licked their finger or some other way of getting the isotope inside their body” and  “just having it in the same room would not kill you.” The risk was mainly to the assassins and the people who handled the mode of delivery- the tea used to poison him.

The lack of casualties from the incident also testifies to the relatively low risk to the general public, as 210Po is highly radioactive and very toxic, so any deaths would have been seen soon after exposure. The half-life of polonium-210 is also very short, meaning that it would burn itself out and lose its potency quickly, much reducing the risk.

Dr Roberts' take home message was that “there was a risk, but it was limited by the fact that the 210Po had to enter the body.” So in reality the risk to the public was lower than these stories suggested.

Image by Pascal (CC BY 2.0)

Fact Check Central

From crime to children’s diets, to global development, to hair loss, facts form part of the arguments, and we often see different facts marshaled in support of different conclusions. We all benefit from lively debates but no-one benefits from reality being misrepresented, or from dismissing things that are true.

Because misleading claims and statistics tend to take on a life of their own, Sense About Science has been correcting simple factual errors in media reports for some years now, with For the Record, which has become a popular place for people to check. But it covers a relatively small range and over the past few years there have been several excellent initiatives in different kinds of fact checking. We’d love to see these used and discussed as widely as possible, and shared so that someone following one knows about the others.

Today we are launching Fact Check Central so that we can all read, search and share fact checking blogs from across the web.

Fact checking isn’t just about separating true from false. Done well, it can give proper context to claims, allow space for deeper understanding, and deflate the rhetoric and bluster that often surrounds controversial issues.

Fact Check Central is a simple, aggregated list of blogs from a selection of fact checking organisations, sorted by topic and in chronological order. We hope that it can become a helpful, single place to see if a story or claim has been – or is being – fact checked, and that you’ll use and share it.

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