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British Airways alerts passengers after radiation grounds jets

British Airways Plc is contacting 33,000 passengers after “very low traces” of a radioactive material were found on two aircraft by scientists connected to the investigation into the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Europe's third-biggest airline has grounded three Boeing 767 short-haul aircraft -- two in London and one in Moscow -- following forensic examinations carried out after it was contacted by the UK government on November 28. Litvinenko, who had publicly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin's government, died in a London hospital on November 23 with what authorities described as a “significant quantity” of the radioactive isotope polonium 210 in his body. “The initial results of the forensic tests” on the aircraft “has shown very low traces of a radioactive substance onboard two of the three aircraft,” British Airways said in a statement on its Web site. The airline “understands that from advice it has been given that the risk to public health is low.” The three aircraft were used on 221 services between London's Heathrow Airport and Moscow, Barcelona, Athens, Dusseldorf, Larnaca, Stockholm, Vienna, Frankfurt, Madrid and Istanbul, the airline's statement said. British Airways is today in the process of contacting around 33,000 passengers who traveled on the three aircraft since the end of October, spokeswoman Nicola Neuman said last night. The two jets to have tested positive for the material are being held at hangers at Heathrow, while a third at Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport is awaiting inspection, BA spokesman Patrick Spink said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Polonium 210 is a radioactive substance that is found in the environment and in people at very low concentrations. It is only a radiation danger if it enters the body through breathing, the mouth, or a wound. It doesn't represent a radiological hazard as long as it remains outside the body, even on the skin. Litvinenko first reported feeling ill on November 1 after meeting with a friend at the Itsu sushi restaurant on Piccadilly, in central London. Later that day, he went to the Millennium Hotel Mayfair, in Grosvenor Square. In a message he wrote before he lost consciousness, Litvinenko, who had become a British citizen, said he was poisoned because of his criticism Putin's government, a charge denied by the leader. The police investigation his death have found traces of polonium 210 in at least five London buildings: the Itsu; the Millennium Hotel; Litvinenko's home in north London's Muswell Hill; and buildings in Mayfair at 25 Grosvenor Street and 7 Down Street. Officers have also examined the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel. Scotland Yard has said it is treating Litvinenko's death as “suspicious,” and that its has not ruled out or in any option. A coroner's inquest into the death is scheduled to open today at St. Pancras Coroner's Court, north London. British Airways has set up a special helpline for customers in the UK on 0845 6040171, or +44 191 211 3690 for callers from abroad. (Bloomberg)