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Polonium: Marie Curie's Stepchild Discovery, Now In Spotlight As Lethal Weapon

A Palestinian woman walks past a mural depicting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, and late Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, left. (AFP/Getty Images)

Polonium-210 is back in the spotlight. The radioisotope first gained notoriety back in 2006, after the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a one-time source for journalists who wanted to know about the inner workings of Russia.

Litvinenko, as the BBC tells it, went out to tea with two Russians at a hotel in London in early November of 2006. He drank some tea and by the end of the month he was dead, poisoned it turned out, by a tiny bit of Polonium-210, which decays quickly causing catastrophic damage if inside a human body.

Of course, we're talking about it today, because scientists from Switzerland, France and Russia just opened the grave of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, searching for signs of the deadly element.

Traces of radioisotope were reportedly found back in July on Arafat's tooth brush and on a urine stain on his underwear. So the natural question arose: Was Arafat murdered?

It's an irresistible mystery and Polonium, as a tool for assassins, is just as irresistible.

After the Litvinenko incident, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission even put out a fact sheet on Polonium. Some of the highlights:

-- Polonium was discovered by Marie Curie in 1898.

-- With a half-life of 138 days it decays quickly, emitting alpha radiation. Outside the body, the IAEA says, a piece of paper or even a layer of dead skin could block alpha radiation from entering the body. But if inhaled or swallowed, it's deadly, rapidly destroying "major organs, DNA and the immune system."

-- And not much of it is needed to cause a ton of damage. As little as 3 millicuries, or an amount equal to a grain of salt, could kill a 154-pound human.

Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner's Handbook, wrote a piece about Polonium for Wired. She says Polonium wasn't Marie Curie's favorite discovery. She was much more interested in her "beautiful radium." In fact it was that radioactive element that came to find a central place in industrial and military settings. It was also Radium that was used in the early treatment of cancer.

Polonium, Blum explains, was much too unstable, "less interesting, less useful."

The NRC points out that Polonium is mostly used for the dull purpose of removing static.

But the Litvinenko case and now Arafat have given Curie's stepchild some life, writes Blum, even if as "a poison for assassins."

For that, she says, it's almost perfect:

"A victim would never taste a lethal dose in food or drink. In the case of Litvinenko, investigators believed that he received his dose of polonium-210 in a cup of tea, dosed during a meeting with two Russian agents. (Just as an aside, alpha particles tend not to set off radiation detectors so it's relatively easy to smuggle from country to country.) Another assassin advantage is that illness comes on gradually, making it hard to pinpoint the event. Yet another advantage is that polonium poisoning is so rare that it's not part of a standard toxics screen. In Litvinenko's case, the poison wasn't identified until shortly after his death. In Arafat's case — if polonium-210 killed him and that has not been established — obviously it wasn't considered at the time."

But if you're an assassin there's one potentially fatal flaw. Polonium is extremely rare. The IAEA says it is produced in nuclear reactors and only 100 grams are produced each year.

What's more, so few produce it, says Blum, that tracing it to a state actor would be fairly easy.

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