Home » Editorial

Thallium, and other poisons I have known…   

26 November 2006 14,600 views 22 Comments

(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!

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)


  • Andrei says:


  • Tot. Syn. says:

    Well, indeed, but I know we don’t have any polonium in the lab :)

  • regular says:

    Why would they have to enter into your lab if they have plenty of stuff there since the cold War is over ?

  • Albert says:

    Yes, it’s actually out of stock…

    Mind you, you can still try poisoning your enemies with Thallium Sport! lol

  • excimer says:

    don’t those anti-static things that you put in balances use Po-210?

  • Tot. Syn. says:

    Dunno. We don’t have one. :)

  • Holy shit! From wikipedia

    “A cube of pure polonium 210 about the size of the period at the end of this sentence—only 0.35 mm wide and weighing just 400 micrograms—would still be 3,370 times the lethal dose”

  • Handles says:

    When I was at Uni people sometimes just walked in and took stuff. One morning our balance was gone. The police raided an amphetamine lab once and brought some stirrer hotplates back (they were still barcoded).

  • Brooks says:

    I guess it’s polonium 210 as already mentioned, but thallium seems interesting in itself.

    Also from wikipedia: thallium has been called “inheritance powder”

    They must be talking about a thallium salt right? thallium sulfate or something. Thallium metal oxidizes in air to the oxide… I’m always a little confused when people refer to just the metal and not a particular salt or at least a particular oxidation state. Does anyone else find talking about “thallium” vague?

    I do agree that security in academic labs is a problem. By the sounds of it Cambridge is doing better than most places.

  • TWYI says:

    What is the ‘nastiest’ chemical you guys have all worked with? I have used 200 mg of thallium acetate in a reaction before. Also, multigram quantities of copper cyanide. I’m sure this can be beaten. Large scale HCN anyone?

  • ddd says:

    I tried to synthesize SiH3Br, never try that please..ever ever

  • ddd says:

    I have tried to make SH3Br, never do it please

  • Rof5 says:

    I remember one of the guys in our lab had to make large (I mean capital ‘L’) scale of n-Bu3SnH using LAH reduction of Bu3SnCl. The whole room was full of the bad smell of tin hydride for days even he did it in the fumehood. It’s really nasty!

  • Tot. Syn. says:

    There was an incident at an unnamed UK chemistry department (though you might be able to guess) where a student, who was finding life just too much to take, decided to chow-down on the CuCN. Unfortunately, it’s not actually that deadly. In fact, copper is one of treatments used for other cyanide poisonings, because it binds so strongly. So the poor chap got a dicky tummy, and was off to hospital. What did his sympathetic boss have to say? “I knew that boy was a shit chemist…”.

  • Disillusioned Hamster says:

    Should have gone for the NaN3 – a biochemistry student succeeded with that a few years ago. Similar toxicity to cyanides, with the added advantage that most labs don’t lock it up.
    I think the lab I did my u/g project in had a 500g jar of thallium salts at the back of a cupboard. And most places have a good big jar of brucine or strychnine for asymmetric resolutions lying around – all a bit worrying when we have to sign Home Office forms to buy Ac2O and iPr2NH!

  • Rof5 says:

    What a boss!

  • Hap says:

    A man in FL (US) killed one of his next-door neighbors using large doses on a thallium compound in Coca-Cola – his neighbors were annoying him and they mistook his threats (killing their dogs, etc.). Another woman in PA (US) killed her husband with thallium in his thermos. Apparently, here in the US, there is a lot of thallium lying around, probably from thallium sulfate’s history as rat poison (who doesn’t need an odorless, colorless, extremely toxic solid with no antidote to use around the house?).

    It doesn’t take a genius to kill someone as above – perhaps a lack of conscience, and the arrogance to believe that you won’t be caught, but no particular genius. As Stephen King said in The Stand, “all these things are lying around, waiting to be picked up.”

  • Andy says:

    A few years ago, just before I joined, our group was clearing out cupboards, and found a considerable amount of ricin that had been prepared as part of a cancer research project in the late sixties. Apparently only one company in the country would deal with it, and the man arrived dressed as a spaceman.
    As for what I have used, HMPA is the nastiest, I think, and I would take major efforts to avoid using it again, although it was easy to handle. KCN in DMSO scares me, although I’ve never used it, ever since I saw a hazard warning ‘instantly fatal on contact with skin’ or something similar. I think fear of chemicals is sometimes a good thing.

  • Comrade, my lab in need of Polonium zero for… Polonium mediated cross coupling. Where you keep? Could also use some ethanol, ours keeps getting the drinked.

    (P.S. you have NMRs of fine Scottish Whiskey for me?)

  • hate plonium says:

    Those who know, please explain why the half of London is in Polonium as well? Is it a natural result of the polonium poisoning or does it mean that it is not a murder (but rather this guy was carying an open source of Po with himself)? I suppose it is difficult to spread Po that is inside of your body unless you urinate on the discussed object.

  • omet says:

    The PA murder case was indeed Tl from househould rat poison. The investigation took damn near forever (including an exhumation and second autopsy), since the victim was doing renovations in the local university’s chem labs at the time.

  • lil says:

    Wtf. I got hat cologne pictured at the top.