The couple recently exposed near Salisbury reportedly had high concentrations of Novichok on their fingers. How did it get there—and why will it be so hard to decontaminate the town?by Robert Chilcott / July 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
A man and a woman were found unconscious in Wiltshire, England, on June 30, after having been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok [the woman, Dawn Sturgess, has since died in hospital]. This is the same substance that was used to poison the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March.
The second incidence of poisonings has reignited fear and speculation about the substance. According to Google, there has been a huge increase in the search term “Novichok half life.”
Half life is a term commonly used to describe the amount of time it takes for half of the atoms of radioactive poisons such as polonium to disintegrate. Polonium is what killed the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
But how are nerve agents different from radioactive materials and what does that mean for how we clean up and treat victims after these incidents?
Atoms in radioactive materials have unstable nuclei, meaning they can split up (decay to a stable state) by giving off nuclear radiation.
Some types of radiation are harmful only if the substance is inhaled or ingested, while other types can penetrate and damage human tissue even if the material is external to the body.
Ultimately radiation damages cells, affecting their ability to divide normally. Large doses can cause acute radiation poisoning, which can kill you very quickly as the organs in the body stop functioning.
Smaller doses have the potential to damage DNA over time, causing cancer decades after the exposure.
Radioactive substances can have very long half lives, from seconds up to several billion years (for uranium-238). The polonium that killed Litvinenko had a half life of 138 days.
This means that it would stay in the environment for several years. While half of the atoms may have decayed after 138 days, it would be another 138 for half of that to decay, and so forth.
How long does Novichok remain dangerous?
We can apply the term “half life” to nerve agents too, although this would relate to its rate of loss from the environment due to the action of wind, rain, sunlight and bacteria rather than the rate of atomic decay. For VX, the amount present will diminish by about 50 per cent…