At five o’clock on Tuesday morning, Yasser Arafat’s body was disinterred in Ramallah and tissue samples extracted for analysis by French, Swiss and Russian scientists. One of the things they’ll be testing for is polonium poisoning. But can a meaningful result be hoped for eight years after Arafat’s death? The half-life of Po-210 in vacuo is 138 days (i.e. half the original Po-210 nuclei would decay on average in 138 days) but in the body it’s rather less, between two and three months (i.e. on average half the Po-210 atoms would have passed through the body after this time). Either way, a definitive result for Arafat would be difficult to obtain now, since after eight years the initial quantities of any Po-210 would be diluted by a factor of a million. As a spokesperson for the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Radiation Physics has said, the traces of polonium they found on Arafat’s clothes a few months ago could be a more recent contamination and don’t prove anything.
A comparison with other possible cases of polonium poisoning may be instructive. Po-210 was used to kill Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Litvinenko’s poisoners were likely to have used Po-210 on previous occasions in order to familiarise themselves with the quantities needed to administer it effectively. Two earlier cases were hypothesised: Roman Tsepov and Lecha Islamov both died in Russian captivity in 2004 in suspicious circumstances. Eighty per cent of Tsepov’s bone marrow was destroyed before he died, strongly suggesting radiation poisoning. Islamov’s symptoms – including hair loss and massive blisters – were said to be inexplicable to the doctors who had been trying to treat him. Blistering and hair loss are classic symptoms of radiation poisoning. Islamov’s relatives said that he’d told them his jailers had summoned him several days before his death for an ‘informal conversation’, during which he was given a snack and some tea.(Litvinenko was given the Po-210 in a cup of tea.) ‘He began to feel ill within five minutes,’ they said, ‘as he was being taken back to his cell.’
Arafat’s death was in some ways suspicious, but there were no reports of symptoms that looked like radiation poisoning. Thallium poisoning was mentioned but there was nothing conclusive. Viral gastroenteritis seems more likely.
It is also unclear why Israel would have used polonium if it had wished to poison Arafat. Israel’s reactor at Dimona can produce Po-210 and has done so in the past – in 1957 an Israeli graduate student died of polonium poisoning – but there are far simpler, more effective and more discreet poisons available. So while there may be suspicious circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death, there is nothing yet to indicate radiation poisoning, let alone Po-210.