Everything you need to know about polonium, which may have killed Arafat


Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Months after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's corpse was exhumed over suspicion that he may have been poisoned, Al Jazeera has published what it says is a 108-page report by the team of Swiss scientists who tested the body. The report says that the team's findings "moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210."

But what is polonium, how does it kill and why is it often associated with political assassinations? This video explains all the important details in just three minutes. Fair warning, the quality is a bit poor; it's from 2006, after defected KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed in London when someone slipped polonium into his tea.

Here are some of the key details:

• Polonium is extremely deadly when ingested in even microscopic amounts, but is relatively harmless outside the body.

• It is 250 billion times as poisonous as cyanide.

• It's typically produced in nuclear reactors through a complex process, which is why it's associated with nuclear-capable governments.

• The symptoms are very painful and similar to other forms of radiation poisoning.

• It looks like a silvery powder.

• One mistake in the video: As the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission explains here, polonium that can be purchased online is in a different form and not deadly.

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Max Fisher · November 6, 2013