Some startling facts have been unearthed about the mysterious death of the late Palestine leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004 in his compound at Ramallah in Palestine.

His wife Suha had complained just a few days before his death that his rivals in Palestine had conspired to poison him to death. His long time trusted doctor, the Jordanian Ashraf Al-Kurdi, was replaced by another one from East Jerusalem by his security chief.

The Times of UK reported that this latter doctor would take Mr. Arafat to a private room to administer drugs; he is not longer traceable.

Persistent complaining by Mrs. Arafat led the authorities to finally open the case of the Arafat death in July 2012. Pathological examination revealed some of Arafat’s personal possessions to have some radioactivity, traceable to the metallic element polonium or Po. Based on this, his body was interred and the bones, when checked independently by experts from France, Switzerland and Russia, were found to contain 18 times the normal quantity of Polonium.

Hard to detect

The Swiss laboratory director Dr Patrice Magin said: “ you don’t accidentally or voluntarily absorb polonium”, and it was concluded that Yasser Arafat was poisoned to death using the very hard to detect poison, namely radioactive polonium, which must have been administered to him along with his daily food, drinks and medication.

The Arab TV Channel Al Jazeera carried the story in some detail last year that the experts found high levels of Po in Arafat’s blood, urine, saliva stains on his clothes and toothbrush, and the medical journal The Lancet reported last month that these findings support the possibility of Arafat’s poisoning by radioactive Po.

It transpires too that Arafat was not the only one murdered using Po. In 2006, the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who turned a counter spy and sought asylum in UK, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. It was later shown that he was poisoned by Russian agents who spiked his tea with substantial amounts of Po.

Evil genius

Whoever thought first of using Polonium to poison and kill people was truly an evil genius — cynical and diabolic. He must have been an expert nuclear scientist who knew in detail about the properties of this radioactive element. Think of all of its properties. First of all, it occurs very rarely in nature, and is found as a minuscule contaminant of the ore pitchblende, which is the major source of uranium. (Incidentally, Marie and Pierre Curie were the ones who discovered Polonium and named it after their homeland Poland which was still not free but under foreign occupation).

Po is found in uranium ores at about 0.1 mg per metric ton (1 part in 10 billion, and the fact that the Curies found it is a tribute to their thoroughness and persistence).

These days Po is not “won” from nature but made in the nuclear lab through man-made ‘alchemy’ by bombarding the metal bismuth with neutron beams in a reactor. About 100 grams of Po are manufactured every year, mostly in Russia, though the US has been making it too.

It is used as an atomic heat source for initiating nuclear reactors and bombs into action, and in industry as coatings to eliminate static electricity charges. It is radioactive and emits alpha rays.

What about its biological effects? Given its extreme rarity, there is practically no known life form or biological process that uses Po. The fact that it emits alpha rays is at once both lethal and safe. Alpha rays are heavy (four times heavier than atomic hydrogen) and are thus unable to penetrate the skin’s epidermis and get inside the body, since their natural speed is too little to bombard themselves through; in effect they are bullets that travel but an inch per hour. But once they are inside the body their radioactivity-mediated damage to the cells and tissues is slow and steady. It is estimated that the lethal dose of less than one microgram of Po is comparable to 250 milligrams of cyanide poisoning. Once a person ingests a few milligram of Po, his death is certain within a year or so. And since its radioactivity tapers off in about a year (the so called half-life is about 5 months), it leaves little or no tell-tale marks.

The fact that they found traces of Po eight years after his death gives us an idea of how much quantity Arafat would have been administered. Whoever poisoned Arafat (or Litvinenko) had thought long and deep, knew and used nuclear science. Hence the compass points to the involvement of a Po producing country or a nuclear-capable one.

In terms of crime thrillers, I wonder whether Po would have crossed the minds of Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame or Agatha Christie of Hercule Poirot fame. They were contemporaries of Marie and Pierre Curie, but perhaps not of all the sinister properties of Po. Tragically, Marie lost her life due to radioactive poisoning herself, and her daughter Irene too was thought to be the victim of Po poisoning, since a vial containing Po in her lab burst open in 1946, and she died of leukaemia in 1956.

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

dbala@lvpei.org