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Unsupported Polonium
July 3, 2012 11:38 AM   Subscribe


 
Goodness gracious. This is not a headline I expected to see.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:42 AM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ah, polonium, the element named after its most famous victim, Polonius. Rarely encountered except by direct skin contact with an arras.
posted by gurple at 11:43 AM on July 3, 2012 [10 favorites]


So, assassinated, then.
posted by odinsdream at 11:45 AM on July 3, 2012 [28 favorites]


Someone's been busy
posted by DU at 11:45 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh weird, I guess he was just really into Polonium-based personal-care products. Welp, that wraps that up
posted by Greg Nog at 11:46 AM on July 3, 2012 [19 favorites]


Good work once again Al Jazeera. If you didn't investigate, who would?
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:47 AM on July 3, 2012 [27 favorites]


Yes, I look forward to the CIA "leaked documents" showing how he liked a certain banned antiwrinkle cream.
posted by elizardbits at 11:47 AM on July 3, 2012


That this is the case should be a surprise to nobody. That it was proven, yes, that's surprising.

Not that Israel will ever be held accountable.
posted by kafziel at 11:51 AM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


So, assassinated, then.

Why would the Russians want him dead? And if it wasn't Russians, one wonders what other country has nuclear reactors to make polonium and has the desire to murder him in such a public way.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:55 AM on July 3, 2012 [31 favorites]


Who would do such a thing, and why?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 11:55 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


That this is the case should be a surprise to nobody. That it was proven, yes, that's surprising.

Not that Israel will ever be held accountable.


Held accountable for what? Nobody has proven that Israeli forces poisoned him.
posted by clockzero at 11:56 AM on July 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


And if it wasn't Russians, one wonders what other country has nuclear reactors to make polonium

Hopefully one need not wonder very long.
posted by mek at 11:57 AM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


War is hell, and Arafat wasn't exactly Gandhi. Any reason why the Israelis would want to kill Arafat when Operation Defensive Shield was prompted by Hamas rocket attacks? Doesn't make sense - he was marginalized already.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:57 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who would do such a thing, and why?

1) Frank Stallone 2) for a laugh
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:58 AM on July 3, 2012 [13 favorites]


Yeah, the timing makes no sense at all.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:58 AM on July 3, 2012


Why would the Russians want him dead? And if it wasn't Russians, one wonders what other country has nuclear reactors to make polonium and has the desire to murder him in such a public way.

I was not suggesting any particular party was responsible, just clarifying that, if it is indeed poisoning, the death should be reported as an assassination, it being the murder of a political figure.
posted by odinsdream at 11:59 AM on July 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


As KokuRyu said, by 2004 Arafat was losing relevance quickly. Why go to the effort to remove him from the game when he was no longer a central player?
posted by arcticseal at 12:00 PM on July 3, 2012


Who would do such a thing, and why?

1) Jason Bourne. 2) He doesn't know!!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:01 PM on July 3, 2012 [49 favorites]


If this was the Israelis, then they've sure wasted an opportunity - they replaced Arafat with Abbas and Fayyad, two of the best leaders that they could have hoped for on the Palestinian side, and yet they've done nothing substantive to advance peace, instead continuing to build settlements.
posted by Dasein at 12:01 PM on July 3, 2012


@gurple: Polonium was named after Poland, Marie Curie's native country. But I like your explanation better!
posted by Cash4Lead at 12:02 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why go to the effort to remove him from the game when he was no longer a central player?

To piss off/instigate to violent acts the people who still liked, if not supported, him and/or frame the Russians?
posted by Slackermagee at 12:02 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


...the urine stain on his underwear, 180mBq. (Another man’s pair of underwear, used as a control, measured just 6.7mBq.)

I would like the see this requisition form.

A-6753   150 ml Tubes          2
Q-442    250 ml Beakers        5
W-67     Petri dishes          12
X-35     Underpants (soiled)   1
W-665    Bunsen Burner         3

posted by griphus at 12:02 PM on July 3, 2012 [13 favorites]


Be certain they found someone who was willing to do it for science.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:03 PM on July 3, 2012


This thread's already a disaster. Who said anything about Russia? And why would there need to be "good timing" for the assassination of a figure reviled by entire nations? I guess the conclusion is that he was exposed to polonium accidentally? Sheesh, people.
posted by facetious at 12:03 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why go to the effort to remove him from the game when he was no longer a central player?

Because somebody really didn't like him. Even assassinations can be personal.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:03 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why go to the effort to remove him from the game when he was no longer a central player?

As a dry run for someone else?
posted by elizardbits at 12:03 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hopefully one need not wonder very long.

If this story is true, the real question is why this would take so long to be reported, especially after Litvinenko. This seems to have the makings of a Pulitzer-grade story.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:04 PM on July 3, 2012


dunkadunc: "Yasser Arafat's sudden illness and death in 2004 were a result of polonium poisoning, according to recent findings by the University Centre for Legal Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland."

The article you linked to only says that the findings "hint at" polonium poisoning, for what it's worth.

For the situation to be as cut and dried as you're implying, there would need to be an autopsy. His wife has refused to allow one. Perhaps this news will change her mind, and she'll allow his body to be exhumed so the matter can finally be put to rest.

Doubt it, though.

Also, do we know where his belongings were located between his death and the time when they were tested?
posted by zarq at 12:04 PM on July 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Polonium-210 was readily available in smallish , but still lethal, quantities in 2006 when Litvinenko was assassinated. I remember finding a couple of web pages that advertised it for collectors, and there were a bunch of eBay sellers who could source the stuff. Here's a page from Theo Grey showing some of the forms it was possible to get in the early 2000s.
posted by bonehead at 12:05 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why go to the effort to remove him from the game when he was no longer a central player?

a) To prevent him from ever possibly becoming a central player again.
b) Grudge.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:06 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


c) Threat to successors?
posted by dunkadunc at 12:07 PM on July 3, 2012


210Po has a half life of just over 138 days, so there have been just about 20 halving of the substance -- exactly depends on the exact day the material was introduced and measurted. They reporting finding traces involved in the range of 50-180mBq. (.05-1.8Bq)

20 doublings is a handy number, because it's basically one million. So, they're seeing what's left after 20 half-lives of decay. There was on the order of 50-180 kBQ originally deposited on several items -- he was shedding a fairly incredibly amount of polonium. Clearly, the does would have been on the order of tenths of micrograms, and each .1μg dose of 210Po would result in a whole-body dose of 15-25Sv, well in to the lethal range.

And I suspect that it was more than one tenth of a microgram.
posted by eriko at 12:08 PM on July 3, 2012 [20 favorites]


Who said anything about Russia?

I'm pretty sure that was meant sarcastically.
posted by Dasein at 12:08 PM on July 3, 2012


Blazecock Pileon: "If this story is true, the real question is why this would take so long to be reported, especially after Litvinenko. "

Until Litvinenko, no cases of Po-210 poisoning had ever been documented, so it really wasn't on anyone's radar as a potential poison. (There are easier and more convenient ways to assassinate people.) By then, Arafat was dead and buried, and his wife has consistently refused to have him exhumed. So you'd have to have access to his belongings to run tests... for which you'd have to think of polonium poisoning as a possibility in the first place.
posted by zarq at 12:08 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


So we don't know that he was assassinated, we don't know he was poisoned, we don't know it was polonium, and we don't know why it happened, but we do know it was Israel.

Got it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:08 PM on July 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


eriko: " 20 doublings is a handy number, because it's basically one million. So, they're seeing what's left after 20 half-lives of decay. There was on the order of 50-180 kBQ originally deposited on several items -- he was shedding a fairly incredibly amount of polonium. Clearly, the does would have been on the order of tenths of micrograms, and each .1μg dose of 210Po would result in a whole-body dose of 15-25Sv, well in to the lethal range."

Out of curiosity, if his body was shedding that much polonium, is it possible that people around him would have been getting sick as well?

