The report by Swiss scientists saying they've found some evidence that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may have been
poisoned with polonium has raised questions about it.
The deadly radioactive element first hit the headlines
when it was used to kill KGB agent-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in
London in 2006.
Arafat died under
mysterious circumstances at a French military hospital in 2004.
Switzerland's Institute of Radiation Physics, who examined soil and bone
samples from Arafat's grave, said their results "moderately support"
the theory that Arafat had been poisoned with polonium.
Other scientists say the results
are suggestive but do not provide definitive proof of poisoning.
Here are some facts about
What is polonium?
Polonium-210 is one of the
world's rarest elements, discovered in 1898 by scientists Marie and Pierre
Curie and named in honour of her country of origin, Poland. It occurs naturally
in very low concentrations in the Earth's crust and also is produced
artificially in nuclear reactors. In small amounts, it has legitimate
industrial uses, mainly in devices to eliminate static electricity. Polonium is
not naturally found in the human body.
How dangerous is it?
It's a very dangerous element. If ingested, it is
lethal in extremely small doses. A minuscule amount of the silver powder is
sufficient to kill. British radiation experts say once polonium-210 enters the
bloodstream, its deadly effects are nearly impossible to stop.
How can it poison people?
People can be poisoned with
polonium if they eat or drink food contaminated with it, breathe contaminated
air or if it enters the body through an open wound. Litvinenko apparently drank
tea laced with polonium during a meeting at a London hotel.
What are the symptoms?
A poison victim
experiences multiple organ failure as alpha radiation particles bombard the
liver, kidneys and bone marrow from within. Symptoms including nausea, hair
loss and tissues in the throat swelling.
Where does it come from?
Polonium can be a by-product
of the chemical processing of uranium, but usually it's made artificially in a
nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. John Croft, a retired British
radiation expert who worked on the Litvinenko case, said a dose large enough to
kill would likely have to come from a government with either civilian or
military nuclear capabilities. That category includes Russia — producer of the
polonium believed to have killed Litvinenko — and Arafat's foe, Israel. But it
also includes the US and dozens of other nations.
Can the radiation be detected?
Polonium's large alpha
particles of radiation do not penetrate the skin and don't set off radiation
detectors, so it is relatively easy to smuggle across international borders.
Who has it killed?
In addition to Litvinenko's
presumed death from polonium poisoning, some speculate that the Curies'
daughter Irene, who died of leukaemia, may have developed the disease after
accidentally being exposed to polonium in the laboratory. Israeli author Michal
Karpin has claimed the cancer deaths of several Israeli scientists were the
result of a polonium leak at the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1957. Israeli
officials have never acknowledged a connection.
Can scientists prove that Arafat was poisoned?
Swiss scientists say Arafat
had symptoms commonly linked to radiation poisoning, including nausea,
vomiting, diarrhoea and liver and kidney failure — but not two other classic
symptoms, hair loss and a weaker immune system. In fact, there have been so few
cases of known polonium poisoning that scientists don't know very much about
its exact symptoms.
The scientists also noted
their tests faced several limitations. They had to perform their analyses on
very small specimens — such as a single hair shaft or traces of blood and
urine. Those tests were also conducted eight years after Arafat's death, so
there may have been problems with chemical degradation.
Derek Hill, a radiation
expert at University College London, said if there was enough polonium left in
the samples, it might be possible to trace where the element came from. That
could provide more clues about whether Arafat was poisoned.
Picture: polonium from Shutterstock