Yasser Arafat Exhumed: Can Polonium Poisoning Be Proven?

By iScienceTimes Staff on November 26, 2012 5:53 PM EST

Yasser Arafat
photo: YouTube.com (Photo: YouTube)

The body of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is being exhumed today so investigators can inspect his remains and determine if the military leaders died of natural causes or was the victim of polonium poisoning. Polonium is a radioactive element and was recently used in the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian ex-spy and vocal critic of the Kremlin.

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Experts believe that little of Arafat's tissue will remain and scientists will only be able to secure samples of his bone -- which may have degenerated into powdered form -- or threads of his clothing.

Polonium has a short half-life and dissipates more quickly than other radioactive substances, so some experts have also questioned if anything conclusive will be found in the investigation.

The decision to exhume Yasser Arafat came after his widow provided samples of his clothing to Swiss investigators in July and subsequent testing came back positive for high amounts of polonium.

Polonium-210 is one of the world's rarest elements, discovered in 1898 by scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and named in honor of her country of origin, Poland.  Polonium is highly toxic if ingested, and a 2007 study by Britain's Health Protection Agency found that once polonium-210 gets in the bloodstream it is virtually impossible to stop the chain reaction of events that lead to death. Organ failure, particularly the liver and kidneys, begins as alpha radiation destroys tissue.

Polonium-210 isn't something a would-be assassin can just buy on the Internet or whip up in his kitchen. Polonium-210, like the kind found on Yasser Araft's personal effects, is only available to the handful of governments with civilian or military nuclear programs. This includes Israel, the prime suspect authorities will look to if researchers conclude Yasser Ararfat was poisoned after they finish exhuming his body.

Three separate samples will be taken from Arafat's body by specially-invited forensic teams from Switzerland, Russia, and France. The results of the investigation are not expected for months, but Arafat's body will be immediately reburied with full military honors.

John Miller, a former FBI assistant director, told CBS News that of Polonium-210 was used to poison Yasser Arafat there is virtually no chance of enough remaining to be detected in his remains.

"I spoke with the former top weapons of mass destruction man for the FBI ... he said Polonium 210 has a shelf life -- or half-life of 138 days, which means if you have a pound of it, in 138 days, you'll have a half pound of it. So if you do the math, he's been interred since 2004," he said, adding, "I think what they're probably not going to find is evidence of polonium. What they could find is a daughter product like lead 206, which it would leave behind, but that's not so unique that it couldn't have come from something else."

The circumstances surrounding Yasser Arafat's death baffled doctors treating him in France during his final days. He suffered a stroke and his health deteriorated rapidly. His widow, Suha, requested an autopsy not be performed.  She does, however, support the plan to exhume his body and test it for polonium-210.

"It is very painful. It is a shock, and it is not easy for myself or my daughter," she told AFP. "But we must do it to turn the page on the great secrecy surrounding his death. If there was a crime, it must be solved."

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