I'm wondering if there might be documentation somewhere of the people who were caring for him falling ill. Or those who handled his body.
posted by zarq at 12:10 PM on July 3, 2012


You know what else starts with P-O-L?

That's right, you forgot Poland.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:11 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was going to say POLKA but that is virtually the same thing.
posted by elizardbits at 12:13 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]




Correct me if I'm wrong, but there are only 3 nation states that are currently known for using assassinations; US, Russia, and Israel (all of which have access to nuclear material).

The US seems to prefer the non-subtle, death-from-above method; and the US is known for taking credit for it's assassinations.

That leaves Israel and Russia (both of which have been mentioned in this thread).
posted by el io at 12:15 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Bunny, unless there's something I missed in the article, it seems pretty clear that he was in fact poisoned with polonium. Whether it was an assassination or a regular old murder or who did it either way, you are correct in saying we don't know.
posted by kavasa at 12:16 PM on July 3, 2012


[A couple comments removed already. It would be thrilling to not have this be a race to start hollering at each other about Israel and Palestine and so forth.]
posted by cortex at 12:17 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Out of curiosity, if his body was shedding that much polonium, is it possible that people around him would have been getting sick as well?

I'm wondering if there might be documentation somewhere of the people who were caring for him falling ill. Or those who handled his body.


I'm pretty sure polonium in those doses needs to be ingested to be deadly. Dose something he eats or drinks and everyone else walks away unharmed.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:17 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who said anything about Russia?

Russia synthesizes most of the world's supply. So either they supplied it, or another country would have to manufacture its own supply. In this possible murder mystery, what other countries have means, motive and opportunity?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:17 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


kafziel: That this is the case should be a surprise to nobody.
It's possible to die from natural causes, even at his youthful age.
facetious: This thread's already a disaster. Who said anything about Russia? And why would there need to be "good timing" for the assassination of a figure reviled by entire nations? I guess the conclusion is that he was exposed to polonium accidentally? Sheesh, people.
Russia was the source of the only other famous polonium assassination, linked above. That's why Russian involvement is being discussed, and it does not make this thread a "disaster"; people are asking some well-reasoned and thoughtful questions, considering all possibilities.

Cut the histrionics and help the discussion.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:18 PM on July 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yep.

Polonium 210 is a highly radioactive and extremely toxic material but to be used as a lethal poison it requires direct contact with a human's inner tissues.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:19 PM on July 3, 2012


Yeah- Arafat's belongings didn't have Po209 (which would be the kind found in brushes), they had Po210, which you need a reactor for.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:19 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Polonium could have been Russian in origin, without the Russian government being at all responsible. The former USSR's weapons market is porous and wild. It could have been anyone, really. It could have been Israel, or it could have been a competitor from within the Palestinian cause. The timing doesn't make a whole lot of sense either way.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:22 PM on July 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


Dose something he eats or drinks and everyone else walks away unharmed.

Yeah, that's why it was used on Litvinenko. (I assume.) When done "properly" only the victim dies and no one is aware that they were poisoned at all.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:22 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the situation to be as cut and dried as you're implying, there would need to be an autopsy.

Assuming the measurements in the samples they have are true, then somebody died of polonium poisoning. Yes, an autopsy would be more convincing, but for there to be millibecquerals splattered around today, either there was a incredibly tiny does -- and we're talking fractional nano grams -- recently, or a microgram dose in 2004.

Would I convict? Probably not. Would I order the autopsy if I were the judge? Yes. 210Po occurs in nature in incredibly small amounts, it's more typically synthesized by beaming neutrons at 209Bi, which undergoes beta decay (in this case, β+, thus: 209Bi + n -> 210Po + e+ + νe )

The Russians are well known for making about 100g a year of 210Po via this process. Indeed, the whole point of using it to kill Alexander Litvinenko was to make sure he -- and everyone else -- knew exactly who'd done it, by using what seemed to be, at the time, a uniquely Russian weapon.

The interesting thing -- Litvinenko died in 2006. Arafat? 2004. So, did someone want to make it look like the Russians did it? Did they get the materials from the Russians? Or did the Russians decide that Arafat wasn't useful anymore?
posted by eriko at 12:23 PM on July 3, 2012 [19 favorites]


Oh, also, I'm pretty impressed by the tone of the Aljazeera article, it's cautious tone, it's lack of speculation.

I'm trying to imagine what this would look like if Fox news or a British tabloid were reporting on similar news (or CNN or MSNBC for that matter).
posted by el io at 12:24 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


So... Litvinenko was Arafat's assassin?
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:25 PM on July 3, 2012


I'm trying to imagine what this would look like if Fox news or a British tabloid were reporting on similar news (or CNN or MSNBC for that matter).

CNN and Fox News would have breathlessly reported that Yasser Arafat had been killed by the University Centre for Legal Medicine, only to sheepishly correct themselves a few minutes later.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:27 PM on July 3, 2012 [17 favorites]


Out of curiosity, if his body was shedding that much polonium, is it possible that people around him would have been getting sick as well?

Doubtful. It's an alpha emitter, which means it really needs to be in your body to be able to harm you. You could hold a microgram and it wouldn't hurt you at all -- your epidermis is more than able to stop an alpha particle (which is a helium nucleus -- 2p + 2n) . Eat it, though, and you're dead.

Wikipedia gives a number for polonium mining -- processing 37 metric tons of residues left over from radium production gave 40Ci of 210 -- 9 milligrams. Note that's what's left over after digging out all the uranium, thorium and radium.

There's almost no chance this was natural material.
posted by eriko at 12:28 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a paragraph in the Wikipedia article about Arafat that makes me go "Hmm":
Arafat was buried in a stone, rather than wooden coffin, and Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat said that Arafat would be reburied in East Jerusalem following the establishment of a Palestinian state. After Sheikh Taissir Tamimi discovered that Arafat was buried improperly and in a coffin—which is not in accordance with Islamic law—Arafat was reburied on the morning of 13 November at around 3:00 am.
I wonder who was in charge of the original funeral arrangements?
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:29 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


So, did someone want to make it look like the Russians did it?

Huh? No, it would mean that both the Israelis and the Russians are experts at inventing undetectable ways to assassinate people. As I recall, the test for Po-210 was only invented shortly before Litvinenko was poisoned - the Russians probably didn't even know about it and thought that it would be impossible to prove he was poisoned. In the case of Arafat, if the Israelis did it, it was impossible to prove in 2004.
posted by Dasein at 12:29 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


The guy was 76 when he died, not ancient by any means, but still...
posted by KokuRyu at 12:29 PM on July 3, 2012


210Po occurs in nature in incredibly small amounts

This is the tricky part right here: the amounts may be minute, but, as a daughter of Rn-222 it is practically ubiquitous. The amount required to kill a person may be practically only available via irradiation, but the amount they are detecting is not: one gram of soil from your nearest garden could easily contain 50 mBq of Po-210. The difference is that the Po-210 they found is _unsupported_, i.e. not being produced by an equivalent amount of the long-lived grandparent, Pb-210, which is a very good indication it has no reason being there, but it is worth pointing out that it is not entirely impossible that this is a false positive.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:31 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


el io: "Correct me if I'm wrong, but there are only 3 nation states that are currently known for using assassinations; US, Russia, and Israel (all of which have access to nuclear material)."

Iran. And incidentally, Pakistan. Both could conceivably have had access to Polonium. Pakistan seems improbable. But Iran had plenty of reasons to want Arafat gone. He supported Iraq during the Iran / Iraq war, etc. Plus Iran would likely have looked favorably on any plot which framed Israel.
posted by zarq at 12:32 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Iran also supports Hamas.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:33 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think Litvinenko's death was supposed to be attributed to Russia. They wanted it to be mysterious and unsolvable, with everyone knowing who did it but nothing being proved. The discovery of the Polonium was an incredible stroke of luck by the British doctors (or a testament to their thoroughness), even if it didn't help Litvinenko himself. But because of it cases like Arafat's death can now be examined with new techniques.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:34 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Plus Iran would likely have looked favorably on any plot which framed Israel.

