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What we could learn from Yasser Arafat's exhumation

By David Ranson

The remains of Yasser Arafat have been exhumed for “special testing” to determine whether he died from poisoning by a radioactive element or natural causes.

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Investigators are looking for evidence of the presence of the radioactive element polonium-210, an alpha particle emitter that causes tissue damage if taken into the body. Polonium allegedly caused the agonised death of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and it’s been alleged that it was found on some of Arafat’s clothing after his death.

Polonium is notoriously difficult to detect and has a relatively short half-life of 138 days, which means that after eight years (Arafat died in November 2004), the search for it in human tissue will involve some complex chemistry. But apart from the analytical problems and forensic issues of sampling, the exhumation itself will be problematic – largely because of the likely state of Arafat’s remains.

Exhumation explained

A forensic exhumation is a painstaking process that involves far more than simply recovering and examining the body. And when there are allegations of poisoning, examining the material around the body – including the soil in the vicinity of the grave – is as important as the human remains.

The first task is to confirm the exact location of the body so that the physical approach to the remains follows a documented path from which samples of soil, casket material and body wrappings can be collected with minimal contamination...

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David Ranson is a Forensic Pathologist at Monash University and Deputy Director at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. This article was originally published at The Conversation.