CHISINAU -- Medical tests from two Moldovan opposition leaders who have accused the authorities of poisoning them show they had elevated levels of mercury in their blood in recent months.
The startling accusations come just days ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in a country caught in a tug-of-war between East and West loyalties.
Medical files provided to RFE/RL's Moldovan Service on February 22 show Andrei Nastase of the pro-European ACUM (Now) bloc had a mercury blood level of 8.7 at the start of December, well above the normal value of less than two for that type of test.
A known Moldovan toxicology expert who insisted on anonymity told RFE/RL that a mercury measurement below 10 was not "life threatening."
Maia Sandu, another senior ACUM politician, had a level of 2.7, almost triple the reference range of one in her test, which was conducted by a different laboratory and dated January 4, 2018.
Nastase and Sandu -- who was the runner-up in Moldova's 2016 presidential election -- lead the ACUM coalition, which is locked in a campaign battle with the pro-Western Democratic Party of the ruling coalition and the pro-Moscow Socialists.
The Socialists are currently favored to win the February 24 elections, but opinion polls show them falling short of winning a majority needed to govern.
Sandu said both she and Nastase experienced health problems last year, prompting the tests, which she said raised "reasonable suspicions" that they were purposely poisoned.
"I underwent a treatment that helped lower the level of these metals in my blood but then the recent tests showed again an increase and the doctors with whom we spoke said that this accumulation cannot happen naturally, it must be intentional," she said.
High mercury levels in blood can be associated with eating too much seafood, or a result of mercury leaching from the fillings in teeth. It can also be breathed in as a vapor when liquid mercury, such as the type found in thermometers, evaporates into the air; via skin contact through some cosmetic creams, or ingested through medicines and vaccines.
According to the World Health Organization, mercury can damage the nervous, digestive, and immune systems and poison the lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes.
"Mrs. Sandu was being as diplomatic as possible and was using strict legal terms -- reasonable suspicions that we were poisoned," Nastase said. "[But] I'm telling you with all certainty, we are the targets of attacks by this government that wants us dead."
Nastase offered no proof that he had been intentionally poisoned and did not say why he accused the Democratic Party of being behind such an act.
Businessman Alexandru Machedon, who was Nastase's chief of staff during local elections last summer, also claims to have been poisoned.
Machedon told RFE/RL that he first discovered elevated mercury levels in his blood in 2016, though he decided to keep his suspicions out of the public eye so as to not create fear among opposition protesters.
Vitalie Gamurari, a spokesman for the ruling Democratic Party, has rejected the accusations of poisoning. "Strange accusations have been heard in the last few days and are becoming more and more fantastic," he said on February 21.
Critics of the poisoning charges wonder why they were made only on the eve of the elections.
Opinion polls suggest no party will win an outright majority in the vote and the ACUM bloc has signed a pledge not to enter into a coalition with either the Democratic Party or the Socialists in the case of a hung parliament.
The ACUM bloc has accused Moldova's governing coalition of rampant corruption in one of Europe's poorest countries.
The former Soviet republic of 3.6 million has had three governments since 2015, after the disappearance of some $1 billion -- about 12 percent of the country's gross domestic product -- from the banking system plunged it into a political and economic crisis.
The European Parliament passed a resolution highly critical of Moldova on November 14, saying it had become a "state captured by oligarchic interests" that exert their influence over most parts of Moldovan society.
The European Commission later announced it was cutting its financial assistance to Moldova by 20 million euros ($22.7 million) per year for both 2017 and 2018.
The financial assistance earmarked by the EU for the two years originally totaled 140 million euros ($158 million).