If they had want to frame Israel, then why use a method which apes natural causes?
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:35 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


As I recall, the test for Po-210 was only invented shortly before Litvinenko was poisoned

Not true, it's the easiest radiochemical analysis in the book, well known since the start of the atomic age. It's just that nobody thought of performing it on people who mysteriously drop dead, since poisoning someone with Po-210 is hugely impractical unless you are a major nuclear power.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:35 PM on July 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


it is not entirely impossible that this is a false positive

Multiple fluid and tissue samples were drawn, which would seem to reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination from a form of polonium that was found in man-made quantities.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:38 PM on July 3, 2012


Joe in Australia: "There's a paragraph in the Wikipedia article about Arafat that makes me go "Hmm": "

Why? They wanted to reinter him in East Jerusalem, down the road. If he were buried in a wooden coffin, that would have been difficult. His body was brought to the stone grave in a wooden coffin, then removed and interred.

I wonder who was in charge of the original funeral arrangements?"

Fatah.
posted by zarq at 12:38 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sticherbeast: " If they had want to frame Israel, then why use a method which apes natural causes?"

Presumably, to keep people from tracing it back to them. Anyway, *if* discovered, people would be more likely to believe Israel had done it than anyone else.
posted by zarq at 12:44 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who could have thought that was a good idea?

Bet they feel like fuckwits now.

Or not - "this complete soul crushing nightmare of a situation is actually awesome! We are vindicated!"
posted by Artw at 12:48 PM on July 3, 2012


As I recall, the test for Po-210 was only invented shortly before Litvinenko was poisoned

Not true, it's the easiest radiochemical analysis in the book, well known since the start of the atomic age.


Right. I was thinking of the dioxin they used to poison Viktor Yushchenko - sorry about that. So hard to keep track of these FSB poisonings.
posted by Dasein at 12:48 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was not at all surprised to hear this because I already suspected Arafat's Parkinson's was due to deliberate poisoning-- but seeing the post made my stomach drop anyway.
posted by jamjam at 12:51 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Presumably, to keep people from tracing it back to them.

Erm. But since it apes natural causes, no one in power gave the idea of foul play much thought. It's not a frame job if no one is aware that a crime has occurred. If someone had wanted to frame Israel, why wouldn't they leak rumors about Polonium?

Anyway, *if* discovered, people would be more likely to believe Israel had done it than anyone else.

This would be true no matter the mechanism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2012


Dude was probably like some kind of experimental poison testbed by the time he dropped off.
posted by Artw at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Multiple fluid and tissue samples were drawn, which would seem to reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination from a form of polonium that was found in man-made quantities.

Eh, I hate to play devil's advocate without just a news article to go on but the amounts we are talking about are not outside the realm of natural possibility: Po-210 for example is found in tobacco, contaminating the clothes by storing them for a couple of years in a smoky space could possibly produce such an effect. Pretty far fetched, but then again so is an assassin with access to lethal amounts of Po-210 going after a 76 year old man.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2012


going after a 76 year old man.

I don't see what Arafat's age has anything to do with it. I have no idea if there's any meat to these rumors, but if you want the guy dead, then you want the guy dead.

Interesting about the cigarette angle, though.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:56 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Po-210 for example is found in tobacco, contaminating the clothes by storing them for a couple of years in a smoky space could possibly produce such an effect.

To plays devil's advocate, if that hypothesis is true, we have hundreds of millions of chain smokers around the world who would be similarly contaminated, no?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:57 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


If it is a long term Russian plot to frame up Israel they're going to be sorely disappinted by the results - which will be fuck all happens.
posted by Artw at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2012


Because it has such a short half-life natural Po210 is always found in conjunction with parent elements which are replenishing the supply -- that's the "unsupported" part of it. The amounts were 10x background, found in association with multiple samples of Arafat's bodily fluids which have been in storage for 20 half-lives. Dude was poisoned.
posted by localroger at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2012 [12 favorites]


To plays devil's advocate, if that hypothesis is true, we have hundreds of millions of chain smokers around the world who would be similarly contaminated, no?

Yeah, wouldn't the Swiss have noticed that the Po-210 levels were in line with that of a smoker or a set of clothing left in a smoky place?
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Reading the MeFi thread on the Litvinenko assassination is illuminating--a lot of the same arguments about whether this was truly polonium poisoning and who might have been behind it.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:01 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Polonium can be easily purchased by you, me or anyone. It is used in Staticmaster anti-static brushes. I used to use these brushes to get dust off photo negatives. They work great.
posted by tommyD at 1:03 PM on July 3, 2012


Yes, elevated Po-210 is routinely measured in the urine of smokers.

I don't have any figures handy, and may well be off by an order of magnitude but read the final sentence in the article to see why I am skeptical: They found that 60-80% of the Po-210 in the samples is unsupported,i.e. the Po-210 naturally present in the samples is in the same order of magnitude as what they are considering evidence of poisoning. I'm not trying to dismiss the findings, but there clearly is room for doubt.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:04 PM on July 3, 2012


The institute studied Arafat’s personal effects, which his widow provided to Al Jazeera, the first time they had been examined by a laboratory.

There I would have to ask "why?".
posted by Artw at 1:04 PM on July 3, 2012


And as contamination was found in urine samples from soiled underwear, he'd have to be a nearly-naked chain smoker, who happened to smoke so much in one particular setting (within the time frame of the half-life of the element) that there is enough concentrated polonium contamination for the clinic's physicians to reach the conclusion that he was dosed — ignoring the other lifetime smokers who should, in theory, be similarly diagnosed, but aren't. And that's leaving aside samples taken from other (clothed) areas of the body. It just seems a less probable explanation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:07 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Artw: "Dude was probably like some kind of experimental poison testbed by the time he dropped off."

Perhaps he was Mike Malloy in another life?
posted by zarq at 1:09 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zarq: I've heard of bodies being removed and reinterred after burial in wooden coffins; even after burial with no coffin at all. Corpses last longer than you might expect, particularly in the Middle East. But my understanding is that Islamic burials typically use no coffin at all and in any event he was being buried in a concrete vault. Here's a description of the funeral from the Guardian.

So Arafat had no autopsy; his body was subsequently was placed in a stone coffin (where the hell do you find a stone coffin on short notice?) and the people burying him avoided handling it. And according to that article, Arafat's room was locked up after his death. There are innocent explanations for all of this - perhaps Suha Arafat was scared of autopsies, I suppose a stone coffin is more dignified, the article says that the security guards were rushed by their fear of the crowds, the room was locked to preserve it as a museum - but these things also sound like precautions against radioactive contamination. When you have several unexpected elements of a story there's often a single thread connecting them.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:10 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The whole thing doesn't make sense. I just don't see any intersection between the set of people who wanted him dead and those who had the means to do it.

For all that the Israeli government surely didn't like him he was a known quantity to them. The two potential outcomes of killing him (even if you don't get caught) are that either the fledgling Palestinian state erupts into violence or he's replaced by a younger generation of more effective leaders (which is what happened).

His Palestinian rivals might have wanted him dead but they'd never have the means for something like this.
posted by atrazine at 1:12 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Atrazine - you're assuming the Israeli government as smart players there and not vindictive assholes. I would not make any cash bets based on this assumption.
posted by Artw at 1:14 PM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


his body was subsequently was placed in a stone coffin (where the hell do you find a stone coffin on short notice?) and the people burying him avoided handling it

See, this is where you go looking for way higher levels of contamination to support the poisoning hypothesis. If the guy was dosed with such high amounts that contamination of his clothes and toothbrush is detectable today, the coffin and remains would be a smoking gun.

As an aside, I may have confused things with the smoking angle: Arafat himsself smoking clearly can't have been the source of the activity detected. Any reasonable amount would have long decayed in the 8 years since his death: contamination from another source, such as tobacco smoke or a high radon space could have been more recent.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:17 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


The two potential outcomes of killing him (even if you don't get caught) are that either the fledgling Palestinian state erupts into violence or he's replaced by a younger generation of more effective leaders (which is what happened).

