Radioactive polonium is claimed to be behind Yasser Arafat’s death, with poisoning being alleged. But what is polonium-210?
The center of all these allegations is focused on radioactive polonium. The only other known case of polonium poisoning is ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died in November of 2006 after he was poisoned with polonium in London. But medical reports were never released and the scientific literature has little to say about using radioactive polonium as a poison.
Earlier this week, the Swiss and Russian labs released their report on Yasser Arafat and their final lines concluded that an “unknown origin, totally unrelated to polonium poisoning cannot be ruled out. Results moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210.”
Radioactive polonium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, while investigating the radioactivity of an ore containing uranium. There are actually 25 isotopes of radioactive polonium ranging from 192 to 218, which have the same number of protons in the nucleus, but a different number of neutrons, although polonium-210 specifically is what investigators were looking for.
But you might be surprised to hear that radioactive polonium is practically everywhere. The amount of radioactivity in an object is measured in millibecquerels (mBq) and even your own clothing might record measurements in the single or double digit range.
For example, polonium 210 is used in commercial static eliminators, photography, and in medicine. The average radioactive Polonium intake with smoking is 123 mBq, but fatal levels for Po-210 are 8.8 MBq (or 8,800,000,000 mBq), which weighs about 50 nanograms and is less than a speck of dust.
Getting hold of polonium-210 in concentrated commercial amounts would also require backing by a government, since it’s an artificial substance created in nuclear reactors. Radioactive polonium is produced in nuclear reactors by bombarding bismuth-209 with neutrons and producing bismuth-210, which decays into polonium-210. Only about 100 grams of polonium are produced per year, and most of it comes from Russia. It was used as a trigger for nuclear weapons, but it also has a very short half life of 138 days.
Because of radioactive polonium 210’s short half life, it’s claimed the only reason any trace of it was left in Yasser Arafat’s body is because it was supported by equal levels of other radioactive elements, although many experts hadn’t expected to find anything at all eight years after his death. Assuming the allegations of poisoning are true, there should have only been one atom in a million of the original source of radioactive polonium. Otherwise, Yasser Arafat would have needed to have ingested almost 1,000,000,000,000 mBq in order for any trace to be left.