Arafat's remains exhumed to rule out murder by radioactive polonium poisoning

The remains of Yasser Arafat have been exhumed so that scientists could gather samples to ship overseas to test for the presence of radioactive polonium. Some charge that the late Palestinian leader was murdered. BBC News has a list of 10 other famous people who have been dug up for one reason or another. (via @nytjim)


  1. I thought polonium’s half-life was so short that after 10 years, there wouldn’t be much to find.  Given the incredibly small amount of polonium that would be needed to poison someone, would there even be detectable levels of daughter isotopes?

    1.  The decay product of polonium-210 is lead-206, which is stable.  Since lead-206 is a commonly occurring, stable lead isotope, the terminus of the uranium-238 decay series, its presence could easily be attributed to ordinary environmental exposure.  I rather expect results from analysis of daughter isotopes to be inconclusive.

      It’s entirely possible that his personal effects were contaminated by recent environmental polonium-210, most likely from cigarette smoke.  Mistakenly assume that this recent background contamination is left over from when he was alive, multiply by a million to account for expected decay, and poor storage suddenly turns into a smoking gun.  There will be similar risks of contamination with any exhumed samples if they’re not handled properly.

  2. Arafat was pretty sick for a long period before he died. Although I suppose they could have used polonium to hasten his demise, I don’t see why they’d go to such exotic means to bump him off when some other, less expensive and subtle means could be used (lab technician might be coming down with a flu?  Get him to come in anyway, he shouldn’t have to interact with the patient).

  3. New research indicates that all humans produce and metabolize a small, relatively safe amount of polonium to help with our natural process of adaptation.  As we get closer to the end of life, our ability to break the polonium down starts to deteriorate.  In other words, if you test ANY corpse it will show heightened levels of polonium.  Read the paper here:

  4. Another famous exhumation for their list? Medellin Cartel Boss Pablo Escobar. Video available on Youtube for those with a morbid interest.

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