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Litvinenko poisoning caused limited public concern

NOVEMBER 02, 2007

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s, with the Health Protection Agency (HPA), have revealed results of a survey into the public’s response to the Litvinenko poisoning in central London on 23 November 2006.  Despite there being radioactive contamination in the heart of London the general public showed a sensible and calm response and limited concern about potential health risks.   

Some described the incident as “quite sinister” or “shocking” but more common were ‘descriptions comparing events to a spy story, with James Bond being mentioned several times’ the study said, published Friday 2 November in the British Medical Journal.  

Researchers attributed the public’s limited concern to their perception that the motivation for the incident was espionage as well as due to successful communication about the restricted nature of any risk. Had the incident been portrayed as linked to terrorism, public concern might have been greater. 

Positive communications sent out by the HPA helped reassure Londoners however research pointed to areas for improvement, particularly how test results are communicated to people who have been in an exposed area.

Following the death of Alexander Litvinenko from radioactive polonium-210, researchers carried out a telephone survey of 1,000 adult Londoners and interviewed a further 86 people who had been in a contaminated area (a central London sushi restaurant and the bar of a London hotel).  The study aimed to assess public perceptions of risk to health and the impact of public health communications. 

During major public health incidents, health agencies and emergency services often need to reassure the public about the level of risk involved, advise them of measures that are being taken to safeguard public health, and specify what actions individuals can take to minimise their own risk. Learning lessons from any relevant events that occur in the real world is therefore vital. 

One hundred and seventeen (11.7%) of those surveyed perceived their health to be at risk.  ‘Given that radiation consistently rates as one of the most feared environmental hazards, it is surprising that rates of perceived risk were not higher’ the report said.  

Levels of knowledge about polonium-210 were generally low, with recognition of HPA messages ranging from 15% to 58%. The exception was the statement that “If you have not been in one of the areas known to be contaminated with polonium-210, then there is no risk to your health:” 71% of participants recognised that this was correct. 

Participants who believed that the incident was related to terrorism or a public health threat were more likely to believe that their health was at risk than those who reported that it was related to espionage or was aimed at a single person. 

Most (80%) also felt the HPA’s response to the incident had been “appropriate or about right.”

Interviewees were also generally satisfied with the information they received, though would have preferred more information about their individual risk of exposure, the results of their urine tests, and the health implications of the incident. 

Despite involving radioactive contamination in the heart of a major city, these results show that the polonium incident caused limited public concern about potential health risks, say the authors. 

Care should be taken in future incidents to ensure that detailed, comprehensible and relevant information about the risks of exposure is made available to those who require it, they conclude. 

This view is supported in an accompanying editorial in the BMJ that calls for improved crisis and emergency risk communication to be at the heart of future planning and training.
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