The radioactive substance that killed the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko is contained in products including an anti-static brush used in photographic darkrooms.
Though not present in a form that can be readily administered as a poison, small quantities of polonium-210 are contained in products including the Staticmaster Ionising Brush range.
The Staticmaster Ionising Brush is designed to remove dust – and the static-electric charge that attracts it – from photographic films, lenses and filters.
The range is stocked by photo stores – including Calumet in the United States – and the product is available to buy on the internet auction site eBay this morning for just a couple of pounds. The product is not sold by Calumet in the UK.
Commenting on the news, a US-based photographer told AP: ?I have polonium-210, lots of photographers have it and you may have it yourself.? He added: ?Polonium-210 is the active substance in Staticmaster anti-static brushes which almost anyone with a darkroom used to have. They are still sold without any restrictions. You could order all you want from New York City mail-order photo dealers.?
The brushes can also be useful for cleaning scanners and compact discs, according to the product?s maker NRD LLC which is based in New York.
The maker?s website confirms that its ?alpha ioniser static eliminators? contain a small amount of ?radioactive material? as a ?sealed source?. The company stresses that before sale its products must pass ?safety analysis and a battery of tests mandated by state and federal agencies?.
Polonium-210 is a naturally occurring substance which emits a form of energy called ?alpha? energy. Alpha particles collide with air molecules, stripping electrons and neutralising negative and positive static charges. No external energy source is required for the process to work.
To remain effective the Staticmaster cartridge must be replaced each year.
The US photographer, who preferred not to be named, claimed: ?If the FSB [the former KGB] wanted to poison someone with polonium-210 they would only have to go to? any of the big photo dealers and buy a bunch of brushes or, even better, the refill cartridges. The polonium could be removed and powdered quite easily.?
NRD?s technology has also been used in areas including smoke detection, space exploration and physics research. ?NRD has been manufacturing and distributing alpha ionisers for over 30 years and during that time the only instances of contamination were when the integrity of an ioniser was compromised by physical abuse, such as drilling a hole through it or cutting it,? explained the company.
Addressing the public health concerns that followed the death of the Litvinenko, NHS Direct says: ?The Health Protection Agency wants to reassure members of the public that the risk of having been exposed to this substance remains low. It can only represent a radiological hazard if it taken into the body ? by breathing it in, by taking it into the mouth or if it gets into a wound. It is not a radiation hazard as long as it remains outside the body. Most traces of it can be eliminated through handwashing, or washing machine and dishwasher cycles for clothes, plates and so on.?