10 Worst Cases of Radiation Poisoning

Did Yassar Arafat die of exposure? Marie Curie and the victims at Hiroshima did.

ByABC News
November 7, 2013, 10:12 AM
Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist famous for her work on radioactivity.
Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist famous for her work on radioactivity.
Forum/UIG/Getty Images

Nov. 7, 2013— -- intro: This week, former Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat's death was in the news in a case of suspected radiation poisoning. Swiss scientists announced they had found 18 times the normal levels of polonium in Yasser Arafat's rib, pelvis and in soil stained with his decaying organs, concluding that he was poisoned.

Radiation was not discovered until the late 19th century and its dangers were not immediately known. In 1896, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla intentionally subjected his fingers to X-rays and published findings that burns developed.

In 1927, American geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller published research showing genetic effects of radiation, and in 1946 he was awarded the Nobel prize.

Radiation poisoning is rare, but deadly. Polonium-210 (P-210) is a high-energy alpha emitter with a radioactive half-life of 138 days. It is only a hazard if it is ingested, because of the low range of alpha particles in biological tissues. As a result, external contamination does not cause radiation sickness, according to a 2007 report in the Journal of Radiologic Protection. But taken internally, the poison can be fatal within one month.

Polonium's effect, known as "acute radiation syndrome," first causes nausea, vomiting, anorexia and diarrhea. After a latent phase, victims experience hair loss and bone marrow failure and, if they do not recover, die within weeks to months.

History reveals other frightening cases of radiation poisoning caused by ignorance, industrial disasters and even criminal intent.

quicklist: 1title: Physicist Marie Curie

text: Polish-born and French-naturalized Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes for discovering polonium and radium. At the turn of the 20th century, doctors and industries marketed products like radium enemas and water tonics.

Marie Curie spoke out against treatments, warning that the effects of radiation on the human body were not well understood. In 1934 she died of aplastic anemia caused by radiation poisoning, according to her obituary in The New York Times.

She often carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer. She reportedly liked the blue-green light that the radiation gave off in the dark.

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quicklist: 2title: Midori Naka at Hiroshima

text: An estimated 200,000 people died in nuclear bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The first person to be extensively studied for what was then called "atomic bomb disease" was the Japanese actress Midori Naka, who was present in Hiroshima in 1945.

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quicklist: 3title: Eben Byers

text: Eben Byers, a 51-year-old Pennsylvania steel manufacturer and golf champion, brought attention to the dangers of radiation when he died in 1932 after consuming large amounts of the so-called cure, "radium water," according to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

His physiotherapist recommended the product Radithor for arm pain and fatigue.

Each bottle contained one microgram of radium and one microgram of esothorium mixed with triple distilled water to drink after every meal.

But Byers lost weight, had headaches and began to suffer bone necrosis in his jaw, losing several teeth. He dropped weight and suffered severe headaches.

The company that made Radithor was investigated for false and misleading advertising, but Byers' doctor maintained he had died of gout.

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quicklist: 4title: Cecil Kelley

text: An industrial accident at the Los Alamos, N.M., plutonium-processing plant took the life of experienced chemical operator Cecil Kelley in 1958.

He had an excruciating death after being exposed to a lethal dose of neutrons and gamma rays from a mixing tank. When he switched on the stirrer, the liquid formed a vortex and the plutonium layer was released in a pulse that lasted only 200 microseconds.

Kelley fell to the floor and screamed, "I'm burning up," according to reports from the American Federation of Scientists.

At first, he was mentally incapacitated, but on arrival at the local medical center he came to and began vomitting and hyperventilating. His skin turned reddish purple, indicating he had little oxygen in his blood.

He improved briefly, but then developed severe abdominal pains, sweat profusely, developed an irregular pulse and, 35 hours after the accident, Kelley died.

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quicklist: 5title: Hiroshi Couchi

text: Japan's worst nuclear radiation accident took place in 1999 at a uranium reprocessing facility in Tokaimura. Three workers were exposed to radiation after a uranyl nitrate solution exceeded the critical mass. Three workers were exposed to high doses of radiation, according to the 2008 book "Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness."

