Sifting Through Conspiracy: A Look At Yasser Arafat's Death

After theories circulated online that late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned with a radioactive element, Wired Magazine contributor and poison expert Deborah Blum decided to look into it herself. Her suspicion is far from that of the regular conspiracy theorist. She thinks the polonium found on his things indicate just one thing: He was a heavy smoker.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was buried under so many feet of concrete in 2004 that it took gravediggers six hours to get to his body last month. And his body was exhumed because his widow suspects he was murdered, poisoned by the radioactive element polonium 210.

Now, at the moment, a lab in France is testing his tissue samples for polonium. Traces have already been detected on his bed sheets and his clothes. So is it an open and shut case of poisoning? We called Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner's Handbook and a blogger for Wired magazine who recently wrote about the case.

DEBORAH BLUM: There were suspicions about the death of Yasser Arafat from the beginning. And I think, partly, that's politics. He died. There was never a clear explanation of his death. So immediately, these stories started to swirl. You know, he'd been killed. He'd been assassinated. But what really changed that was that Al Jazeera stepped up and said let's take a serious look.

RAZ: And they actually ran some tests this past summer.

BLUM: They gathered up his, you know, clothes, his headscarves, sent them off. And they found sort of what you would think of as decayed products of polonium 210, which is a very unusual thing to find.

RAZ: It's unusual because why? What is polonium 210?

BLUM: It's a radioactive isotope. I always think of it as, like, this hissing, spitting ball of radiation. Incredibly active, has a super-fast half-life of 134 days.

RAZ: Is polonium 210 something that is used to kill people?

BLUM: Famously, yes. It was used in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko who was a dissident Russian spy.

RAZ: Ah, yes.

BLUM: And this was in London.

RAZ: This is like six years ago or so.

BLUM: That's exactly right. It was put in his tea, and he was dead in three weeks.

RAZ: In three weeks, right. What does it do to the body?

BLUM: In the body, it lodges in your bones, destroys your bone marrow, it radiates tissue. You know, it does all kinds of horrible things to you. And at the dose that he apparently got, it essentially cooked him from the inside out.

RAZ: Wow. So if they found traces of this in Arafat, it seems pretty clear that he was poisoned, right?

BLUM: I mean, there's other options as to why you might find these very faint traces of it. He was a heavy smoker. Cigarette smoke contains polonium-210. But the primary way that you gather it in a lethal amount is in the byproduct of nuclear weapons processing or nuclear reactor weapons-grade processing. So there are very few countries, if you were going to kill someone with polonium-210, that have the ability to do that. And the short list, frankly, is Russia, United States and Israel.

RAZ: And Israel. OK. So if they find - and they haven't found this yet - but if they find high concentrations of polonium-210, obviously, people will be suspicious. So far, they found low levels. And you say it's not unusual because he was a cigarette smoker.

BLUM: Cigarette smoke is quite remarkably loaded with polonium-210...

RAZ: Wow.

BLUM: ...because of the way tobacco is grown. And so you have to say, well, OK. So his clothes show these traces. Was it a poisoning, or was it just, you know, sort of being in a really bad smoky atmosphere? And that's not clear yet.

RAZ: Have there been studies about radioactive poisoning from smoking before?

BLUM: One of the primary sources of radiation exposure in the United States is smoking cigarettes. And that's because the fertilizers they use with tobacco are high in minerals that actually include polonium-210. And as these sort of, you know, swirl around the very sticky leaves of the tobacco plant grabs them. And those go into the cigarettes.

And there's actually a recent study - it came out last year by UCLA - that estimated that out of 1,000 average smokers, about 130 lung cancer deaths were probably attributable to polonium-210 radiation. The Al Jazeera story that came out in July made a point that some of his symptoms were quite like Litvinenko's. You know, he was desperately dehydrated. He was terribly nauseated. There were signs of hair loss. He was rapidly losing weight.

You know, there are some people who believe that there's a signature to these decay elements that's unique to the nuclear process. You might actually be able to say: Oh, look. Polonium-210 decays to lead. They'd have to say: We've gotten so strong a signal from these sort of remnants that this was clearly a lethal dose.

And we can look at these decay products, and we can say: Yeah, these were jammed up an A reactor from X, and we know that because it's a signature of the kind of fuel they use in that reaction.

RAZ: Wow. So we may know. We, I mean...

BLUM: Yes.

RAZ: ...after these results come out, we may know if he was poisoned.

BLUM: Yes. It's absolutely possible. If they can find that out, then, yeah, I say go for it.

RAZ: Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook" and a contributor to Wired Magazine. Deborah, thanks.

BLUM: Thank you so much. It was great to be here.

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