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Did Gradual Onset of Polonium-210 Poisoning Take Arafat by Surprise?
Polonium, the radioactive substance used to kill former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, is now being eyed in the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. With polonium poisoning, "Another assassin advantage is that illness comes on gradually, making it hard to pinpoint the event."
Polonium 210: Radioactive Poison Eyed In Yasser Arafat's Death
By JILL LAWLESS 07/05/12 08:03 PM ET
LONDON -- Polonium first hit the headlines when it was used to kill KGB agent-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
This week, Yasser Arafat's widow has called for the late Palestinian leader's body to be exhumed after scientists in Switzerland found elevated traces of radioactive polonium-210 on clothing he allegedly wore before his death in 2004.
What is polonium and how dangerous can it be?
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 honor 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.
IS IT DANGEROUS?
Very. If ingested, it is lethal in extremely small doses. Less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces) of the silver powder is sufficient to kill. A 2007 study by radiation experts from Britain's Health Protection Agency concluded that once polonium-210 is deposited in the bloodstream, its potent effects are nearly impossible to stop. A poisoning victim would experience multiple organ failure as alpha radiation particles bombard the liver, kidneys and bone marrow from within. The symptoms shown by Litvinenko – nausea, hair loss, throat swelling and pallor – are also typical.
WHO CAN GET THEIR HANDS ON IT?
The good news – not too many people. The element can be a byproduct of the chemical processing of uranium, but usually is made artificially in a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. These nuclear facilities are monitored and tightly regulated under international agreements.
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 dozens of other nations, including the United States.
WHY WOULD IT BE ATTRACTIVE TO ASSASSINS?
Polonium makes a good weapon. Its 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. Polonium can be ingested through a wound or inhaled – but the surest method would be to have the victim consume it in food or drink. Litvinenko drank tea laced with polonium during a meeting at a luxury London hotel.
WHO HAS IT KILLED?
Polonium poisoning is so rare that it took doctors several weeks to diagnose Litvinenko's illness and security experts struggled to think of a previous case. More than five years after Litvinenko's death, no one has been arrested. British prosecutors have named ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi as their chief suspect, but Russia refuses to hand him over.
Some speculate that the Curies' daughter Irene, who died of leukemia, may have developed the disease after accidentally being exposed to polonium in the laboratory.
Israeli author Michal Karpin has claimed that the cancer deaths of several Israeli scientists were the result of a leak at the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1957. Israeli officials have never acknowledged a connection.
CAN SCIENTISTS PROVE WHETHER ARAFAT WAS POISONED WITH POLONIUM?
Scientists caution that traces on Arafat's clothing aren't sufficient proof of poisoning. Exhuming his body would a surer method. Derek Hill, a radiological science expert at University College London, said eight years after Arafat's death in 2004, any polonium would have decayed and would be far less radioactive than it was at the time. But he says it would still be much higher than normal background levels and with an autopsy it should be possible to tell "with a pretty high confidence" whether Arafat had polonium in his body when he died.
We are living in times when being an activist comes with certain risks. Be aware of where your food and drinks are coming from at ALL TIMES!!!
The polonium is undetectable to the individual being poisoned due to the gradual onset of symptoms;
"Another assassin advantage is that illness comes on gradually, making it hard to pinpoint the event."
"What makes polonium the ideal poison for assassins?"
by Robert T. Gonzalez
As poisons go, polonium-210 is a bit of a mixed bag. Is it effective? Absolutely. If you eat a piece of polonium-210 the size of a grain of salt, it'll probably be enough to kill the average adult. That said, the highly unstable element is notorious for leaving an unmistakable calling card: ridiculously high levels of radiation in the bodies of its victims.
This incredibly dangerous isotope of Polonium, an element discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie over a century ago, recently caught the public's attention after an analysis of effects belonging to Yasser Arafat — who died of unknown causes in November 2004 — revealed them to be covered in abnormal levels of the isotope.
Over on Elemental, Deborah Blum weighs the pros and cons of polonium-210's use among assassins by exploring its chemistry, the history of its use, and the nature of its traceability. It's a fascinating, if morbid, read, and while we've included an excerpt of the post below, it's one we definitely recommend checking out in full.
Like radium, polonium's radiation is primarily in the form of alpha rays - the emission of alpha particles. Compared to other subatomic particles, alpha particles tend to be high energy and high mass. Their relatively larger mass means that they don't penetrate as well as other forms of radiation, in fact, alpha particles barely penetrate the skin. And they can stopped from even that by a piece of paper or protective clothing.
That may make them sound safe. It shouldn't. It should just alert us that these are only really dangerous when they are inside the body. If a material emitting alpha radiation is swallowed or inhaled, there's nothing benign about it. Scientists realized, for instance, that the reason the Radium Girls died of radiation poisoning was because they were lip-pointing their paintbrushes and swallowing radium-laced paint. The radioactive material deposited in their bones - which literally crumbled. Radium, by the way, has a half-life of about 1,600 years. Which means that it's not in polonium's league as an alpha emitter. How bad is this? By mass, polonium-210 is considered to be about 250,000 times more poisonous than hydrogen cyanide.
In other words, a victim would never taste a lethal dose in food or drink. In the case of Litvinenko, investigators believed that he received his dose of polonium-210 in a cup of tea, dosed during a meeting with two Russian agents. (Just as an aside, alpha particles tend not to set off radiation detectors so it's relatively easy to smuggle from country to country.) Another assassin advantage is that illness comes on gradually, making it hard to pinpoint the event. Yet another advantage is that polonium poisoning is so rare that it's not part of a standard toxics screen. In Litvinenko's case, the poison wasn't identified until shortly after his death. In Arafat's case - if polonium-210 killed him and that has not been established - obviously it wasn't considered at the time. And finally, it gets the job done. "Once absorbed," notes the U.S. Regulatory Commission, "The alpha radiation can rapidly destroy major organs, DNA and the immune system."