Thallium, and other poisons I have known…
(Or, Other crap laying around the lab…)
So, poor old Alexander Litvinenko has died in a London hospital; for the truly ill-informed, they guy was an ex-Russian agent, who was poisoned, thought at the time to be thallium.1 His hair fell-out, his white blood cell count plummeted, and two weeks later, he passed-away. Clearly, this incident will have great repercussions in international espionage circles (I’m not stating who I think did it – no ricin-tipped umbrellas for this chemist…), but I’ve been thinking about all that nasty stuff in our chemical stores.
The BBC website has a nice description of thallium for those of us who haven’t memorised the periodic table (I’d like to assume that all reading this have…), and in it, they speak of the careful controls of this dangerous substance. We’ve got some in the lab somewhere. I’m not sure, but I haven’t seen the armed guard around much these days, so I guess anyone could walk with it… Actually, we recently got a modicum of security controls here at Cambridge recently, in the form of card-entry. Thus, to get into my lab, you need a card (or to follow someone with one), and then to enter the correct code on the lab doors (or, again, follow someone). That’s about all we can realistically do; no retina scans for us. And before those card-locks were installed…?
But that still seems fairly lax; someone with even a hint of skill and determination could walk out with whatever they like. Sure, I’m supposed to play a role in this security; should I be approached by a chap with a strong Russian accent, a pronounced limp and an interestingly shaped umbrella, I might be a little cautious when handing over the KCN, but we have loads of support staff who I don’t know from Adam. And that prompts another question; couldn’t the staff or students “borrow some stuff”?
So how does security work in your department? Any chance of borrowing that 600Mhz Varian?
(BTW, that image at the top is actually Thallium Cologne – available here, but I guess sales are slowing…)
1. As Andrei pointed out, the poison is now thought to be polonium-210. We don’t have any of that in the lab!