Fledgling Palestinian state erupts into violence = great for Israel.

Younger generation of more angry, more religious Palestinian leaders = great for Israel.
posted by colie at 1:19 PM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


The whole thing doesn't make sense.

does anything in the middle east make sense?
posted by pyramid termite at 1:19 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


So they've found significant Po210 on personal artifacts, but what was the chain of custody involved there, and what's the statistical certainty of the tests? Arafat's wife just kept his used toothbrush sealed up for eight years until she handed it over to Al Jazeera?

By all means, exhume the body and run some more tests, but considering how loaded this issue is, and the lack of an obvious motive for anyone with access to this very rare substance to assassinate an increasingly irrelevant Arafat (as others have pointed out upthread), maybe it's jumping to conclusions to call this an assassination just yet.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:21 PM on July 3, 2012


I recall that his widow--living lavishly in Paris with the tons of money stolen from the Palestinians--refused to release the autopsy report. Why?
well, here is the suggestion of WHY
posted by Postroad at 1:21 PM on July 3, 2012


That URL appears to contain the word "tea party".
posted by Artw at 1:23 PM on July 3, 2012 [35 favorites]


So they've found significant Po210 on personal artifacts, but what was the chain of custody involved there, and what's the statistical certainty of the tests? Arafat's wife just kept his used toothbrush sealed up for eight years until she handed it over to Al Jazeera?

That's what I'm wondering. Not that the average toothbrush storage facility is next door to a nuclear reactor, but there's had to be opportunity for tampering.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:24 PM on July 3, 2012


My theory: Mrs Arafat has given the Swiss Yasser's special smoking underpants, from Chernobyl's famous cotton fields, hand made in Tel Aviv and given as a gift by the Iranian government.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:24 PM on July 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


Joe in Australia: "So Arafat had no autopsy; his body was subsequently was placed in a stone coffin (where the hell do you find a stone coffin on short notice?) and the people burying him avoided handling it. "

He was buried in a wooden coffin, in a grave that had been lined with cement so that his body could one day be reburied on the Temple Mount. The article you linked to said that the men removed the coffin from the grave, removed his body from the coffin, and then placed it in the cement-lined grave itself, without the coffin, to fulfill Islamic burial requirements. It does not say that he was placed in a stone coffin.

It also doesn't say that people avoided handling his body. His wife refused to have him autopsied from day one. Islamic practices discourage autopsies. It was not unreasonable or unexpected for his wife to want her husband to be buried quickly, and his body not subjected to an autopsy. She was under no obligation to satisfy anyone's curiosity.
posted by zarq at 1:25 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish: "That's what I'm wondering. Not that the average toothbrush storage facility is next door to a nuclear reactor, but there's had to be opportunity for tampering."

Considering his death was in line with polonium poisoning, I lean toward the samples being legitimate. I hope there will be a proper autopsy, though.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:26 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yup, it all comes down to the possibility of tampering. Given that the evidence wasn't tampered with I don't see any reason to start constructing elaborate theories that the obvious didn't happen.
posted by Artw at 1:27 PM on July 3, 2012


It is probably worth noting that these atomic isotope tests are some of the most accurate tests physicists are capable of performing, easily identifying contaminants whose atoms could be counted. 60% to 80% unsupported is not in fact the borderline thing it might sound like; it is a 2 to 1 to 3 to 1 signal to noise ratio, and it correlates strongly with stains of Arafat's body fluids. There is basically no chance that this is natural contamination.
posted by localroger at 1:29 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not, as I say, that this is likely to have an consequence or change anyone's opinions of any of the actors involved.
posted by Artw at 1:31 PM on July 3, 2012


The Atlantic's take on the story brings up an important point: Arafat wasn't in good health in 2004:

The New York Times, for instance, reported in 2005 that Arafat had surely suffered a stroke resulting from an unknown infection and bleeding disorder. The paper's Steven Erlanger and Lawrence K. Altman based their finding on "a first independent review" of medical records from the French military hospital where Arafat died.

Which contradicts al-Jazeera's argument.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:32 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Alternative explanation: Arafat was drinking Litvinenko's pee.
posted by goethean at 1:40 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


At least Stuxnet had a little class.
posted by crunchland at 1:41 PM on July 3, 2012


The important question is when is Israel going to demand an apology from Obama for this.
posted by Artw at 1:42 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you're going to tamper with these results, why would you use a poison that doesn't line up with the known symptoms, though?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:43 PM on July 3, 2012


Lethal amounts of Po-210 may not be as difficult to come by as we've been thinking. The report only lists thefts since 2004, and it's not clear the amounts stolen were lethal, but it's out there.

About Illicit Ttrafficking Incidents Involving Po-210

Of the approximately 520 incidents reported by States to the IAEA´s Illicit Trafficking Data Base since 2004, 14 incidents have involved industrial Po-210 sources. Three of these incidents occurred in 2006. The incidents involved the theft, loss, or disposal of static eliminators and air ionizers containing sealed Po-210 sources. Po-210 used in these sealed sources is bound with other materials and extraction of the Po-210 would require some chemical treatment in a laboratory.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:46 PM on July 3, 2012


[I feel like I should not have to actually say "do not repeatedly make weird lulzy THE JEWS DID IT comments", but, here we are. Cut it out.]
posted by cortex at 1:47 PM on July 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


From this article on Litvinenko, New Scientist:
Litvinenko was not admitted to London's University College Hospital until 17 November. His symptoms, reported to include hair loss, dehydration, vomiting and a very low white blood cell count, are consistent with poisoning by a radioactive material.
Now, I am not a doctor, and haven't seen Arafat's chart but I would think that either:

A) Such symptoms would look pretty damn strange to occur so suddenly in a relatively healthy 76yo (maybe some bloodpressure meds, etc.).

B) Arafat was already so sick, with diseases unknown, that having certain symptoms that mimic radiation poisoning wasn't an obvious indicator for radiation poisoning.

Essentially, I am skeptical.
posted by rosswald at 1:47 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you're going to tamper with these results, why would you use a poison that doesn't line up with the known symptoms, though?

Incompetence.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:48 PM on July 3, 2012


Holy shit.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:50 PM on July 3, 2012


60% to 80% unsupported is not in fact the borderline thing it might sound like; it is a 2 to 1 to 3 to 1 signal to noise ratio

The amount of unsupported Po-210 is determined by monitoring the decay curve over several weeks, it's not a simple peak to background comparison. I'll just say I've seen plenty of fudging about in low level radon daughter measurements where nobody was looking to score any political points and leave it at that.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:51 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not, as I say, that this is likely to have an consequence or change anyone's opinions of any of the actors involved.
posted by Artw
No kidding.
The important question is when is Israel going to demand an apology from Obama for this.
posted by Artw
posted by rosswald at 1:52 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


By all means, exhume the body and run some more tests, but considering how loaded this issue is, and the lack of an obvious motive for anyone with access to this very rare substance to assassinate an increasingly irrelevant Arafat

Who would have motive?

(1) Israel. (2) Hamas.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:52 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


why would you use a poison that doesn't line up with the known symptoms

Polonium would destroy white blood cells, which would impact the immune system. It also collects in various tissues throughout the body, including the liver, where heavy metal poisoning could cause cirrhosis. These were the same symptoms seen in Arafat before his death.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:56 PM on July 3, 2012


Polonium can be easily purchased by you, me or anyone. It is used in Staticmaster anti-static brushes. I used to use these brushes to get dust off photo negatives. They work great.

No.

