U.K. police hunting for source of nerve-agent poisoning after 2 Britons stricken

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British police are scouring sections of Salisbury and Amesbury in southwest England for a container feared to be contaminated with traces of the deadly nerve agent Novichok.

More than 100 officers were looking for clues Friday in a race to understand how two local people in Amesbury were exposed to a nerve agent produced in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Police believe the couple may have come in contact with a contaminated vial or other item discarded in a public place after a March nerve-agent attack on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. British officials blamed the Skripals’ poisoning on Russia. The Kremlin denies any involvement.

The latest victims, Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, were in critical condition and hospitalized Saturday after falling ill within hours of each other. At first authorities thought they might have had a bad drug reaction.

Just a few milligrams of the odourless Novichok liquid — the weight of a snowflake — is enough to kill a person within minutes, experts say, and finding it is the problem.

Difficult to trace

There’s no easy way to use technology to locate the container thought to be the source of the Novichok. Instead, there will have to be a laborious physical search of suspected sites, scientists say.

Alastair Hay, professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, said there is “no specific method for the detection of Novichoks in the environment” because the use of the nerve agent was not considered likely when monitors were designed.

That means authorities will have to take soil and vegetation samples from sites where it’s possible that the nerve agent was present and test the samples in a painstaking process to see if there is any contamination.

A British police officer guards part of a cordon surrounding the Queen Elizabeth Gardens park in Salisbury on Thursday, as British officials search for clues into how two Britons were exposed to a Soviet-era nerve agent. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

A number of sites are being searched in the town of Amesbury, where the couple fell ill, and the nearby city of Salisbury, where the Skripals were poisoned. Forensic searches were due to be carried out at the Amesbury home where Sturgess and Rowley collapsed, and other sites the couple visited before falling ill.

British Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Thursday that it’s time for Russia to explain “exactly what has gone on.” 

“It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison,” Javid said.

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