Russian spy: How do you find out whether poisoning has occurred?

From BBC - March 6, 2018

A Russian man convicted of spying for Britain and his daughter are critically ill after apparently being exposed to a mystery substance in Wiltshire.

The incident has drawn comparisons to the case of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London after being poisoned by a radioactive substance.

So how will officials find out what Sergei and Yulia Skripal were exposed to and whether they were poisoned?

Specialist labs

Alastair Hay, emeritus professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, said in a case like this hospitals and other agencies would be working together to find out what happened.

Doctors will assess the pair's symptoms and carry out tests on them.

Blood tests will assess liver and kidney function, while urine may provide clues for substances excreted more rapidly, he said.

Some of these tests may be done in the hospital where they are being treated, but labs at Guy's Hospital, in London, and in Birmingham, could also be used because they are specially equipped to screen for a wide range of substances.

And there is also the government's chemical defence laboratory at Porton Down - coincidentally also in Wiltshire - which has state-of-the-art equipment to help detect trace amounts of chemicals.

But some of the tests could take several days to complete.

'Specific contact'

Prof Hay said at this stage it was too early to speculate on what the substance might be.

But he said the fact that Public Health England had said there was no wider risk to the public suggested there might have been "some very specific contact with the substance and limited spread".

Part of the investigation will look at where this contact may have taken place.

A number of city-centre locations in Salisbury have been cordoned off, including a nearby Zizzi restaurant that police said had been closed "as a precaution".

Teams in protective gear have also been hosing down the street.

Prof Hay said knowing what had been used to decontaminate the streets could give clues to what officials suspected the substance was.

An ex-radiation biologist, who wanted to remain anonymous, said it was unlikely the substance was radioactive - as in the case of Mr Litvinenko - because the symptoms developed too quickly.

Instead, a chemical source was more likely, but a biological contamination of food or the environment was also possible.

But if it was chemical this would leave a wide range of possibilities: from drugs designed for chemical warfare to artificial highs.

Substance or infection?


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