"Arafat's belongings didn't have Po209 (which would be the kind found in brushes), they had Po210, which you need a reactor for."
posted by elizardbits at 1:57 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


After watching the report, I do think they ought to exhume the body.

the thing is, these types of radioactive materials are often traceable.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:59 PM on July 3, 2012


I read it was AIDS in Haaretz. I heard the French destroyed the results of his HIV tests.
posted by Renoroc at 1:59 PM on July 3, 2012


@BP: I'm not saying the substance doesn't fit the symptoms. I'm saying we shouldn't read too much into the fact that it does.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:01 PM on July 3, 2012


Renoroc: "I read it was AIDS in Haaretz. I heard the French destroyed the results of his HIV tests."

Citation needed.

posted by dunkadunc at 2:02 PM on July 3, 2012


The story is now in the Telegraph, a politically conservative paper in the UK with a fairly decent reputation, if I still remember rightly.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:04 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


IIRC the AIDS 'theory' was heavily pushed by David Frum and had super gross "haw haw he was a fag" undertones
posted by theodolite at 2:11 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I heard the French destroyed the results of his HIV tests.

I heard Janis Ian has a lesbian crush on Regina George!
posted by elizardbits at 2:15 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Forgetting the media, Arafat's doctors would have known whether he had AIDS or not (testing being easily available in 2004, though not like the rapid testing today).

If his doctors knew that he didn't have AIDS, what else would they have thought these symptoms were other than radiation?
posted by rosswald at 2:17 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fledgling Palestinian state erupts into violence = great for Israel.

Younger generation of more angry, more religious Palestinian leaders = great for Israel.


Plenty of countries around the world, Israel included, do not do things that are not great for them?
posted by juiceCake at 2:26 PM on July 3, 2012


colie: "Fledgling Palestinian state erupts into violence = great for Israel.

Younger generation of more angry, more religious Palestinian leaders = great for Israel.
"

Both of these conclusions are debatable. I disagree with them.

Violence in the Palestinian territories typically is directed at Israel and Israelis. Angry religious rhetoric results in violence and suicide bombers. Again, directed at Israelis. Especially towards the fundamentalist Settlers. Israel then tends toward inappropriately disproportionate responses, and No. One. Wins. No one. Palestinians die. Israelis die. Armed conflict. Suicide attacks. Rocket attacks. International condemnation and varying consequences. Political and economic unrest in Israel. Oppression in Gaza and the West Bank. Typically resulting in the hawkish Israeli right wing and hawkish Hamas gaining support. The damned, bloody cycle continues because no one can possibly see how peace can be possible while people are slaughtering each other and not trying to resolve the situation.

The idea that Israel somehow "wins" by perpetuating this horrible situation is wrong. Even if the Israeli right wing believes it wholeheartedly. This is not to say that the Palestinians themselves aren't also to blame for continuing the violence..
posted by zarq at 2:39 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mitt is on his way.
posted by Artw at 2:43 PM on July 3, 2012


He was isolated and sleeping in his office for the last few months of his life. The list of people who could have poisoned just him and no other people around him has to be pretty small. Rather than try to identify the poisoner by motive they should look at the logs of visitors and staff who had contact.

On the other hand cigarette tobacco does contain higher than normal levels of the stuff and Arafat was a heavy smoker. It isn't totally impossible that he got a lethal dose by chain-smoking 24x7 in a sealed office with a dozen other people for weeks on end with no sleep and extreme stress.
posted by humanfont at 2:44 PM on July 3, 2012


humanfont: "On the other hand cigarette tobacco does contain higher than normal levels of the stuff and Arafat was a heavy smoker. It isn't totally impossible that he got a lethal dose by chain-smoking 24x7 in a sealed office with a dozen other people for weeks on end with no sleep and extreme stress."

I don't buy that.

To quote Blazecock Pileon: "And as contamination was found in urine samples from soiled underwear, he'd have to be a nearly-naked chain smoker, who happened to smoke so much in one particular setting (within the time frame of the half-life of the element) that there is enough concentrated polonium contamination for the clinic's physicians to reach the conclusion that he was dosed — ignoring the other lifetime smokers who should, in theory, be similarly diagnosed, but aren't. And that's leaving aside samples taken from other (clothed) areas of the body. It just seems a less probable explanation."
posted by dunkadunc at 2:46 PM on July 3, 2012


again, Arafat's wife had the autoshy report and refused to make it public. Why?
posted by Postroad at 2:51 PM on July 3, 2012


Oh, this feels bad. Hopefully not Archduke Ferdinand bad.
Weirdly, NPR is not reporting this yet.
posted by angrycat at 2:58 PM on July 3, 2012


I imagine you don't live to be a revolutionary political figure of Arafat's age without having done and owed plenty of favors to a lot of important people. The truth might very well be outside of the usual suspects being mentioned thus far, regardless of who makes Po210. The short half-life, though - wouldn't this be an encouraging sign, in the sense that there'd have to be a very short path from source to Arafat?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:58 PM on July 3, 2012


Cash4Lead: "Reading the MeFi thread on the Litvinenko assassination is illuminating--a lot of the same arguments about whether this was truly polonium poisoning and who might have been behind it."

I don't believe it's illuminating at all. This is an extraordinary claim. Skepticism is warranted. The fact that skeptics turned out to be wrong once in the past does not mean it is always wrong to ask questions.
posted by koeselitz at 3:10 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]




I'm struggling with what advantage Israel would have gained from killing an isolated, ineffective leader, in the years after it had put down the second intafada.
posted by Dasein at 3:12 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The truth might very well be outside of the usual suspects being mentioned thus far, regardless of who makes Po210.

Given how rare the substance is, isn't the source kind of an important detail — possibly a critical one — that establishes more clearly who is behind this, and why? I imagine any state actor handing over this stuff to an assassin would want to know what it is used for, if only to isolate themselves from the repercussions.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:16 PM on July 3, 2012


I don't believe it's illuminating at all. This is an extraordinary claim. Skepticism is warranted. The fact that skeptics turned out to be wrong once in the past does not mean it is always wrong to ask questions.

Well, TBH it's not like some of the skepticism doesn't constitute extraordinary claims in itself. He gave himself Polonium poisoning through smoking! It's a Russian plot! Completly unsupported claim he had AIDS!

I'd be more concerned with more orthodox questions, like why was this left so long and is there a possibility of tampering in that interval?
posted by Artw at 3:16 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Given how rare the substance is, isn't the source kind of an important detail — possibly a critical one — that establishes more clearly who is behind this, and why? I imagine any state actor handing over this stuff to an assassin would want to know what it is used for, if only to isolate themselves from the repercussions.

Yeah, that's a good point. The poison in question does limit the number of folks who could have made it.

As far as the timing goes, I think stating the guy was ineffectual and past his prime assumes we know everything Arafat was up to or was hoping to put into play. Whoever did him in clearly thought he was a threat, especially considering the lengths gone to in order to reach him.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:23 PM on July 3, 2012


But without the body we don't even know for sure if he was poisoned (despite what this post says). There is the possibility it could have been placed after the fact.
posted by rosswald at 3:32 PM on July 3, 2012


I don't believe it's illuminating at all. This is an extraordinary claim. Skepticism is warranted. The fact that skeptics turned out to be wrong once in the past does not mean it is always wrong to ask questions.

There was no lack of Israeli politicians blaming him for everything under the sun and seeing him as the major roadblock to peace right up until 2004. To pretend otherwise is revisionist history.
posted by Artw at 3:35 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is the possibility it could have been placed after the fact.

That's true, too. It would definitely make finding the source more important. I wonder if these samples were ever compared with those taken from Litvinenko? There might be other compounds present to match up the source of the weapon.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:37 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


To pretend otherwise is revisionist history.

Our favorite kind.
posted by maxwelton at 3:38 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The story's been updated:

Arafat's widow calls to exhume his body
posted by dunkadunc at 4:02 PM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


That could certainly shake things up.
posted by Artw at 4:04 PM on July 3, 2012


That would rule out the widow with the lead pipe in the study.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:05 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Meanwhile, what's on the front page of CNN? Tom and Katie.

