28/11/2012 06:27 GMT | Updated 27/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Yasser Arafat, Polonium Poisoning and the Curies

Will the body of Yasser Arafat yield any clues about how he died? The former Palestinian leader died at the age of 75 in Paris on 11 November 2004 following a short illness. The cause of his death is not clear. In July this year, reports of tests on Arafat's clothing indicated that he may have died of polonium poisoning. On Tuesday, an international team of forensic pathologists opened his tomb in Ramallah on the West Bank and took samples from portions of his body in order to carry out further investigations.

Polonium is a silver-grey metallic chemical element that can exist as 33 different species known as isotopes. All 33 isotopes are radioactive. The one that is suspected of killing Arafat is polonium-210, the same isotope that killed the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. The 43-year-old ex-KGB officer died in a London hospital on 23 November 2006. The poison had most likely been administered three weeks earlier by dissolving polonium chloride in water and adding the solution to a cup of tea, according to science writer John Emsley.

Polonium poisoning also led to the death of Iréne Joliot-Curie from leukemia at the age of 58 some 50 years earlier on 17 March 1956. The French scientist won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, "in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements." In his book Molecules of Murder, Emsley observes that Iréne's leukemia was caused by exposure to polonium-209 after a sealed capsule containing the element burst on her laboratory bench. Whereas the half-life of polonium-210 is measured in days, that of polonium-209 is measured in years. The half-life of an isotope is the time taken for its radioactivity to drop to half of its initial value. Polonium-209 "took more than ten years to do its deadly work" on Iréne, Emsley writes.

Iréne's mother was Polish-born French physicist Marie Curie. In 1903, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics jointly with two other French physicists, her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, for their work on radioactivity. In 1896, Becquerel had discovered radioactivity in a uranium-containing ore known as pitchblende. In 1898, the two Curies showed that pitchblende and chalcolite, another uranium-rich mineral, contained two other radioactive metals. They named them radium and polonium, the latter after Marie's native land, Poland.

Marie received the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her research on radium and polonium. As I point out in my book, Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War, Curie was a keen advocate of the use of radiography during the First World War. Assisted by her teenage daughter Iréne, she began to organize X-ray services to help medical staff to locate shrapnel, bullets and broken bones in wounded soldiers. Marie set up some 20 mobile vans, known as "petite Curies," that carried portable but primitive X-ray machines. The machines used radon, a radioactive gas produced by the radioactive decay of radium, as a source of radiation. Curie also arranged for X-ray units to be established in battlefields.

Marie died from leukemia in 1934 caused by the prolonged exposure to radiation. Little did she know that one of the elements she discovered would cause the death of her daughter, kill a Russian spy, and lead to an enquiry into the possible murder of a key figure in the Middle East.

Michael Freemantle's latest book, Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War is available to purchase here:

His previous book, An Introduction to Ionic Liquids is available here: