Arafat and Polonium

They’re exhuming Arafat on suspicion that he was poisoned with Polonium like with Russian spy Litvinenko.

The Polonium isotope in question (Polonium-210) has a half-life of 138 days. Arafat died eight years ago. Meaning that today there only remains 1/0.000000476837158 of the original amount. The amount used for Polonium poisoning is already so miniscule that it requires special equipment to detect at the time of death.

Is it even possible to detect and reliable distinguish what’s left after eight years from natural background radiation, contamination, etc?

They might not be searching for the polonium itself but trying to figure out if the cause of death is compatible with polonium poisoning. Just a guess.
ETA : also, this has been prompted by a Swiss team that stated that they had found traces of polonium on the hat he was wearing before his death. So, presumably, if it’s possible to find traces on his hat, it should be possible to find traces on his body.

I suppose that they could be testing for lead-206, the decay product of polonium. Though that might be complicated by the fact that lead-206 is stable, and hence harder to detect in trace amounts than radioactive materials. It’s also naturally-occurring, and so might be found in a corpse for reasons unrelated to radioactivity, so they’d also have to measure the other lead isotopes for comparison.

That said, it’s not completely out of the question that they might be able to detect the one-two-millionth of the original polonium. The key would be measuring the energy of the alpha particles emitted: All the alphas from polonium would have the same energy, but most other alpha sources would not have that exact energy. And there wouldn’t be any naturally-occurring polonium contamination, for the precise reason that its half-life is so short.

What Chronos said about the alphas. If there aren’t any other alphas from other sources with energies too close to tell the difference between the Polonium and something else then they will probably be able to detect the remaining Polonium.

When the conditions are right, you can detect some amazingly low levels of radioactive materials.

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BBC said the Palestinians believe they will still be able to detect residual traces of polonium.

What Chronos said. Accelerator mass spec should be able to detect low levels of lead, and I’d be willing to bet the isotope pattern would be substantially different from background contributions.

Actually, in the thread that AaronX linked, Francis Vaughan says that the lead from polonium decay would only be about a percent of the total natural lead level of the body, so you’d only get a few percent at most deviation from the normal isotope ratios. That’s low enough that it could probably be caused by mundane things like travel, or consumption of products from various locations. When I started that paragraph, I was expecting that the immediate decay product would be something a little more exotic than lead.

You’d be surprised how accurate these distributions can be measured. A few years ago, I went to a talk by a guy who was monitoring ivory poaching by measuring isotopic distribution in confiscated tusks…they were able to determine where the elephant came from based on C13 ratios. Cool stuff. (And by “cool,” I mean really, really geeky, as my kids like to remind me).

Eh, I think we’re over thinking it. If Arafat received the same dose as Alexander Litvinenko (the guy the Russians actually murdered with Polonium), even after 24 half lives, there’d be something like 600 decays per second. Even granted some of that will have presumably no longer be present in the corpse, I don’t think it would take an heroic feats of science to detect.

There are claims that investigation found traces of polonium ( among other poisons ) when they recently exhumed Turkish president Turgut Özal who died in 1993.