One, Hiroshi Ouchi, was taken to the University of Tokyo Hospital Emergency Room and died two and a half months later. At first, he could talk, but his condition gradually got worse as the radioactivity broke down the chromosomes in his cells.

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quicklist: 6title: Alexander Litvinenko

text:Former K.G.B. agent Alexander Litvinenko was living in political asylum in Britain in 2006 when he unexplainably became ill and died in the hospital three weeks later. An autopsy showed that his tea had been spiked with a lethal dose of polonium-210. Just before his death, he accused the Russian government of masterminding the poisoning.

According to The New York Times, his death created "one of the most stirring dramas of espionage since the cold war." Russia's relations with Britain suffered and diplomats on each side were expelled.

British authorities blamed the murder on Andrei K. Lugovoi, a former K.G.B. bodyguard who is now a member of the Russian Parliament. But the Russians refused to extradite him.

Lugovoi has accused the British secret intelligence agency, MI6, and a self-exiled Russian tycoon, Boris A. Berezovsky, of organizing the killing.

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quicklist: 7title: Harry K. Daghlian, Jr

text: A 1945 accident in Los Alamos, N.M., took the life of Armenian-American physicist Harry K. Daghlian, Jr., who was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. He was attempting to build a neutron reflector by manually stacking a series of tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium core. Moving the final block into position, neutron counters warned that it would render the system supercritical. He accidentally dropped the brick causing setting off a nuclear reaction and in the process sustained a lethal dose of neutron radiation. He died 25 days later.

The top-secret Manhattan Project took the lives of several scientists, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

In 1944, a group of engineers were working on an experimental facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard when, without warning, it exploded, send a cloud of radioactive uranium hexafluoride over the facility.

Killed were engineer Peter Newport Bragg Jr., who was unclogging a tube as part of the mission to perfect the thermal diffusion process for the enrichment of uranium. His co-worker, Douglas Meigs, was also killed. Their work was crucial to the development of the first atomic bomb.

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quicklist: 8title: Louis P. Slotin

text: In 1946, Canadian scientist Louis P. Slotin died in another Manhattan Project experiment in Los Alamos, N.M. He was exposed to deadly gamma and neutron radiation that flashed in a blue blaze. Slotin was exposed to almost 1,000 rads of radiation, far more than his six other colleagues who survived.

Little more than a week later, he died in the hospital after experiencing severe diarrhea and diminished urine, swollen hands, redness on his body, massive blisters on hands and forearms, paralysis of intestinal activity, gangrene and a "total disintegration of bodily functions."

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quicklist: 9title: Chernobyl Disaster

text: In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union exploded causing tens of thousands of deaths, a number that has never been fully determined.

The official death toll was 31 from acute radiation syndrome, but associated cancers, heart disease and birth defects have been associated with the accident.

The operating crew was planning to test whether the turbines could produce sufficient energy to keep the coolant pumps running in the event of a loss of power until the emergency diesel generator was activated.

Safety systems were deliberately shut off and the reactor had to be powered down. But when the level fell to less than 1 percent and it needed to be increased, there was an unexpected power surge, according to Green Peace The emergency shutdown failed, causing a violent explosion.

The accident released more radiation than the bombing of Hiroshima.

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quicklist: 10title: K-19 Submarine

text: The Soviet submarine, the first of two to carry nuclear ballistic missiles, saw its reactor "go haywire" in 1961. It developed a leak in its reactor coolant system causing temperatures to rise dangerously high.

Captain Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev sent seven crew members to their deaths in a heroic struggle to save the boat.

The reactor did not explode but these men died in agony of radiation poisoning, "begging their shipmates to kill them," according to a 1994 report in the Los Angeles Times.

The entire boat submarine was contaminated and within a few years 20 more men were dead.

The fate of the submarine and its crewmembers was secret until after the break up of the Soviet Union when the newspaper Pravda revealed that radiation had killed many members of the crew.

The accident was the subject of the 2002 movie, "K-19: The Widowmaker."

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