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AFP - Swiss radiation experts have confirmed they found traces of polonium on clothing used by Yasser Arafat which "support the possibility" the veteran Palestinian leader was poisoned.
In a report published by The Lancet at the weekend, the team provide scientific details to media statements made in 2012 that they had found polonium on Arafat's belongings.
The polonium samples were measured at "several mBq," or millibecquerels, a unit of radioactivity.
Computer modelling, which calculates polonium's very fast decay, found that these levels "are compatible with a lethal ingestion of several GBq," or several billion becquerels, in 2004, they said.
In addition, says the report, Arafat's clinical symptoms "could not rule out" polonium poisoning.
Polonium-210 (Po-210) is a radioactive element that occurs naturally and is present in the environment at extremely low concentrations.
Polonium was discovered by Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie in 1898 and was named after Marie's native land of Poland (Latin: Polonia). This element was the first one discovered by them while they were investigating the cause of pitchblende radioactivity.
Being produced during the decay of naturally occurring uranium-238, polonium-210 is widely distributed in small amounts in the earth's crust. Although it can be produced by the chemical processing of uranium ores or minerals, uranium ores contain less than 0.1 mg Po-210 per ton. Because Po-210 is produced from the decay of radon-222 gas, it can be found in the atmosphere from which it is deposited on the earth's surface. Although direct root uptake by plants is generally small, Po-210 can be deposited on broad-leaved vegetables. Deposition from the atmosphere on tobacco leaves results in elevated concentrations of Po-210 in tobacco smoke. There are tiny amounts of Po-210 in our bodies.
Po-210 can be manufactured artificially by irradiating stable bismuth-209 with thermal neutrons resulting in the formation of radioactive Bi-210, which decays (half-life 5 days) into Po-210. Polonium may now be made in milligram amounts in this procedure which uses high neutron fluxes found in nuclear reactors. Only about 100 grams are produced each year, making polonium exceedingly rare.