Thursday 30 November 2006
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33,000 BA passengers alerted over radiation

By Duncan Gardham
Last Updated: 11:02am GMT 30/11/2006

The affected flights
  • Full list of affected flights
  • BA statement on forensic tests
  • British Airways is trying to contact all 33,000 passengers who may have been exposed to radioactive traces that were found on two of its planes.

    Thousands of BA passengers were caught in the radiation scare last night after traces of a substance, thought to be the same that killed the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, were found on the planes.

    A spokesman for the airline said that, so far, 2,500 of the 33,000 passengers who are believed to have flown on 221 flights across Europe since the traces were found have called in to BA's dedicated helpline.

    The Government grounded one plane on Tuesday and another yesterday. A third is in Moscow awaiting tests.

    Police are focusing on flights from Moscow to Heathrow Airport on Oct 25 and 31 and in the other direction on Oct 28 and Nov 3. Since then, the planes, all Boeing 767s, have flown to Barcelona, Dusseldorf, Athens, Larnaka, Madrid, Vienna, Istanbul, Frankfurt and Stockholm.

    BA has set up a helpline for affected passengers and those with symptoms of radiation poisoning, such as vomiting or bleeding gums, were advised to telephone NHS Direct. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said the risk to the public was low.

    Mr Litvinenko was killed by polonium 210, which must be swallowed to be lethal. The search of the planes points the finger of suspicion more firmly at Moscow.

    Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun and the Millennium Hotel
    Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun met Alexander Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair

    Two Russians met Mr Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel, Grosvenor Square, on Nov 1 and flew back to Moscow shortly afterwards. Traces of the radioactive isotope were found in rooms at the hotel. The men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, deny involvement in Mr Litvinenko's death and neither is under police suspicion.

    Mr Lugovoi, a former KGB agent who runs a security firm in Moscow, said he visited London to take his wife and three children to watch CSKA Moscow play Arsenal. Small quantities of polonium 210 were found at the Itsu sushi restaurant where Mr Litvinenko met an Italian investigator, Mario Scaramella, for lunch. Mr Scaramella returned to Britain on Tuesday to help police and learnt yesterday that he was clear of radiation poisoning.

    Polonium 210 traces were found at Mr Litvinenko's home in Muswell Hill, north London, at the offices of the billionaire Russian exile Boris Berezovsky, who employed him, and at two addresses in Grosvenor Street, one of them a private security firm.

    Checks were made at the Sheraton Hotel, Park Lane, but no traces were found.

    Barnet and University College London Hospitals, where Mr Litvinenko was treated, are also in the clear. The former KGB colonel died at UCH last Thursday shortly after making an emotional statement blaming Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, for his plight.

    The HPA said last night: "As part of the police investigations, a team is testing two British Airways planes at Heathrow and making arrangements for a third to be tested.

    "The tests are to assess whether there is any possible risk to public health. The agency wants to reassure members of the public that the risk of having been exposed to this substance remains low.

    "It can only represent a radiation hazard if it is taken into the body — by breathing it in, by taking it into the mouth, or if it gets into a wound. It is not a hazard as long as it remains outside the body."

    NHS Direct has received 1,325 calls from the public since it issued an alert on Saturday, of which 68 were investigated further and 21 referred as a precaution to a specialist clinic for possible radiological exposure assessment.

    The HPA assessed 160 health care workers to determine if they had been at potential risk of contamination and asked 52 staff for urine samples. A further 105 staff and visitors at the various locations under investigation were also asked for samples.

    Yesterday the results were returned from 16 tests, thought to be mainly of Mr Litvinenko's friends and family, including his wife Marina and 12-year-old son. All have been given the all-clear.

    Last night Willie Walsh, the BA chief executive, confirmed that the third aircraft would be tested in Moscow. It was estimated that around 3,000 BA staff would need to be checked, he added.

    John Reid, the Home Secretary, expects to make a statement to Parliament today.

    Yesterday, he chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency planning committee and received updates from police, health authorities and others on the Litvinenko case.

    The spokesman said: "Purely on a precautionary basis, teams have been testing locations identified as part of the police investigation."

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