Yasser Arafat and the Radioactive Cigarette
Last week, the body of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was exhumed and tissue samples were taken to be tested for signs of poisoning by the radioactive element polonium-210. As I wrote then, rumors have circulated since Arafat died in 2004 that this was not a natural death, that he was murdered by hostile agents from Israel.
These suspicions were reinforced last summer when preliminary testing of the 75-year-old Arafat’s effects — his clothes, sheets, even his famed black-checked kaffiyeh showed trace evidence of the radioactive element. (Very trace because this is a hyperactive element with a half-life of a mere 138.4 days — a subject I covered in some detail in my post of last week).
But why would this particular element reinforce such suspicions? Because the most probable source of polonium-210 is from weapons-grade nuclear operations best known to be located in Israel, the United States (where polonium was essential to the World War II Manhattan Project) and Russia. This doesn’t mean that these countries stockpile the element; this makes no sense with such an unstable material. But nuclear facilities provide a place where a concentrated (lethal) amount can be acquired. Most experts believe that this was the source for the polonium-210 used to murder Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and a dissident, in 2006.
In Litvinenko’s case the radioactive material was slipped into some tea. If the tissue tests from Arafat’s body confirm radiation poisoning, then the supposition would be that deliberately tainted food or drink would be the cause. But as those tests — being conducted in French, Swiss and Russian laboratories — are expected to take several months, it’s worth considering some alternate scenarios. After all, polonium-210 is a naturally occurring element as well as a byproduct of nuclear machinery.
As this World Health Organization fact sheet points out, however, naturally occurring levels in soil and rock (mostly in ores also rich in uranium) are basically minuscule. It turns up in wastes from processing materials like uranium, although not in what WHO calls “significant amounts.” Still there are two interesting points in this particular fact sheet. One is that it emphasizes the fact that polonium-210 has to be taken internally to be dangerous. That’s because Po-210 primarily emits alpha particles (or alpha radiation). These are not penetrating particles — they can be blocked by paper, clothes, even our skin.
But if the element enters the body — if it’s swallowed, inhaled, ingested in some way — it becomes deadly. One reason is the high level of radioactivity, the ceaseless spitting of particles that gives polonium-210 such a short half-life. As the WHO also notes, Po-210 is “5,000 times as radioactive as uranium.” Which leads me to the other interesting point in this fact sheet. It was produced in 2006, shortly after the Litvinenko poisoning and it answers a key question about exposure by association:
People who come into contact with a person contaminated by Po-210 will not be exposed to radiation (irradiated) simply by being in the proximity of this person, unless they ingest or inhale bodily fluids of the contaminated person. For the general public, normal hygiene measures (such as thorough washing of hands and washing of fruit/vegetables before consumption) are sufficient.
All of this — the low level of natural occurrence, the very targeted efficiency of the poison — tell you that it’s highly unlikely for anyone to accidentally receive a lethal dose of polonium-210.
But it is possible to give yourself a nasty little dose — and that’s by becoming a heavy smoker of cigarettes. There’s a detailed description of some of these risks at the website of Lenntech, a company that makes air and water filters. It cites among other things, data from the CDC that “Americans are exposed to more radiation from tobacco smoke than any other source.” It also notes that polonium-210 has been isolated from both the blood and urine of heavy smokers.
Tobacco plants appear to neatly absorb the element from air and soil. In addition, tobacco growers have frequently relied on fertilizers enriched with phosphate by the mineral apatite, which often comes in tandem with radium, (Ra), an element known to decay to polonium-210. U.S. tobacco companies have known this since the 1950s; an industry study done in the 1960s showed, for instance, that filters do not remove radioactivity from tobacco smoke. As documents released through legal settlements showed, tobacco companies managed to conceal this risk from the public until the 1990s.
And risk is definitely the right word here. For a heavy smoker — say one smoking a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes a day — some studies estimate that the radiation exposure is equivalent to 300 chest X-rays a year. There are also scientists who believe that polonium-210 is the primary risk factor for lung cancer in smokers — not to mention low-level radiation sickness. It’s thus not surprising that after the poison was discovered on Arafat’s clothes, questions were raised about whether this could be just be evidence of cigarette exposure. After all, the Palestinian leader and many of his colleagues were known to be smokers.
The tobacco theory serves as reminder that sorting out the precise source of polonium-210, eight years after Arafat’s death, is likely to be a complicated task. Does it undermine the deliberate poisoning theory? It should at least remind us that there are alternative explanations. But there’s one other rather complicating point regarding the tobacco effect. The Israelis had a history of withholding cigarettes from Arafat as a form of punishment, as indicated, at least, in this 2002 story. If they’d maintained that, during his last days in their control, it seems unlikely that he would have been blanketed with radioactive smoke.
What does this tell us? That those pending tests still promise to bear some very interesting news. And that — although it’s not news — smoking cigarettes adds nothing good to anyone’s life story.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food.
Follow @deborahblum on Twitter.