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The poisoning of a Russian former spy with a radioactive isotope known as polonium-210 has caused a stir in London and prompted an investigation that spans across Europe.

But what is polonium-210?

Discovered by Polish chemist Marie Curie in 1898, polonium is a radioactive element that is a solid at room temperature, according to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. A very rare natural element, there are only about 100 grams of polonium found in a ton of uranium, according to the University of California’s Web site run in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy.

It’s named after the country of Poland and was used by American scientists in the Manhattan Project, the name for the then-covert program to build a nuclear weapon, according to, a Web site dedicated to military and intelligence information.

Polonium commonly is used in anti-static brushes sold at most photography shops and is currently being investigated for use as a thermoelectric power source for spacecraft.

And, like so many other products, it can be purchased on the Internet. The United Nuclear site sells very small amounts to the general public — although the site makes it clear that it would take 15,000 orders at a cost of more than $1 million to forge a potent poison. Seeing that the site sells one or two sources every three months, an order for 15,000 units may appear a bit suspicious.

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