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The 'Arafat Killed By Poison?' Story: Here's What We Don't Get

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in October 2004, a month before he died.
Muhammed Muheisen
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in October 2004, a month before he died.

Al-Jazeera is getting attention for its reports that traces of polonium-210 have been found on items, including clothing, belonging to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The story has led to talk that Arafat's remains may be exhumed for testing. He died on Nov. 11, 2004, at the age of 75. "At the time," The Associated Press writes, "French doctors said Arafat died of a massive stroke."

Polonium-210, the wire service adds, "is best known for causing the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a one-time KGB agent turned critic of the Russian government, in London in 2006. Litvinenko drank tea laced with the substance."

But two things stand out to us in the al-Jazeera report:

-- The clothing and other effects, according to Arafat's widow, had been stored at her lawyer's office since shortly after his death nearly eight years ago. That raises questions about who had access to them.

-- Al-Jazeera writes that "polonium-210, the isotope found on Arafat's belongings, has a half-life of 138 days, meaning that half of the substance decays roughly every four-and-a-half months. 'Even in case of a poisoning similar to the Litvinenko case, only traces of the order of a few (millibecquerels) were expected to be found in (the) year 2012,' the [Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland] noted in its report to Al Jazeera. But Arafat's personal effects, particularly those with bodily fluids on them, registered much higher levels of the element. His toothbrushes had polonium levels of 54mBq; the urine stain on his underwear, 180mBq."

Here's what we don't get:

Why would the polonium-210 levels still be so high if Arafat had been poisoned with the radioactive element so long ago?

As the AP says, al-Jazeera's report has "reignited a cauldron of conspiracy theories." We'll watch to see how the story develops. In the meantime, useful information and links about polonium-210 are welcome in the comments thread.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.