Polonium (Po) is a rare element with atomic number 84 located in the p-block of the periodic table. Polonium has 33 known isotopes, all of which are radioactive. This element was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in the late nineteenth century.
Polonium-210 is the most common form of polonium, but still only around 100 grams are produced each year. Polonium-210 is obtained in nature from decaying bismuth-209 or mining rocks that contain radon. It can also be extracted from uranium ores. When polonium-210 decays, it begins to form lead (Pb). Polonium-210 goes through radioactive decay, where it emits alpha particles that consist of two protons and two neutrons and rarely, gamma rays are emitted. The emission of alpha particles causes the polonium to appear as though it has a faint blue tint about it. Polonium also has many uses despite its radioactivity. Polonium-210 becomes airborne very quickly at the temperature of 55 degrees Celsius through the process of sublimation. This shows that polonium must have a lot of potential energy. Therefore, polonium is used as a heat source and as an antistatic device.
Polonium is used as a heat source in outer space to warm aircraft flying to the moon because lunar nights are extremely frigid and one gram of polonium can produce around 140 watts which in turn can generate much heat. Polonium is also used in brushes to clean camera lenses. It ionizes the air surrounding it, therefore causing the dust particles to become cations and be easily removed. Polonium is highly toxic and has been in the news recently because of its toxic property.
Former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by polonium-210 and died from it. Scientists found the poison in his hair and in his bone marrow. The polonium had destroyed his whole body because of its radioactive properties. While small amounts of polonium is not hazardous, large amounts result in death. For example, polonium can be found in cigarettes. The amount in cigarettes, according to the law, is not harmful because there is not that much, less than one picogram. However, polonium can cause certain cancers like lung cancer through constant inhalation through the cigarette. But even low amounts of polonium in the human body is not damaging to health. Assassins have now started using polonium-210 as threats because of its poison.
The former face of Palestine, Yasser Arafat, died in 2004. No one could figure out the cause of his death, but nevertheless he died at the age of 75 in a French hospital. Of course, some people believe that his cause of death is polonium-210 poisoning. His widow has presented some of his articles of clothing to officials to be tested for poisoning and sure enough, they found polonium on Arafat’s garments. However, there was a very high level of polonium. The half-life of polonium is around 138 days and it had been years since Arafat was murdered. There should have been low levels of polonium, not the high levels scientists discovered. So, then the public believed someone had planted the polonium on the clothes in an effort to show that Arafat was poisoned. Officials reopened the grave of Yasser Arafat in August 2012 and now are trying to test the body in indifferent countries for signs of poison.
Polonium is a dangerous element, but is unlikely the cause of death for Yasser Arafat. For example, the Russian spy lost all of his hair and the polonium-210 appeared in his bone marrow. None of this is true for Arafat. There are many other propositions for his cause of death such as AIDS or natural causes. A 75-year-old man is much more likely to die of natural causes than polonium poisoning. Also, he had pre-existing conditions that account for why he was in the French hospital to begin with. Nevertheless, he is gone, so it really does not matter whether polonium-210 is the culprit or not. This just goes to show that we cannot always assume that something dangerous is the root of the problem. It is just as easy to cover something such as a death with something more interesting and known to be harmful, such as a murder, or in this case, polonium-210. This correlates with the adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” because you cannot assume the root of the problem without doing proper investigation.