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December 15, 2004
I've been meaning to get around to the Ukrainian dioxin-poisoning story, and now's the time. Dioxin is, as most everyone should know by know, seriously overrated as a human poison. It's had a reputation as a scary supertoxin, though, and that's my answer to why it seems to have been used in this case: because someone was an idiot. As a tool for assassination, dioxin is the sort of thing that Wile E. Coyote would have used on the Roadrunner.
Which means the Russian KGB probably wasn't involved, because those guys know about toxins. Whatever else you can say about them, they're professionals. Trying to kill someone with dioxin is silly on several levels - for one thing, it's not very acutely toxic at all. What risks it poses are for chloracne (as we've seen) and some increase in long-term cancer rates. It's also very easy to detect analytically, if you think to look for it. Chlorinated aromatic compounds have a long lifetime in the body and a very distinct signature in a mass spectrometer.
Much of what's known about high dioxin exposure in humans comes from the 1976 chemical plant explosion in Seveso, Italy, which exposed thousands of people. While there were hundreds of cases of chloracne, there were no fatalities and no apparent birth defects in pregnant women. The compound's overall risk to human health is still being debated, mainly because the long-term data are so close to the noise level. For some details on dioxin's toxicity (from a scathingly sceptical perspective) see JunkScience's take here. For livelier, not to say near-hysterical takes on the subject, just Google the word "dioxin" and brace yourself for a flood of invective from various environmental sites
For more on the Ukrainian angle, I'd suggest reading Blogs for Industry - they've got several long posts, and a good perspective on some of the other commentary floating around.
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