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NBC Insider The Irrational

A Closer Look at the Rare Poison at the Center of The Irrational's Deadly Case

Real-life former Russian intelligence officer and whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko is often cited as the man who solved his own murder after being poisoned with polonium-210.

By Jax Miller

It was a supercharged investigation on The Irrational after a successful journalist approached Alec Mercer (Jesse L. Martin), announcing that she wanted help in solving her own murder.

How to Watch

Watch The Irrational on NBC and Peacock

The hard-landing assertion rings familiar to the real-life case of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian intelligence-agent-turned-dissident who helped British investigators find his suspected assassins before succumbing to his probable state-sanctioned poisoning.

A poisoned journalist on The Irrational

In Season 1, Episode 2's "Dead Woman Walking", FBI agent and Alec's ex-wife Marisa (Maahra Hill) was tasked with finding who possibly poisoned journalist C.J. Wright (Amy Aquino). C.J., having previously covered the high-profile poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko for The Herald, explained to Mercer that she was sick and recognized the symptoms as polonium-210 poisoning, driving the statement home by showing Mercer her sudden hair loss.

“Polonium-210. As in radioactive, highly-toxic, used to kill that Russian spy?” Mercer wondered.

Alec Mercer and Cj standing face to face having a conversation.

C.J. believes she’s the target of assassination for investigating a Belarusian oligarch named Maxim, a former K.G.B. agent with ties to the Russian mob and “the kind of guy who would have access to polonium-210,” according to Mercer. Together, Alec and C.J. work under the theory that someone poisoned her during a lunch with Maxim’s former employee-turned-whistleblower, Yuri, at The Fairmont Hotel.

In Mercer’s office, C.J. wondered if perhaps Yuri was the intended target and C.J. just “collateral damage,” a notion she raised just before collapsing. However, spoiler alert, by the end of the episode Alec and his team discover that it was actually her writing assistant who was the culprit and attempted to kill her.

What is polonium-210?

Polonium-210 is an isotope of the natural, yet highly radioactive element polonium, founded by famed physicist Marie Curie and her husband in the late 1800s. (The name “polonium” is named after Curie’s home country, Poland, and its discovery helped her win the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry). It is one of the rarest elements in the world.

Low levels of polonium-210 are virtually harmless, naturally found in soil and groundwater, as well as in seafood and tobacco, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is one of multiple radioactive materials from radon-222 decay, the latter of which is the product of uranium decay. While polonium-210 is naturally found in the earth’s crust, it can also be artificially manufactured in nuclear plants and particle accelerators (as was the case for the poison used to kill Litvinenko, traced back to an intelligence lab in Sarov, Russia, as published by The Guardian).

In smaller doses, the long-term and carcinogenic effects of polonium-210 (exposure) can increase the likelihood of having lung cancer, as seen in cigarette smoking. However, high levels entering the human body via consumption, inhalation, or broken skin can have deadly results.

In mass, polonium-210 is about 250 billion times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, according to Medical News Today. An estimated one gram could have the potential of killing 50 million people and ailing 50 million more.

Alec Mercer standing up and looking at Rizwan and Phoebe.

Polonium poisoning (contamination, as opposed to exposure) would have the same side effects as radiation poisoning, which alters genetic makeup and can destroy internal organs, bone marrow, as well as the gastroenterological, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. Death can occur within minutes, depending on the dose.

Symptoms could include nausea and vomiting, anxiety, and hair loss. According to Medical News Today, damage caused by radiation becomes irreversible once it starts affecting the central nervous system, leading to coma and death.

It is a rare method of poisoning, though it has been occasionally used as a means of assassination, most notably with Litvinenko and possibly the unrelated 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“As a murder weapon, polonium is so rare, doctors don’t even know to look for it,” Mercer tells Marisa in The Irrational. “Litvinenko himself never knew what happened to him.”

Scholars believe accidental exposure to polonium-210 also led to the death of Marie Curie’s daughter, Irene, who died in 1956 of leukemia.  

Who was Alexander Litvinenko and how did he inspire The Irrational?

Polonium-210 poisoning is synonymous with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, often cited as the Russian spy who solved his own murder. Litvinenko was a former counterintelligence agent for the Soviet Union’s K.G.B. [later, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation [F.S.B.]). On November 3, 2006, he walked into a London hospital and stated he was poisoned two days earlier by “dangerous people.”

Litvinenko presented symptoms of violent vomiting and diarrhea, pain, and exhaustion, and later, his hair began inexplicably falling out, and his bone marrow began to degenerate. Organ failure and a series of heart attacks would follow in the coming weeks.

Cj wearing a black and beige hate while staring out into the distance.

According to a 2016 public inquiry, medical professionals found themselves in “unchartered territory” as they scrambled to identify what was killing Litvinenko, first administering Prussian Blue for suspected radioactive thallium poisoning. Polonium was detected, though because of how rare it was, experts mistakenly copped it to a false positive from the container storing Litvinenko’s urine sample.

On November 23, 2006, mere hours before he died during a final heart attack, doctors confirmed polonium-210 toxicity.

Like The Irrational’s C.J. Wright, Litvinenko worked with investigators as he lay dying on his hospital bed, claiming to be poisoned while drinking tea at the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar in London just days before presenting symptoms. But unlike the real story, C.J. actually survived her poisoning.

The public inquiry revealed Russian F.S.B. agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun spiked Litvinenko’s tea, acting on orders “probably approved” by Russian President and former intelligence officer Vladimir Putin due to Litvinenko’s vocal criticisms of The Kremlin. 

“I swallowed several times, but it was green tea with no sugar, and it was already cold, by the way,” Litvinenko said from his deathbed. “I didn’t like it, for some reason.”

Litvinenko was believed to be one of several assassination targets who’d blamed Putin for organized crime, as detailed in two books authored by Litvinenko after he sought asylum in the UK in 2000 (Litvinenko previously accused Putin of turning Russia into a mafia state, which landed him in a Russian jail). Litvinenko's wife later confirmed her husband worked with British intelligence, but to what extent is not entirely known. 

Cj and Alec Mercer sitting at a desk looking at a laptop.

Neither Lugovoi nor Kovtun have ever faced charges due to Russian extradition laws.

The discovery of polonium-210 in Litvinenko’s system posed an unprecedented problem: the poison’s trail whilst in possession of its handlers — along with everything it touched (such as the teapot which contained “high levels” of polonium-210) — was a public risk. Hundreds of police authorities, assisted by the Atomic Weapons Establishment and the Health Protection Agency, tested football stadiums and hotel rooms where the alleged assassins traveled, as well as more than 700 people in an attempt to contain contamination.

The H.P.A. reported at least 140 Londoners were contaminated by the trail of radioactivity connected to Litvinenko’s death, with 17 at risk of long-term effects.

Litvinenko’s politically charged death brought forward world leaders, including Vladimir Putin and then-U.K.-Prime-Minister David Cameron, the latter of whom called Litvinenko’s death “absolutely appalling.” While Lugovoi and Kovtun were considered low-level actors in the murder, officials called it “an act of nuclear terrorism,” shifting intelligence operations and political relations between the UK and Russia.

Litvinenko’s death has inspired many TV programs, including The Irrational, airing Mondays at 10/9c on NBC and streaming the next day on Peacock.