In November, the body of Yasser Arafat was exhumed from beneath several feet of concrete. It took six hours to get his body out. The goal of the exhumation: to determine whether or not the leader had been poisoned by polonium 210. NPR spoke with Deborah Blum about why, and how, Arafat might have been offed. She said:
BLUM: They gathered up his, you know, clothes, his headscarves, sent them off. And they found sort of what you would think of as decayed products of polonium 210, which is a very unusual thing to find.
RAZ: It’s unusual because why? What is polonium 210?
BLUM: It’s a radioactive isotope. I always think of it as, like, this hissing, spitting ball of radiation. Incredibly active, has a super-fast half-life of 134 days.
In fact, polonium 210 has probably been used in past murders, like the assassination of a Russian spy that dissented. Slate explains why polonium is a good choice for quick, clean kills:
Because a small amount is very deadly. Polonium-210 is extremely toxic, and it’s relatively easy to smuggle across borders because it emits only short-range radiation. But it’s not a good choice for an assassin who wants to get away with his crime. Unlike many other potential poisons, polonium-210 is easily identifiable and can leave a radioactive trail to the culprit. It makes sense as an agent of murder only if you’re trying to make a statement. The chemical is, in a sense, a calling card, because only a handful of major countries, including Israel, the United States, and Russia, are known to maintain large stockpiles of polonium-210, and private entities can buy only small amounts under a government license.
When someone is poisoned with it, the radioactivity poisons their body. The results look something like this, according to CNN:
Liver and kidney damage ensue, along with extreme nausea and severe headaches. Victims often experience vomiting, diarrhea and hair loss. The alpha particles emitted from the decaying substance get absorbed in the body, which is what causes harm. Death may come in a matter of days, sometimes weeks.
And once you have radiation poisoning, it’s over: there is no cure thus far.
Now, whether or nor Arafat was killed with polonium is hard to say. We can detect polonium in very small amounts, but polonium is also a naturally occurring element. Here’s Blum on NPR again:
BLUM: One of the primary sources of radiation exposure in the United States is smoking cigarettes. And that’s because the fertilizers they use with tobacco are high in minerals that actually include polonium-210. And as these sort of, you know, swirl around the very sticky leaves of the tobacco plant grabs them. And those go into the cigarettes.
And there’s actually a recent study – it came out last year by UCLA – that estimated that out of 1,000 average smokers, about 130 lung cancer deaths were probably attributable to polonium-210 radiation. The Al Jazeera story that came out in July made a point that some of his symptoms were quite like Litvinenko’s. You know, he was desperately dehydrated. He was terribly nauseated. There were signs of hair loss. He was rapidly losing weight.
But even if they find traces on his clothes or body, there’s little way to know where those traces came from. Even with science, we will probably never know whether or not Arafat was murdered. Blum writes in Wired:
But there is that slim possibility that tests could reveal the source of the poison and, as a side-effect, the home of the assassin. It’s that latter whisper of a possibility that makes these eventual results so tantalizing – and, I’d add, a little unnerving.
More from Smithsonian.com: