So the question of whether Yasser Arafat was poisoned with the radioactive element polonium-210 has lurched forward again.
The release of a report on Wednesday by the Swiss lab that had tested samples from Arafat’s remains and which concluded that the results “moderately support the proposition that the death” was caused by polonium poisoning received the usual mix of good, bad and indifferent media coverage.
The reporting was mostly all surface. Important issues overlooked included questions over al-Jazeera‘s role as instigator of the story, its funding of the labs testing for polonium poisoning, the media’s quoting Professor David Barclay – a British forensic scientist retained by al-Jazeera to interpret the results of the Swiss tests, and the fact that Arafat’s grave was controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
But what of the science purportedly backing up this latest claim tipping the balance in favour of poisoning?
One of the best analyses appeared in the Times of Israel written by Brian Thomas, a British-born physicist, with some background in medical physics, who now lives in Israel.
According to Thomas, “detecting Polonium 210 after 8 years is like trying to hear someone whispering on a busy street in New York. While you’re standing in London.” This is due to the fact that, contrary to the popular perception that radioactive substances linger for centuries, polonium has a short life span and decays very quickly.
So short, writes Thomas, that after eight years, “realistically speaking there might be an atom or two” and almost certainly “you won’t be able to detect it”.
He speculates that the Swiss lab would have tried to test for a by-product of polonium such as “Lead-206 – 206Pb” to see whether “Arafat had more of this than would be expected”.
However, “that would also be impossible. We all have a bit of lead in us, especially those people who were alive back in the days of lead in gasoline!”
And as I wrote in a blog post last month:
the head of a Russian team that also tested samples from Arafat’s body said they had ruled out polonium as the cause of death: As noted by Reuters, Russia’s Interfax news agency had quoted Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia’s Federal Medical-Biological Agency (FMBA), saying that Arafat “could not have died of polonium poisoning – the Russian experts found no traces of this substance.” While some outlets claimed that Dr. Uiba’s statement had been retracted, this is not correct. FBMA simply said they were not yet officially releasing their findings which were with the Russian foreign ministry.
Quite apart from this latest instalment, the accumulation of facts, rumours and opinion since Arafat’s death almost certainly makes a definitive conclusion on the ‘true’ cause of death highly improbable.
There is the startling claim by Arafat’s former physician, Dr. Ashraf Al-Kurdi, who told al-Jazeera in 2007 that he received an email from the French medical specialists who treated Arafat and that blood tests showed the presence of the HIV virus. And as this Haaretz report from 2007 pointed out, al-Jazeera “cut short the live interview with al-Kurdi as soon as he mentioned that the former chairman had contracted HIV.”
And last November, Roland Masse, a specialist on radioactivity who teaches at the French military hospital where Arafat was treated when he died, insisted that there was “absolutely no way” he was poisoned because “a lethal level of polonium simply cannot go unnoticed.”
As Masse explained to the Times of Israel‘s Anica Pommeray:
When in contact with high levels of polonium, the body suffers from acute radiation which translates into a state of anemia and a severe decrease in white blood cells. And yet Arafat did not present any of those symptoms. What did decrease was his platelets, not his white blood cells.
Although Masse, who was not involved in treating Arafat, conceded that tests for radiation poisoning but not polonium were conducted, as Pommeray’s article notes:
If “abnormal levels of radioactive polonium” were found on Arafat’s clothing by scientists in Switzerland in July, eight years after his death, Masse said, the Palestinian leader would have had to be in contact with an extremely high level of the chemical before his death. This would have been impossible to miss for any doctor at the time, Masse said, not to mention dangerous for other people surrounding Arafat. “Remember the Litvinenko case,” Masse continued. “We discovered after his death that hundreds of people had been subjected to various levels of contamination, in the UK and other countries.”
Sadly, because question marks will likely always hang over the true cause of his death, this story will probably never die. Almost certainly new life will be breathed into it again if and/or when the Russian and French teams that have also tested samples release their ‘findings’.