Once again, Al Jazeera is the lone voice of usefulness amid a sea of idiocy.
posted by elizardbits at 4:06 PM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Glad she changed her mind.
posted by rosswald at 4:06 PM on July 3, 2012


That would rule out the widow with the lead pipe in the study.

slowclap.gif
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:07 PM on July 3, 2012


Reuters
posted by rosswald at 4:21 PM on July 3, 2012


The Litvinenko murder was very different. Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who lived long enough to deduce out what had happened to him and to name to the world who did it to him. I expect that was exactly the plan with Litvinenko:

The Russians sent agents into the UK and committed what was objectively an act of war: bringing in the nuclear material into the country and using it to kill. They wanted Litvinenko to announce what had happened for the British people to KNOW what had happened, to test whether the UK (and the West generally) had the stomach for re-igniting the cold war. The UK demonstrated it did not. Russia then invaded Georgia among other risky gambits.

There HAVE to be easier ways to assassinate someone, especially if you want it to be undetected. Just transporting the polonium is crazy dangerous (the Russian agents who infected Litvinenko also got deathly sick).

So, if the reasoning was the same for this assassination--to send a message of some sort (that a nation was behind it?)--they failed miserably. It was not detected for eight years!
posted by boo at 4:29 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


again, Arafat's wife had the autoshy report and refused to make it public. Why?

What do you mean, autopsy report? It's well known that she refused to allow an autopsy.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:36 PM on July 3, 2012


D'oh! I just realized that this means Arafat was poisoned two years BEFORE Litvinenko. I had assumed that Arafat was a copycat murder, but it was the other way around.

That, to me, makes Russia the number one suspect, because it is such a werid an inefficient mode of assassination, it seems odd that two nation states would use it. Was Arafat the trial run? Were they frustrated that no one figured it out and picked Litvinenko to be sure that people connected the dots? But, then again, why on earth would the Russians want to publicly assassinate Arafat?
posted by boo at 4:37 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]




Why can't it be convergent evolution? Any nuclear power would have access to polonium and ample opportunity to notice its effects.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:13 PM on July 3, 2012


Why can't it be convergent evolution?

Because polonium is nowhere near the easiest way to poison someone. To transport it, alone, you have to take nuclear material through border checkpoints, airports, etc. The people who poisoned Litvinenko got radiation poisoning themselves. It is detectable (for a long time) and, usually (but maybe not after 8 years) traceable back to its source. Scottland Yard had a pretty easy task of proving exactly who poisoned Litvinenko--which was, after all, the plan. If Arafat really was assassinated with polonium, one would have to assume that, like Putin/Lugovoy, the poisoner wanted to get credit. That's too much of a coincidental motivation and tactic to be convergent evolution.
posted by boo at 5:25 PM on July 3, 2012


Lot of assumptions there.
posted by Artw at 5:29 PM on July 3, 2012


To transport it, alone, you have to take nuclear material through border checkpoints, airports, etc.

Not if you control those borders.

If Arafat really was assassinated with polonium, one would have to assume that, like Putin/Lugovoy, the poisoner wanted to get credit.

No, one would not.
posted by Dasein at 5:36 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Back in 2004 I'd suspected Arafat had been fed an isotope of some sort, I just wish I'd written my suspicions down. This discovery is rather vindicating, if anything.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:36 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lot of assumptions there.

Yes, I am assuming that the Arafat story turns out to be true.

I don't think the assumptions about the Litvinenko case are that far-fetched at all. Lugovoy personally met with Litvinenko (who knew Lugovoy was FSB) to administer the polonium. Litvinenko was a former KGB agent. I'm pretty sure they expected that 1. He would assume he had been poisoned in some way when he got dramatically ill a day after meeting with his nemesis and 2. He would live long enough to tell the world who did it 3. Scottland yard would be obliged to investigate and obliged to make public who did it.

From the wikipedia page Litvinenko was the first known death from polonium-210. If Arafat was really poisoned as well, there have been two deaths EVER from polonium-210 and they both were assassinations. And the second one had a known culprit.
posted by boo at 5:39 PM on July 3, 2012


why on earth would the Russians want to publicly assassinate Arafat?

This wasn't public. Polonium wasn't on anyone's radar at this time. Whoever poisoned him was doing it secretly. Hamas, which was the big winner from Arafat's death, was based in Syria until the Recent Unpleasantness. Russia's Mediterranean naval base is in Syria. Perhaps someone in Hamas asked the Russians for an untraceable poison?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:40 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


If Arafat really was assassinated with polonium, one would have to assume that, like Putin/Lugovoy, the poisoner wanted to get credit.

Or maybe the poisoner wanted somebody else to get credit; Hamas was no fan of Arafat , and if they could get some polonium, everyone would blame Israel or the US. The tricky part is getting the polonium, but maybe they found the right disgruntled Russian soldier to bribe.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:42 PM on July 3, 2012


I MISTOOK ...age, memory etc I meant to say Mrs. A. refused to allow an autopsy and mistakenly said she would not make it available. Why, though , would she refuse if she thought he was poisoned, killed by Israelis or enemies?
This article offers possibilities.
posted by Postroad at 5:43 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


According to news reports, Arafat may also have had HIV, the virus that AIDS mutates from

I'm sorry, I can't take that very seriously.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:45 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Joe in Australia,

But it's not untraceable, they just didn't test for that. It's still detectable 8 years later, apparently (if it really is true) and in Litvinenko's case they were able to trace that grade back to Russia, if I recall.

qxntpqbbbqxl,

Yes, that's a possibility.

Please note, I realize this is ignorant irresponsible speculation on my part...which I trust is harmless, since I'm nobody. I am assuming that the same thoughts are going through the heads of every intelligence agency on the planet right now.
posted by boo at 5:45 PM on July 3, 2012


Dasein, name another reason why you would use polonium over ricin, arsenic or any other of thousands of poisons that are easier to acquire and transport, some of which are untraceable. (Besides, as qxntpqbbbqxl suggests, wanting to frame another nation state.)
posted by boo at 5:55 PM on July 3, 2012


This article offers possibilities

Is it AIDS?

/clicks

Yup, it's AIDS. Huge suprise.
posted by Artw at 6:05 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Po-210 for example is found in tobacco, contaminating the clothes by storing them for a couple of years in a smoky space could possibly produce such an effect.

If there was enough to leave 50mBq in a sample after 20 half lives have passed, then every single smoker in the world died of 210polonium poisoning after smoking about a pack.

Seriously -- this is blood and urine stains. If 50-180kBq came out in those small samples, we're talking TBq total body dose.
posted by eriko at 6:34 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dasein, name another reason why you would use polonium over ricin, arsenic or any other of thousands of poisons that are easier to acquire and transport, some of which are untraceable.

Poisons are not untraceable. You'd use polonium because no one would think to test for polonium - which is precisely what happened.
posted by Dasein at 6:34 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yup, it's AIDS. Huge suprise.

Hey, at least it wasn't lizard people.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:46 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ricin is a much less desirable poison than Po-210. It's much less toxic so a lot more is needed to produce a toxic dose. It's hard to get to the target---it has to be ingested or injected. Reportedly, it is bitter and hard to mask. Symptoms are well known, and, by 2004 there were several rapid tests for it (one of the products of 9/11). Ricin is relatively easy to make, but it's a poor mans' weapon. some analysts interpreted the fact that al Qeda was mucking about with ricin as evidence of its lak of technical chops.

If better poisons are available, a smart assassin will chose something else.
posted by bonehead at 6:58 PM on July 3, 2012


If Arafat was really poisoned as well, there have been two deaths EVER from polonium-210

Because if we don't know about them, then they don't count.

