What's the half-life for Polonium? would it last 8 years in Arafat's body?

Arafat’s widow is calling for exhumation of his body, based on the allegations of polonium poisoning.

After 8 years, would there be any detectable traces of polonium? would there be any other traces of polonium damage?

With a half-life of 138 days, almost assuredly not.

What does Polonium decay into, though? Is that something that’s more stable, and perhaps unlikely to be found in a body that had died of natural causes?

Lead 206, which is about 25% of the lead found in nature.


I’m no radio-chemist so YMMV.

Po210 decays into Pb206 perWikipedia

But I’m not up to speed on the different isotopes of Pb (i. e., would Pb206 be typically found in normal lead? If not, Arafat’s death becomes more suspicious).

The hazards of Po210 are pretty stark: LD50 dose is 1 micro-gram (Wikipedia suggests that the amount could be as low as 0.089 micro-grams would be fatal. But that leads us to the next question: how much remains?

I did a WAG and the residual amount would be about 0.4*10^-7 of the original quantity allegedly ingested. So we’re talking pico-grams at this point…

I have absolutely no idea whether this is detectable or not.

More important than “what killed Arafat” is: what became of his vast fortune (money stolen from European and American aid to the Palestinian Authority)?
Arafat’s wife walked off with a big chunk of cash-what became of the hundreds of millions given to the PLO?

What exactly is it about polonium that such a tiny quantity of it can kill you? Certainly, it emits a certain amount of not-good-for-you rays, etc. but how can a tiny particle of it emit enough radiation to be fatal?

The article that Really Not All That Bright linked to says that the reason is the short half life. Since it decays fast it puts out a lot of radiation in a short time.

One microgram of Polonium contains about 3 x 10[sup]15[/sup] atoms. In a bit over four months half of these will emit an alpha particle. Any individual alpha particle is capable of killing a cell in your body. Exactly how many hits are lethal to a cell is unclear, but as the particle rips into a cell it ionises anything it hits, and these ions can wreak further havoc, including damaging DNA if the cell is actively reproducing, or other cell components. Stems cells are thus especially vulnerable. Your body contains about 10[sup]14[/sup] cells. So there are thirty times as many polonium atoms in one microgram of polonium as you have cells. In five days you get one alpha decay for every cell. Ingested, the polonium is distributed around your body, there is no protection for the cells. So parts of your body that are actively replenishing their cells are particularly vulnerable - they will have actively dividing cells that are open to DNA damage, and your body is awash (from the cell’s point of view) with polonium atoms spitting alpha particles. Once any DNA damage is detected by the cell machinery the cell will self destruct. So pretty soon your body starts to run out of stems cells, especially in critical places where fast replenishment is needed. So you lose gut lining, blood production - which includes loss of immune function as white cells are lost, and things just get worse.

Would the body retain Helium (from the Alpha particles), I wonder. It would depend somewhat on how the body was preserved after death. If there was no embalming, then soft tissue will have decayed and helium would be lost (but possibly collected in a coffin if one was used). If the body was preserved, then He may be retained, and with an Pb isotope analysis (looking for a higher level of Pb[sup]206[/sup]) a conclusion could be made.

But it would required some pretty sensitive work to be conclusive. It seems unlikely, though - Po[sup]210[/sup] is pretty hard to get hold of, and leaves traces everywhere during deployment (the Alpha decays are energetic, and spit Po everywhere). I think it is unlikely that no-one noticed the additional radiation, given the various paths someone would have to take to get to Arafat.


Embalming is haraam (forbidden) in Islamic law, so the tissue will certainly have decayed.

Helium is dreadfully elusive, since it is inert it won’t combine with anything that would retain it chemically, and it is so small that it diffuses even through metal containers. Then you get production from natural background alpha emitters that would tend to swamp any residual.

Similar issue for lead. [sup]206[/sup]Pb is about 25% of the natural isotope content of Pb. But the body burden of Pb from even natural sources (let alone in a more industrialised setting) is so high that if the lead in your body were turned into polonium you would be dead in days. The difference in [sup]206[/sup]Pb from natural levels will likely be within experimental error. About the only place I could think of where you might get a smoking gun is in hair, where it might just be possible so see a change in isotope concentrations in very recently grown hair. Even then it would be very much on the margins. Normal blood levels of Pb are a 100 odd times the size of a lethal dose of Polonium. So you would need low blood levels of Pb, and a many times lethal dose of Po to make even a small difference in isotope levels.

You might have a slightly better chance if there was a fresher state of the corpse. But as noted above, since it will not have been embalmed it will be impossible to differentiate many tissues. 90% of the long term lead body load goes into the bones, but there is still a lot left in the soft tissues. Hair is probaly about the only thing to go on.

As I (perhaps incorrectly) understand it, the reason why Arafat’s widow is suspecting Polonium poisoning is that traces of Polonium were found on Arafat’s clothes.

Wouldn’t Polonium’s half-life issues be the same whether it was on his clothes or in his body? Or is there a difference somehow in terms of detectability?

Pretty much what I suspected, though I would still give sampling bones for He a shot - some He could remain trapped in the bone matrix.

According to one article, the Swiss forensic team seem to believe that there will be evidence of Po poisoning even after 8 years. I think that this is wishful thinking, though.


The article says about 20 half-lifes have transpired. Half-life means half the material decays in that time. So there is 2^-20 times the material as was originally ingested. 2^20 is 1,048,576 - so about one millionth the original dose is still polonium. Whether they can detect the lead, or the residual or induced radiation, I don’t know.

Your cells can die when their organic material is destroyed; radiation will break large organic molecules (typically long folded “strings”) where it hits them. Destroy too many of these molecules, and the cell cannot function. The trouble with ingesting such material, especially soluable stuff, is that it then travels to critical areas inside the body where it kills enough cells to prevent normal bodily functions.

The sample might have been taken from the clothes at the time of his death or something.

Depending on what energy level (and type) of radiation polonium gives off its certainly possible to detect even an absurdly low amount of polonium that might be left.

If its a type with a rather unique energy level (or in other words there isn’t a competing signal for other naturally occuring stuff with a very similar level) you could detect an amazingly low number of atoms still left. And given the rather low level of Polonium that occurs naturally it would be rather suspect to measure an above normal level.

Remember, neutrino detectors count individual atoms (yeah, its not quite the same but still).

OK, I’ve just done a bit of Googling.

This article and several others state that the Polonium tests were run “recently” by the Institute of Radiation Physics in Switzerland on clothes and other items (such as his toothbrush). The clothes were supposedly given to his widow when he died, and were the ones he was supposedly wearing at his death. She was the one who in turn had given the items to them.

However, the Israelis are complaining that the high levels of Polonium found are proof that it was planted on the items much later.

There is also the issue that Arafat wasn’t suffering from the normal symptoms of Polonium poisoning (loss of hair, etc) when he died.

I remember that someone made a fairly compelling case that Arafat’s symptoms, or what could be deduced by the public at least, suggested AIDS as a likely cause of death.

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