By Dr. F. Dalnoki-Veress – The death of the former president of the Palestinian National Authority Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11, 2004 has always been shrouded in mystery. His symptoms were wrongly assumed to be the flu but his condition worsened rapidly. A special corps of expert doctors was flown in to Ramallah to treat Arafat but his condition kept deteriorating. Rumors of a variety of illnesses from cirrhosis of the liver to HIV Aids still did not explain the rapid decline Arafat experienced. Perplexed, Arafat was flown to France to a special military hospital where he could be further examined. However, in his final days after suffering from a stroke, Arafat lapsed into a coma and subsequently passed away. The cause for his fast deterioration, eight years later, is still unexplained.
In 2012, an Al Jazeera investigation seemed to shed some light on the cause of Arafat’s death. In a detailed investigation with the support of Arafat’s widow Suha Arafat, Al Jazeera provided samples of Arafat’s belongings to the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne (IRA) in Switzerland for trace analysis. IRA is well known for careful forensic analysis having analyzed several high profile forensic cases. In their investigation of Arafat’s artifacts they looked for many possible contaminants and all came up negative except for one isotope known as polonium-210 (hereafter, Po-210). As the Director of the institute Dr. François Bochud told Nature Magazine they did not expect to find any Po-210 but “we looked for it because of Litvenenko”.
Dr. Bochud referred to the murder of an Ex-KGB agent Alexandr Litvenenko with a lethal amount of Po-210, two years after Arafat passed away of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC). DIC has been known to occur due to exposure to high amounts of radiation although it is rarely mentioned in the literature.[i] Litvenenko suffered extreme radiation poisoning at first losing his hair, then developing a condition known as pancytopenia which is the rapid shortage of all types of blood cells. Again, doctors were perplexed, first assuming it to be thallium (another radioactive element) poisoning, but after measurement of his blood and urine came up empty, he worsened until finally succumbing to his illness on Nov. 23, 2006. While the doctors examining Arafat in Nov. 2004 did not benefit from the knowledge of what occurred two years later, they were aware of this option in 2012 when Al Jazeera approached them.
IRA then considered the possibility of Po-210 as a viable poison. They extracted samples of Arafat’s clothes, tooth brush, hospital cap, keffieh (Palestinian scarf), and other items and, as is the mark of a good scientific investigation, also obtained control samples. They found by analysis of biological fluids found on one of the items and residue on the tooth brush elevated levels of Po-210. As Po-210 is a radioactive material its presence and its detrimental effect can be measured in a unit known as the Bq/g which corresponds to one harmful particle released every second for a gram of material. The very nature of the release of these particles as a result of decay is the source of the damage. For example, if Po-210 is ingested it will predominantly deposit in soft tissue (such as liver, spleen and bone marrow as well as kidneys, skin and hair follicles) and when Po-210 decays it will fire particles like bullets into the tissue causing massive cell death. A fatal dose can be caused by less than a millionth of a gram of Po-210 which if used as a poison in food would not be detectable by taste.[ii] One further important aspect of this silent killer is the fact that Po-210 has a half-life of 138 days, meaning that every 138 days half of the material will decay to an undetectable isotope, so waiting many half-lives greatly decreases the detectability of Po-210.
Twenty Po-210 half-lives have passed since Arafat’s death, corresponding to a reduction of the radioactivity by a factor of a million and so IRA’s measurement of Po-210 was exceedingly difficult to perform. However, they did measure a significant elevation of radioactive levels as compared to the control in some of the samples. For example, they measured that the radioactivity from a urine sample measured seven times higher than that of the control. This on its own would not be alarming and can be attributed to the natural radioactivity present in the materials; however, if all is due to pure Po-210 poisoning then the amount extrapolated 20 half-lives earlier would easily have been fatal. Nevertheless, there are some complications in assessing the cause of Arafat’s death after eight years. First, analysis of bristles from Arafat’s toothbrush revealed a radioactivity only 2.6 times higher than the control. This amount could be completely statistical, and therefore the necessity to acquire additional measurements and data. Second, it is also necessary to determine how much of the Po-210 measured is actually due to pure Po-210 present in the body (known as ‘unsupported’ polonium) and how much of it is due to radioactivity naturally present in the materials.[iii] In a subsequent assessment IRA determined that the observed Po-210 still points to an unnatural origin. While the numbers in mBq/g were actually not very high, in a statement to Al Jazeera in July 2012, Dr. Boschud stated that “I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported Po-210 in the belongings of Arafat that contained stains of biological fluid.”
As a result of the Al Jazeera/IRA investigation French prosecutors initiated a murder investigation into the death of Arafat. Experts from IRA, French legal experts and Russian investigators will be involved in the investigation which is expected to take several months. This way the samples will be independently analyzed by several organizations giving credence to potential results and drawn conclusions. Analysis of Arafat’s body will presumably focus on his bones since Po-210 is known to accumulate in bone marrow and can be analyzed regardless of the condition of the remains.[iv] In the initial investigation, IRA was limited to several gram-sized samples. With full access to Arafat’s body it is hoped that the measurements will be comprised of larger samples allowing more accurate measurements to be made. After the exhumation is complete the Palestinian statesman will be laid to rest with military honors in a ceremony closed to the public.
Tawfiq al-Tirawi, who heads the Palestinian investigation committee said in a recent press conference “We have evidence which suggests [Arafat] was poisoned by Israelis,” a charge that Israel has vehemently denied. On the eve of a shaky truce established last week between Israel and Hamas, one hopes that whatever the result of the investigation, it will not lead to another round of violence.
Dr. F. Dalnoki-Veress is a Scientist in Residence and Adjunct Professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
[i] Robert C. Ricks, Mary Ellen Berger, Frederick M O’Hara, JR, The Medical Basis for Radiation-accident Preparedness: The Clinical Care of Victims, Proceedings of the Fourth International REACT/S Conference, 2001, 221.
[ii] McFee RB and Leikin JB, “Death by polonium-210: lessons learned from the murder of former Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko,” Semin Diagn Pathol, 2009, Feb;26(1):61-7, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19292030
[iii] ‘Unsupported’ Po-210 can be pictured as a bucket filled with Po-210 with an open spout at the bottom, where the loss of fluid from the bucket represents the decay process. After one half-life, half the bucket would have lost its contents. However, if the bucket is being filled as it is losing its contents then the bucket contents will decrease at a different rate than the expected half-life. This represents the notion of ‘supported’ Po-210, in the sense that there is another isotope decaying into Po-210, and thus adding to the quantity of Po-210 in the bucket which changes the observed Po-210 decay rate.
[iv] Nathalie Cartiser et al., “State-of-the-art of bone marrow analysis in forensic toxicology: a review,” International Journal of Legal Medicine, March 2011, Volume 125, Issue 2, pp 181-198.