Yasser Arafat's Death Linked to Radioactive Polonium

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (L) meets with Belgium Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Michel on September 22, 1999, in New York. (Image credit: Anthony Correia / Shutterstock.com)

Since Yasser Arafat died in Percy Hospital in Paris of uncertain causes in 2004, rumors have swirled that the Palestinian leader may have been assassinated.

A new medical report lends considerable credibility to those claims: Investigators determined that Arafat's personal effects and his body, which was exhumed in 2012 for examination, contained extraordinary amounts of radioactive polonium-210, a lethal poison.

In the carefully worded report, scientists from the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland, concluded that despite the years since Arafat's death and the quality of the specimens examined, "the results moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210." [The 13 Oddest Medical Case Reports]

This latest report about polonium in Arafat's remains confirms the results found by scientists earlier this year. An article published in the medical journal The Lancet in October reported that significant amounts of polonium were found on Arafat's toothbrush, underwear and other personal items.

Proof of assassination?

A growing number of experts believe this is incontrovertible proof that Arafat was assassinated.

"Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning," Dave Barclay, a British forensic scientist, told Al Jazeera. "The level of polonium in Yasser Arafat's rib … is about 900 millibecquerels [unit of radioactivity]. That is either 18 or 36 times the average, depending on the literature."

Polonium is a soft, silvery-gray metal that was discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898; Marie named the element after her beloved native Poland. It has some industrial applications, such as eliminating static electricity in machine processes and as a heat source in satellites.

Polonium's dark history

Arafat isn't the only international figure believed to have been assassinated with polonium: Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian political dissident, was living in London in 2006 when he suddenly fell ill. Tests eventually revealed that polonium was not only in Litvinenko's body, but was also found throughout the restaurant where he had dined the day he first developed symptoms of radiation poisoning.

Though the evidence that Arafat was killed by polonium continues to mount, it's not clear who might have killed him. Leading suspects include political rivals within the Palestinian community or Israeli authorities, a claim that Israel has repeatedly denied — no evidence has emerged that links Israel to Arafat's death.

Suha Arafat, widow of the Palestinian leader, received a copy of the Swiss medical report on Tuesday (Nov. 5). "When they came with the results, I'm mourning Yasser again," she told Al Jazeera. "It's like you just told me he died."

Additional reports are expected soon from French and Russian scientific teams, who were also given specimens of Arafat's personal items and bodily tissues to examine.

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.