A new examination of the late Yasser Arafat’s body found significant levels of radioactive polonium in his bones, lending significant heft to allegations that the Palestinian leader was murdered. Swiss scientists examined remains of Arafat’s body that had been exhumed a year ago, found 18 times the normal level of polonium in his bones, and concluded, with 83 percent certainty, that he was poisoned with it.
In October of 2004, Arafat became suddenly ill while holed up in his West Bank compound, which was then under siege by Israeli troops. Doctors initially diagnosed him with a bad case of influenza, but his conditioned soon worsened, and Egyptian and Tunisian doctors flown in to assess him failed to identify the source of his ailment. He soon fell into a deep coma, and died the next month in a French hospital.
Rumors that Arafat had been assassinated sprouted up around the time of his death, and his widow’s refusal to allow an autopsy added fuel to said rumors. The investigation into his death was re-opened last year by French investigators after new testing revealed elevated levels of polonium-210 on the clothes Arafat was wearing when he died.
Polonium-210 is extremely rare, difficult to handle safely and requires a nuclear reactor to manufacture. It’s highly lethal when ingested; a single dust-sized speck would be enough to kill a human if swallowed or inhaled. However, it’s harmless when simply touched and can only travel a few centimeters in the air, and as such, is rarely used as a poison.
The isotope’s most notable victim was Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in Russia’s national security apparatus who fled to London after accusing his former colleagues of secretly orchestrating various terror attacks within Russia. Litvinenko fell ill shortly after meeting with two former KGB officers at a hotel in November 2006, and died of polonium poisoning within the month.