Which is why the official Chernobyl death count is such good news.
posted by Twang at 7:06 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


bonehead,

Maybe ricin is not desirable, but neither is polonium. There are a lot of poisons that wouldn't be detectable 8 years later on the clothes, and possibly traced back to the reactor where it was created. Certainly an entity with access to polonium has access to other, better poisons. There are a lot of other poisons that don't risk setting off a geiger counter. There are a lot of other poisons that don't risk killing the poisoner so easily. In the Litvinenko case, they left a trail of polonium everywhere they went, from lightswitch in the hotel room, to their luggage, to the coffee shop where they administered it. And a lot of poisons work faster and produce less bizarre symptoms. Remember, Arafat's death did not look all that natural at the time, they just didn't think to test for polonium.
posted by boo at 7:13 PM on July 3, 2012


goethean: "Alternative explanation: Arafat was drinking Litvinenko's pee."

Is true. I saw it on ControversialFiguresWatersports.com.

For one a porn site has told me the TRUTH!
posted by Samizdata at 7:17 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


elizardbits: "I heard the French destroyed the results of his HIV tests.

I heard Janis Ian has a lesbian crush on Regina George!
"

Damn your eyes, now I will have to finally succumb to seeing Mean Girls. There seems to be too much Blue Joy for me to resist.
posted by Samizdata at 7:33 PM on July 3, 2012




If there was enough to leave 50mBq in a sample after 20 half lives have passed, then every single smoker in the world died of 210polonium poisoning after smoking about a pack.

This is only true because you are assuming the Po-210 found has been there for 20 half lives. Contamination of the samples may have happened at any more recent time, bringing the amount required down to more mundane levels.

I'm just speculating here, because I haven't seen any details of the analysis, but I would be easily convinced something is going on if they analyzed, say, a patch of cloth from an area away from any stains and found no (or significantly less) contamination. Note that Po-210 is a pure alpha emitter, which means they have probably destroyed the samples (or at least significantly altered, e.g. by leaching with some solvent), so it may not be possible to do such an analysis any more.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:32 PM on July 3, 2012


Is it possible to trace Po-210 to a specfic reactor, the way it's possible to fingerprint the fallout from a nuclear bomb?
posted by Dasein at 8:59 PM on July 3, 2012


Fucker still owes me a hearing aid.

But I guess I won't be seeking redress from his estate.

Safety first...
posted by ocschwar at 9:06 PM on July 3, 2012





I MISTOOK ...age, memory etc I meant to say Mrs. A. refused to allow an autopsy and mistakenly said she would not make it available. Why, though , would she refuse if she thought he was poisoned, killed by Israelis or enemies?


Because she has been living in the lap of luxury in Paris, France, for the entire time.

Every man has his price. I'll give her credit for setting a high price on her virtue.

Well, over that. I mean, covering up Yasser Arafat's murder is sketchy, but marrying that guy?

Gross.
posted by ocschwar at 9:10 PM on July 3, 2012


And from an old BBC news article "There aren't many places around the world that make polonium. I was able to find only two or three, so I don't think we are looking at 50 different places." -Ian Hutcheon, an expert in nuclear forensics at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California
posted by boo at 9:13 PM on July 3, 2012


boo: ""There aren't many places around the world that make polonium. I was able to find only two or three, so I don't think we are looking at 50 different places.""

My understanding is that until recently, none of them were particularly well regulated. So, assuming any of this is true and Arafat was assassinated with polonium, (a big 'if') finding the source probably won't determine without a shadow of a doubt who did the deed.
posted by zarq at 9:25 PM on July 3, 2012


"...Arafat’s body itself would be the last remaining source of conclusive evidence. Exhuming it would require approval from the Palestinian Authority; shipping bone samples outside of the West Bank would require permission from the Israeli government."

From the new article at Aljazeera.

I hope the government of Israel is cooperative in this, as apparently their permission is needed to proceed in the investigation.
posted by el io at 9:26 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


If they refuse to cooperate, no one will ever believe that they didn't do it.
posted by Dasein at 9:37 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shipping samples out of the West Bank would require a tourist or PA official to stick them in their pocket and drive or walk through a checkpoint into Israel. It is not what one might call an impermeable barrier. None the less, and call me Mr Cynical if you must, I strongly suspect that Yasser Arafat's successors will not produce any such samples.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:02 PM on July 3, 2012


Well, TBH it's not like some of the skepticism doesn't constitute extraordinary claims in itself. He gave himself Polonium poisoning through smoking!

Except this isn't what anyone (in this thread, anyway) has said. They're saying simply that, when taking a devil's advocate position about these tests, there's some (probably small) chance that these new tests showed high levels because of smoke. You're completely misrepresenting what was said.
posted by inigo2 at 10:39 PM on July 3, 2012


Dead heroes are far superior to ineffective leaders. Motives vary with perpetrators.
posted by Goofyy at 1:52 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the contamination by cigarette smoke is impossible. Published data on cigarettes is .04 picocurries. So based on 20 half lives in the case Arafat the heavy smoker poisons himself. Arafat would have to have been exposed to more than 35.5 million cigarettes in a 148 day period. And that's just looking at the lower readings on his clothing, ignoring the much higher readings on his underwear.

The numbers of cigarettes required to acheive that kind of contamination in the subsequent years in storage is also very high given the 148 day half life of the material. Even of we assume a single very recent contamination event it would be the equivalent of someone blowing the smoke of 30-40 cigarettes through the outer garments. I suppose 4 technicians smoking a pack each before testing in close proximity to the clothing is possible; but it seems unlikely.
posted by humanfont at 8:03 AM on July 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Heh. Do cigars next! Then pipes!


Seriously, thanks for putting that to rest.
posted by zarq at 11:07 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Arafat would have to have been exposed to more than 35.5 million cigarettes in a 148 day period.

That would means Arafat was smoking 239865 cigarettes a day, or 2.77 cigarettes a second, 24/7, for five months straight.

The first and most obvious question, of course, is what he bought with all those Marlboro Miles? Or did his widow get those?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:41 PM on July 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm trying to picture how many tonnes of tar he would have been covered in after such a smoking stint.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:44 PM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah all of your calculations are correct. Never mind that the idea that he poisoned himself by smoking is idiotic, and no one suggested it. Taking the minute amount of polonium existing today and decaying backwards by twenty half-lives to reach an astronomical amount is clearly the correct way to think about this, so don't let me spoil your fun - you obviously do Po-210 analyses every day and know what you are talking about.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:11 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Palestinians May Exhume Arafat After Report of Poisoning

A potentially explosive re-examination of the circumstances behind the death of Yasir Arafat, the symbol of the Palestinian national struggle, has galvanized Palestinian suspicions that he was poisoned and led the Palestinian Authority to agree in principle on Wednesday to an exhumation of his remains, possibly within days.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:17 PM on July 4, 2012


I still want to see the Mythbusters take this on.
posted by humanfont at 3:41 PM on July 4, 2012


That's right, you forgot Poland

I don't miss George W, but sometimes I do miss George W jokes. Make the pie higher! Make the pie higher!
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 3:52 PM on July 4, 2012


Dr Dracator: Yeah all of your calculations are correct. Never mind that the idea that he poisoned himself by smoking is idiotic, and no one suggested it. Taking the minute amount of polonium existing today and decaying backwards by twenty half-lives to reach an astronomical amount is clearly the correct way to think about this, so don't let me spoil your fun - you obviously do Po-210 analyses every day and know what you are talking about.
Do you need a hug? Because you sound like you need a hug.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:23 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


IAmBroom: "Do you need a hug? Because you sound like you need a hug."

If he offers you tea, RUN! :D
posted by zarq at 9:29 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah all of your calculations are correct. Never mind that the idea that he poisoned himself by smoking is idiotic, and no one suggested it.

Yes, they did.

On the other hand cigarette tobacco does contain higher than normal levels of the stuff and Arafat was a heavy smoker. It isn't totally impossible that he got a lethal dose by chain-smoking 24x7 in a sealed office with a dozen other people for weeks on end with no sleep and extreme stress.

Taking the minute amount of polonium existing today and decaying backwards by twenty half-lives to reach an astronomical amount is clearly the correct way to think about this, so don't let me spoil your fun - you obviously do Po-210 analyses every day and know what you are talking about.

