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A Gruesome Reality: Smoking Radioactive Polonium

Date Posted: October 13, 2011

Tobacco company executives have known for decades that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium 210, a radioactive and potentially carcinogenic substance, but kept the findings secret from the public. This recent discovery came after scientists from UCLA reviewed 27 previously unanalyzed historical documents and found that tobacco companies knew about the radioactive content of cigarettes as early as 1959.

While industry insiders have been aware since the late 50s that cigarettes contain polonium, exactly how it gets into tobacco is not entirely understood. In 1968, the American Tobacco Company began a covert research effort to find out exactly how much of the radioactive substance is in tobacco and how much radiation a regular smoker could ingest over 20 years while keeping the data highly secret.  At the time, researchers found that sufficient levels of polonium can cause cancerous growths in the lungs of smokers. Today, we know that when smokers inhale, the radioactive particles damage the tissue on the surface of the lungs, creating “hot spots” of damage. When combined with other cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco, the damage from radiation is potent.

In 1980, researchers discovered a process called “acid washing” which could remove up to 99% of the polonium 210 from tobacco but as discovered by UCLA scientists in the recent study, cigarette companies declined to use it to remove the radioactive material from their products. “The industry was concerned that the acid wash would ionize the nicotine, making it more difficult to be absorbed into the brain of smokers and depriving them of that instant nicotine rush that fuels their addiction,” said one UCLA scientist. Hence, researchers concluded that profits were likely the real reason companies did not adopt the method.

“They knew that the cigarette smoke was radioactive way back then and that it could potentially result in cancer, and they deliberately kept that information under wraps,” study author Dr. Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, professor of cardiology at UCLA’s cardiovascular research laboratory, said in a written statement. “We show here that the industry used misleading statements to obfuscate the hazard of ionizing alpha particles to the lungs of smokers and, more importantly, banned any and all publication on tobacco smoke radioactivity.” Karagueuzian said he hopes the study will prompt the federal government to take further action to regulate tobacco companies and their products.

The tobacco industry doesn’t like to have attention drawn to the more exotic poisons in tobacco smoke. Arsenic, cyanide and nicotine are bad enough; but now radiation? In November 2006 former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital in what had all the hallmarks of a cold war–style assassination. Despite the intrigue surrounding Litvinenko’s death, the poison that killed him, a rare radioactive isotope called polonium 210, is far more widespread than many of us realize. With people worldwide smoking almost six trillion cigarettes a year, each one delivering polonium to the lungs, puff after puff, this poison builds up to the equivalent radiation dosage of 300 chest x-rays a year for a person who smokes one and a half packs a day.

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