Polonium-210 poisoning: do medical toxicologists really know what to do?

July 3, 2010, 5:04 pm

The Polonium-210 Public Health Assessment: The Need for Medical Toxicology Expertise in Radiation Terrorism Events. Nemhauser JB J Med Toxicol [published online 25 May 2010]

No abstract available

★★☆☆☆

Although July has just begun, this paper has a good chance of ending up the most disappointing of the month.

Since the 2006 poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London with polonium-210 — an event that exposed other individuals and  several public places to that radioactive isotope — health authorities have been interested in ways of managing such exposures, whether occurring through simple dispersion or a so-called “dirty bomb”.  There are many difficult questions that have to be answered following such events: whom do you screen? how do you screen them? who needs treatment? what are the best interventions?

I had hoped this article would address some of these questions and at least suggest possible solutions.  Unfortunately, the author does no such thing. He merely states — multiple times and without any justification — that medical toxicologists have the training and expertise to assume an key role in managing victims of radiological contamination. Would that it were so, but I think that as a group medical toxicologists do not have the highly specialized training in radiation medicine needed in these situations.  Perhaps they should receive such training, but the author makes no suggestions about what this would entail and how it would be funded.  Certainly an important question, but one that this paper blithely ignores.

To read my Emergency Medicine News column on polonium-210 and the Litvinenko poisoning, click here.

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