History of Hazmat: Assassinations Part 1 of 3

For us in the fire service, hazardous materials are a challenge to be dealt with – we generally only see them in training or if Pandora comes out of the box. In industry, hazardous materials are a necessity – essential for creating everything from plastic packing peanuts to pharmaceuticals to the motherboards for your computer. For another, somewhat more intriguing and dangerous group, hazardous materials are a means for murder. Nothing makes quite the statement like assassinating your enemy with some exotic substance that the public knows little about and finds terrifying as a result. Of course, many toxic industrial chemicals like phosgene and chlorine were used in combat, and later nerve agents were developed by various countries and occasionally used on the battlefield, so there was certainly knowledge of how to use them as weapons, but to utilize them in such a way to just kill one specific person requires quite a bit of forethought and planning. Some folks may be familiar with the three accounts I am going to cover over the next few posts, but hopefully delving into the details will be an interesting read. I mean, mystery! murder! intrigue! Who doesn’t love that?

Dissident Georgi Markov was a thorn in communism’s side (which never seems to work out well for people). He was an author and playwright in his native country of Bulgaria, but was subject to frequent censorship by the the communist regime, and eventually defected. He ended up in London, working for the BBC as a journalist covering Bulgaria and other Eastern Bloc countries. Without turning this into a Cold War-era politics post, let’s just say he remained on the Bulgarian authorities’ naughty list for speaking out about the practices of the government, which was closely allied with the Soviet Union. He was actually imprisoned in absentia for six years for defecting and his name was basically deleted from Bulgarian history. Safe to say, they really didn’t like him.

Fast forward to September 7, 1978. Markov walked across the Waterloo Bridge in London to wait for his bus to work at the BBC. He felt someone bump into him and poke him in the back of the leg with an umbrella. When he turned to see who ran into him, all he saw was an individual rush off into a waiting cab. I’d think that was weird if I was potentially on the KGB/Bulgarian Secret Service hit list, and no doubt Markov did too.

Sure enough, Markov felt ill that evening and went to the hospital. The treating physician, Bernard Riley, was stumped by Markov’s mysterious and rapidly worsening symptoms, which included a rapid pulse and increased body temperature. Markov warned Dr. Riley that he had most likely been poisoned by the KGB, which triggered him to call Scotland Yard, and he ruled out chemical poisoning from substances such as cyanide and thallium, because the symptoms didn’t correlate. Still trying to solve the mystery, Dr. Riley went home and continued to research (Can you imagine, in the days before Google? Actually, I can, I’m not that young…) when his wife suggested to him that he ought to read more Agatha Christie. She believed that his patient had been poisoned by ricin, as in the Agatha Christie novel, The House of Lurking Death. It turns out she was right, and I’m sure she never brought that up again to her husband. Ever.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much Dr. Riley, his wife, or Agatha Christie could have done for Mr. Markov, other than supportive care. There is no antidote for ricin poisoning, and he passed away just a

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