The Marie Curie-Yasser Arafat connection

The substance alleged to have been used to assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 is a radioactive element discovered by the famed scientific duo of Marie and Pierre Curie more than a century ago.

Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Qidwa claimed Thursday that Israel poisoned the former Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman with the lethal dose of polonium, discovered by the Curies in 1898 and named for Marie Curie’s native land of Poland.

Polonium was the first element discovered by the Curies while they were investigating the cause of radioactivity in pitchblende, a uranium-rich mineral and ore.

Pitchblende, after removal of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium, was found to be more radioactive than both the uranium and thorium combined. This spurred the Curies to find additional radioactive elements.

The Curies first culled out polonium from the pitchblende, and a few years later also isolated radium, according to science writer John Emsley in his book Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements.

The choice of the name Polonium was not without controversy.

Poland at the time of the Curies’ discovery was under Russian, Prussian and Austrian partition, and had not existed as an independent country since 1795.

It was Marie Curie’s hope that naming the element after her homeland would publicize its lack of independence, which didn’t come until after until after the end of World War I in 1918.

Polonium is rarely found in nature because of the short half-life of its isotopes. It is found in uranium ores in amounts of about 0.1 milligram per metric ton.

Given that minute abundance, isolation of polonium from natural sources is a very tedious process. The largest batch extracted in the first half of the 20th century was derived by processing 37 tons of residue from radium production and produced just nine milligrams of polonium-210.

Today, polonium is obtained by irradiating bismuth with high-energy neutrons or protons.

Allegations that Arafat, who died in a French hospital in November 2004, was poisoned were resurrected earlier this month after Al-Jazeera news channel broadcast an investigation in which experts said they had found high levels of polonium on his personal effects, according to Agence France-Presse.

Polonium is a highly-toxic substance which was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. He died after drinking a cup of tea laced with the substance at a London hotel, the wire service added.

By mass, polonium-210 is around 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, used in the extermination camps of Nazi Germany.

Francois Bochud, head of the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne which conducted the tests, told Al-Jazeera that “significant polonium” had been found on Arafat’s effects, but that his remains would need to be tested to confirm the theory that he had been poisoned, Agence France-Presse reported.

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