July 5, 2012 in Nation/World

Cause of Arafat’s death revisited

Traces of toxic element detected on his clothing
Josef Federman And Karin Laub Associated Press
 
Naturally occurring,

but potentially deadly

 Polonium-210 is a radioactive element that occurs naturally and is present in the environment at extremely low concentrations. Polonium was discovered by Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie in 1898 and was named after Marie´s native land of Poland.

 Polonium-210 is highly radioactive and chemically toxic. It can enter the body through eating and drinking of contaminated food, breathing contaminated air or through a wound.

 Polonium-210 is best known for causing the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a one-time KGB agent turned critic of the Russian government, in London in 2006. Litvinenko drank tea laced with the substance.

International Atomic Energy Agency, Associated Press

JERUSALEM – The discovery of traces of a radioactive agent on clothing reportedly worn by Yasser Arafat in his final days reignited a cauldron of conspiracy theories Wednesday about the mysterious death of the longtime Palestinian leader.

Arafat’s widow, who ordered the tests by a Swiss lab, called for her husband’s body to be exhumed, and Arafat’s successor gave tentative approval for an autopsy. But experts warned that even after the detection of polonium-210, getting answers on the cause of death will be tough.

Arafat was 75 when he died Nov. 11, 2004, in a French military hospital. He had been airlifted to the facility just weeks earlier with a mysterious illness, after being confined by Israel for three years to his West Bank headquarters.

At the time, French doctors said Arafat died of a massive stroke. According to French medical records, he had suffered inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC.

But the records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC, which has numerous causes including infections, colitis and liver disease. Outside experts who reviewed the records on behalf of the Associated Press were also unable to pinpoint the underlying cause.

The uncertainty sparked speculation about the cause of death, including the possibility of AIDS or poisoning. Many in the Arab world believe he was killed by Israel, which held him responsible for the bloody Palestinian uprising of the early 2000s. Israeli officials have repeatedly denied foul play, and they dismissed the latest theories as nonsense.

That debate was reignited after a Swiss lab said Wednesday it had discovered traces of polonium-210 in clothing and other belongings provided by Arafat’s wife, Suha. She told the lab that Arafat had used the items in his final days. The development was first reported by the Al-Jazeera satellite channel.

In an interview Wednesday in Doha, Qatar, Suha Arafat said she was pleased to be getting closer to determining the cause of her husband’s death.

“I was shocked first, of course, because it’s a very dangerous poison that … they discovered,” she told APTN. “But I was relieved that we are on the steps of knowing the truth.”

She strongly hinted that she thinks Israel, which is widely believed to have a nuclear weapons program, was responsible, but stopped short of openly saying so.

“Not the whole world has access to nuclear elements. We have to make a more profound and deep investigation to know all the truth about his death,” she said.

Francois Bochud, who heads the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland, told the AP on Wednesday that his lab had discovered “very small” quantities of polonium-210, which is naturally present in the environment. But levels found in blood and urine samples taken from the clothing were well above normal.

Bochud said an “elevated” level of more than 100 millibecquerel, a measurement of radioactivity, was found on Arafat’s belongings. That’s compared with levels of some 10 millibecquerel in some control samples.

He said Arafat’s wife told him she had stored the items in her lawyer’s office after her husband died. It was not clear why she waited so long to test them.

Bochud stressed that the discovery did not provide proof that Arafat had been poisoned. That would require further testing.

“What is possible to say is that we have an unexplained level of polonium, so this clearly goes toward the hypothesis of a poisoning, but our results are clearly not a proof of any poisoning,” he said by telephone from Switzerland.

In the West Bank, Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, cleared the way for an autopsy.

© Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email