Did The Lancet endorse the polonium death of Arafat?

It certainly doesn’t seem that way.

Yassir Arafat became ill back in October 2004, first with nausea and abdominal pains. Shortly after he got worse to the point of going into a coma. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage a month later in November, 2004. We first heard about the speculation that he was poisoned back in July 2012. His body was exhumed that November. Now, some test results are back in the news.

Arafat poisoning claim backed by journal – Europe – Al Jazeera English.

One of the world’s leading medical journals has supported the possibility that Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader, was poisoned with the radioactive element polonium 210.

The British The Lancet journal has published a peer review of last year’s research by Swiss scientists on Arafat’s personal effects.

It endorsed their work, which found high levels of the highly radioactive element in blood, urine, and saliva stains on the Palestinian leader’s clothes and toothbrush.

Following a nine-month investigation by Al Jazeera, in which several of Arafat’s key belongings were sent to Paris for tests, results revealed they contained abnormal levels of polonium; a rare, highly radioactive element.

At the time of the investigation, Dr Francois Bochud, the director of the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, told Al Jazeera: “I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids.”

Wired, who have been commenting on the story from the beginning, as a commentary on the results as described by Al Jazeera. The paper is not exactly a peer reviewed report but an essay which “is far more cautious than the news agency’s analysis would lead you to believe.”

Arafat and Polonium Poisoning: A Sort-of Update – Wired Science.

It notes that the laboratory analyzed 75 samples, 38 from Arafat’s clothes and belongings and the rest from reference samples, material known to be polonium free. “Several” of the Arafat samples read notably higher than the reference material but not all. The scientists note that Arafat’s illness did not follow some of the classic lines of radiation exposure, such as immune suppression and hair loss. They also acknowledge that this doesn’t rule out radiation poisoning; that not all people respond identically and that other symptoms, such as nausea or fatigue, do fit the pattern.

The scientists also acknowledge that the fact Arafat died in 2004 made it difficult to do precise readings of polonium-210 which is known to decay relatively rapidly (It has a half-life of 138.4 days, which means that what they found was breakdown products of that decay rather than the element itself.) “An autopsy would have been useful in this case,” the researchers say, and they recommend that in the future, when poison might be suspected, tissue and blood samples be taken and preserved for later investigation.

Deborah Blum, author of the Wired piece and of the Poisoner’s Handbook wonders why this was described as an endorsement of the work.

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  3 comments for “Did The Lancet endorse the polonium death of Arafat?

  1. Blargh
    October 15, 2013 at 8:10 PM

    Hooray, something within my field of expertise!
    To me, this is yet more proof that you shouldn’t ever trust Al Jazeera on anything relating to radiation/radioactivity. The crackpots they brought out as “experts” after Fukushima literally made my head hurt with the Stupid they spewed.

    And for the record, if Arafat was poisoned with polonium I’ll eat my hat. Despite what the Wired article says, if you’re exhibiting none of the symptoms of radiation sickness, you’re not suffering from it.

    I’m sadly away from my sweet, sweet academic access right now so I can’t check the source article myself, but likely cause of any positive results would be either contamination (Po-210 is smack in the middle of the uranium series) or plain old lab error (you’d be surprised at how poorly most labs fare with spectrometry under less-than-ideal conditions).

    • required
      November 9, 2013 at 7:09 PM

      As there is just one documented case of Po210 poisoning there is no way anyone can be certain what the symptoms would be in other cases. Your certainty that Arafat wasn’t poisoned makes you look like the crackpot.

  2. KR
    October 16, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    The document can be dissected both through or across the grain, cherry picking the suitable parts. I’d say it doesn’t conclude anything really, but mostly laments that no autopsy was allowed back then.

    Lancet:

    These findings support the possibility of Arafat’s poisoning with 210Po. According to biokinetic modelling (see appendix), the measured activities of 210Po of several mBq per sample are compatible with a lethal ingestion of several GBq in 2004. Moreover, his clinical presentation could not rule out 210Po poisoning. Although myelosuppression and hair loss are expected in acute radiation syndrome after whole-body external exposure, these symptoms are poorly documented in the case of internal exposure of ingested 210Po. In radionuclide therapy, side-effects include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and abdominal pain, with hair loss being less common.

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