As mentioned above, the "astronomical amount" the extrapolation produces is a dose in the microgram range. You know, as in millionths of a gram? As in a ten microgram dose would be a cube of .1mm by .1mm by .1mm?
posted by kafziel at 9:40 AM on July 5, 2012


According to Reuters, the spokesman for the clinic that did the tests actually said that
that clinical symptoms described in Arafat's medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210 and that conclusions could not be drawn as to whether the Palestinian leader was poisoned or not.
AL-Jazeera described this as
A nine-month investigation suggests that the late Palestinian leader may have been poisoned with polonium.
But the heading for this FPP is
Yasser Arafat's sudden illness and death in 2004 were a result of polonium poisoning, according to recent findings by the University Centre for Legal Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland.
It's like a game of broken telephones, with the message getting more alarmist at each remove.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:58 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tonight, on the 11:00 news, we bring you an alarming story: Our investigative team has discovered a deadly poison lurking in common cigarettes that has used to assassinate at least eight heads of state in the last 10 years. Could your vulnerable children and loved ones be its next victims? You can't afford to miss this special report!

THIS PORTION OF THE BROADCAST IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY NICORETTE, THE NICOTINE REPLACEMENT GUM.
posted by zarq at 11:20 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ya, Joe. I was also curious about this bit in the AJ article:
At least two people connected with Israel’s nuclear program also reportedly died after exposure to the element, according to the limited literature on the subject.
Does anyone else know anything re: this claim?
posted by rosswald at 12:56 PM on July 5, 2012


It's basically hearsay.

Ha'aretz:
British citizens who came into contact with former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko are not advised to get too close to Michael Karpin's recent book, "The bomb in the basement: How Israel went nuclear and what that means for the world" (Simon and Schuster). On the other hand, the book is recommended to Israeli citizens troubled by the government's nuclear ambiguity and the danger of a radioactive leak. Karpin reveals in the book that polonium 210, the radioactive substance used to poison Litvinenko, killed several Israeli scientists a few decades ago. The Weizmann Institute scientists were exposed to the dangerous substance, which was found at a number of London sites the late spy had visited, as well as in three British Airways planes that flew the Moscow-London route.

According to the book, in 1957 a leak was discovered at a Weizmann Institute laboratory operated by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Traces of polonium 210 were found on the hands of Prof. Dror Sadeh, a physicist who researched radioactive materials, as well as on various objects in the professor's home. The AEC handled the accident with deep secrecy. After a short investigation, whose results were not presented to even the workers, the lab was hermetically sealed for several months.

A month after the lab closed, a physics student died of leukemia. A few years later, Prof. Yehuda Wolfson, Sadeh's direct supervisor, also died, and Prof. Amos de Shalit, the department's director, died of cancer in 1969 at age 43.

When the leak was discovered, Sadeh was terribly anxious, but tests indicated he was well. But according to Karpin's book, the tests did not include his bone marrow. Sadeh and his wife hid the facts from their family and friends until he died prematurely. The cause of death was cancer.

The Israeli authorities did not admit that the leak and the deaths were connected, but people close to Sadeh confirmed that the state took responsibility for the accident and compensated his family.

posted by zarq at 2:28 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


A Poison for Assassins: 'Polonium remained the unstable, mostly ignored step-child element of the story, less famous, less interesting, less useful than Curie’s beautiful radium. Until the last few years, that is. Until the reported 2006 assassination by polonium 210 of Russian spy turned dissident, Alexander Litveninko'
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:20 PM on July 5, 2012


Yeah all of your calculations are correct. Never mind that the idea that he poisoned himself by smoking is idiotic, and no one suggested it. Taking the minute amount of polonium existing today and decaying backwards by twenty half-lives to reach an astronomical amount is clearly the correct way to think about this, so don't let me spoil your fun - you obviously do Po-210 analyses every day and know what you are talking about.

He actually addressed the possibility of recent contamination in the second bit. If anyone's lacking any sort of credible numbers, it's the "contamination" crowd. Your condescension seems hilariously unjustified given that the very people who do perform Po-210 analyses (OP) at least somewhat routinely has seen fit to publicize such results.
posted by Tikirific at 9:53 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can anyone who knows what they're talking about check my calculation here?
There was reportedly 180 milliBecquerels of Po-210 on Arafat's underwear. The control underpants (!) had 6.7 mBq, leaving an implied excess of 173.3 mBq.

He died on 12 October 2004 and the tests were done early in 2012. Po-210 has a half life of 138.376 days, so that's roughly 19.37 half lives, meaning that the underwear should have originally had 173.3 * 2^19.37 mBq, or just over 117,422 Bq.

Wikipedia says Po-210 has an activity of 166 TBq per gram, so in the urine alone there must have originally been about .7 milligrams of Po-210. The LD50 for Po-210 is around 1 microgram, so in the urine-stained underwear alone there would have been enough Po-210 to kill around 350 people, if ingested - and what a lovely picture that makes.

This calculation must be obvious, so what am I doing wrong?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:13 PM on July 5, 2012


I speculate that whomever poisoned him could not be sure he would drink the whole glass or eat all the food. So they put a lot more than required because unless you consume it polonium is fairly harmless.
posted by humanfont at 5:37 PM on July 6, 2012


These guys think you need 1-3 GBq of ingested Po-210 to kill an adult male, so about 20 micrograms. Most of it ends up in the liver, kidneys and bone marrow, and excretion is mostly via feces rather than urine: The amount found in clothing stains should represent only a tiny fraction of the amount ingested.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:31 AM on July 7, 2012




PA wants joint int'l-Arab League probe on Arafat's death

You might well ask why they need an international inquiry in order for them to extract physical samples from a corpse interred near their headquarters. Call me Mr Cynical once again but I expect they want to delay matters. They're opening the doors to a fight over terms of reference, participation, and credentials: some people they invite will refuse to participate; other people will demand to be invited and express outrage at being excluded; and some people will probably be chosen for the express purpose of having Israel refuse their admission.

So what was formerly a simple question ("Is this corpse radioactive?") becomes a hugely complicated matter of prestige and politics. And every 138 days the amount of Polonium 210 that might be found is reduced by half, and when the terms of the inquiry are established (if that ever happens) its results will necessarily be inconclusive.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:57 AM on July 8, 2012


If the concerns are tampering, or the apperance of tampering, and Israel preventing the movement of the body in some way then as much international attention as possible seems wise.
posted by Artw at 9:56 AM on July 8, 2012


The body is in a concrete mausoleum which has (had?) an honor guard, in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, near the PA headquarters, in the most newsworthy place in the universe. I would expect that the tomb could be opened up with international news media filming it at literally a moment's notice.

Israel has already said that it's up to the PA. There's no reason to make up vague and inchoate conspiracy theories to explain the PA's lack of action, especially when the PA itself hasn't been able to think of any.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:32 PM on July 8, 2012


Palestinian leader signs off on Arafat exhumation, PLO official says

Looks like things are moving forward.
posted by rosswald at 7:43 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Suha Arafat is going to sue someone: Lawsuit against unnamed person in Paris to unmask Arafat’s killer

and from Hussein Ibish: Arafatuous
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:21 PM on July 11, 2012


The Washington Post reports that the medical file released in [Arafat's] death probe portrays him as robust before sudden health crisis, but according to that paper and the Huffington Post it seems that Palestinian Officials [are] Hesitant On Autopsy
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:57 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]




Arafat inquiry like looking for 'needle in the ocean'
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The investigation into late President Yasser Arafat's death is ongoing, director of the committee responsible for the inquiry said Sunday[....] "We haven't initiated the investigation based on the hypothesis that Arafat was killed by poison, but we agreed to begin an investigation searching directly for the killer regardless of the medical reports which will eventually show the method of killing and name of the toxin," al-Tirawi told Ma'an.

My advice: form a terms of reference examination committee. That's usually good for another six months or so.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:37 AM on July 30, 2012


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