Middle East

Polonium, a highly radioactive material

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat gives an interview to Reuters at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in this file photo taken December 5, 2001. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause/Files (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY)

PARIS: Polonium, the poison suspected of being used to kill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, is a highly radioactive material rarely found outside military and scientific circles.

Also known as Radium F, it is a rare but naturally occurring metalloid found in uranium ores that emits highly hazardous alpha, or positively charged, particles.

Before being cited in connection with Arafat's death, the substance had been named in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and dissident who died in a London hospital in 2006 showing symptoms of polonium poisoning.

Small doses of polonium 210 exist in the soil and atmosphere, and even in the human body, but in high doses it is highly toxic if it is ingested or inhaled, and can damage the body's tissues and organs.

It is one of the rarest natural elements: in 10 grams of uranium there is a maximum of a billionth of a gram of polonium.

The substance has been used industrially for its alpha radiation in research and medicine, and as a heating source for space components, but in those forms it is not conducive to easy poisoning.

Small doses are also found in tobacco, derived from the soil and phosphate fertilizers used on tobacco plants.

Polonium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898 while they were doing research in France on the cause of radioactivity in the mineral pitchblende, the chief ore-mineral source of uranium.

Marie Curie named the material after her homeland of Poland, which at the time was under Russian, Prussian and Austrian control and not recognised as an independent country.

For their discovery of polonium, radium and their work on radioactivity, the Curies won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, which they shared with Antoine Becquerel of France.

Like many other pioneering researchers in the field of radioactivity, Marie Curie died in 1934 at the age 67 of leukaemia, brought on by her handling of radioactive materials





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