Radioactive Polonium in Tobacco
For over 40 years, researchers and tobacco corporations have known that cigarettes contain radionuclides(1). The contamination is sourced in naturally occurring radioactive radon gas(2) which is absorbed and trapped in apatite rock(3). Apatite, or phosphate rock, is mined for the purpose of formulating the phosphate portion of most chemical fertilizers(4). Polonium releases ionizing alpha radiation which is 20 times more harmful than either beta or gamma radiation when exposed to internal organs(5).
Lung cancer rates increased significantly during most of the 1900's(6). It's no coincidence that between 1938 and 1960, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco tripled commensurate with the increased use of chemical fertilizers and Persistant Organic Pollutant (POP) accumulation(7).
In 1982, tobacco researchers DiFranza and Winters concluded that smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes per day exposed a person to the same radiation as 300 chest x-rays per year(8). Due to improvements in X-ray technology and increasing levels of radionuclides in tobacco, the Institute of Medicine now estimates that a heavy smoker is exposed to the equivalent radiation as up to 2,000 chest X-rays every year(9). The National Institutes of Health state that tobacco is by far the largest source of radiation for the American public(10). Polonium is also present in chewing tobacco, benignly referred to as smokeless tobacco, and may contribute to the development of oral cancers(11).
Recently released tobacco corporation internal memos and reports indicate that they were well aware of radiation contamination as early as 1964(12), and discussed methods to remove polonium from tobacco in 1975(13). In 1977, Phillip Morris confirmed that superphosphate fertilizer was a source of polonium(14).
Indoor radon accumulation is a serious health risk that is responsible for approximately 21,000 American lung cancer fatalities annually(15). Smoking tobacco greatly magnifies the radon risk(16). The needless additional radiation delivered via fertilizer can be reduced through the use of alternative phosphate processing techniques(17) or organic fertilizers(18).
1. Polonium-210: A Volatile Radioelement in Cigarettes (1964)
Polonium-210, which emits alpha particles, is a natural contaminant of tobacco. For an individual smoking two packages of cigarettes a day, the radiation dose to bronchial epithelium from Po210 inhaled in cigarette smoke probably is at least seven times that from background sources, and in localized areas may be up to 1000 rem or more in 25 years. Radiation from this source may, therefore, be significant in the genesis of bronchial cancer in smokers.
1964 Phillip Morris internal memo circulating newspaper article regarding radioactive polonium in tobacco
2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Radon (chemical symbol Rn) is a naturally occurring radioactive gas found in soils, rock, and water throughout the U.S. It has numerous different isotopes, but radon-220, and -222 are the most common. Radon causes lung cancer, and is a threat to health because it tends to collect in homes, sometimes to very high concentrations. As a result, radon is the largest source of exposure to naturally occurring radiation...People may ingest trace amounts of radon with food and water, However, inhalation is the main route of entry into the body for radon and its decay products. Radon decay products may attach to particulates and aerosols in the air we breathe (for example, cooking oil vapors). When they are inhaled, some of these particles are retained in the lungs. Radon decay products also cling to tobacco leaves, which are sticky, during the growing season, and enter the lungs when tobacco is smoked.
3. Florida Institute of Phosphate Research
It has been known for many years that phosphate ore contains 50 - 150 parts per million (ppm) of natural uranium, and hence its radioactive decay products, when compared to most other soil and rocks which average 1 or 2 ppm. It is generally believed that uranium replaces the calcium in the apatite mineral.
4. Mining and Oil Industry Newsletter
The phosphate rock is commercially available as "apatite"….Phosphogypsum is a by-product or tailings product of phosphate production into phosphoric acid. It is created when sulfuric acid is used with phosphate rock to produce phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid is used in the production of phosphatic fertilizers. Because of other elements present in phosphates deposits such as uranium and cadmium, phosphogypsum typically contains radon and other radioactive materials and can be extremely hazardous.
5. Types of radiation
Some types of ionizing radiation are more damaging than others. For example, alpha particles tend to deposit lots of energy over very short distances and therefore cause significant damage if they travel through sensitive biological tissue. Neutrons on the other hand, interact very infrequently with atoms but when they do, the effects can be significant. For these significant reasons, different types of radiation are given different weighting factors. These factors are used to relate their physically deposited energy to the biological significance of the damage they cause. The unit used to measure this biological significance is the sievert (Sv). The sievert is equal to the amount of energy deposited in grays, multiplied by the relevant weighting factor. The higher the factor, the greater the reckoned damage. For alpha particles the factor is 20; for neutrons it is in the 5 - 20 range varying with their energy; for gamma rays and beta particles, the factor is 1.
6. Dr. Smith's Health Newsletter
The evidence is definite. Cancer statisticians have had trouble explaining the increased lung cancer rate despite the almost 20 percent reduction in tobacco use in males. It was 4/100,000 in 1930, then 40/100,000 in 1960, and by 1980 it had climbed to about 72/100,000. The same with women, despite the fact that ladies smoke filtered cigarettes which filters out benzopyrine and nitrosamine, two acknowledged carcinogens.
7. Dr. Smith's Health Newsletter
Here may be an explanation: Dr. Jerome Marmorstein found radioactive polonium in the lungs of smokers and in tobacco grown since 1950. Polonium levels tripled in American tobacco between 1938 and 1960.
This radioactive polonium, plus some lead and radium found in cigarettes and the lungs is directly related to the fertilizer used in tobacco farm soil. The Tennessee Valley authority helped fund apatite rock grinding factories for the tobacco farmers. That's where the polonium came from.
Polonium emits the most carcinogenic form of radioactivity known, but has a short half-life (four months). However, it binds with radioactive lead which has a 22 year half-life, and then breaks down into radioactive polonium.
Link to PubMed abstract of Dr. Marmorstein's research on Po-210 in Tobacco 8. New England Journal of Medicine
In a person smoking 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes per day, the radiation dose to the bronchial epithelium in areas of bifurcation is 8000 mrem per year -- the equivalent of the dose to the skin from 300 x-ray films of the chest per year.
9. Institute of Medicine
Smokers' lungs are thought to absorb as much as 160 to 200 mSv/yr (16,000–20,000 mrems/yr) from polonium in tobacco smoke.
Center for Disease Control - Radiation Measurement
One chest x-ray 10 mrem 0.1 mSv
10. National Institutes of Health
Tobacco Products (To smokers @ 30 cigarettes per day) - 16000 mrem/year (Bronchial Epithelial Dose)
11. National Institutes of Health
Chemical analysis of various types of smokeless tobacco has revealed the presence of polonium-210, a radioactive alpha-emitter and known radiation carcinogen.
12. 1964 Philip Morris internal memo regarding radioactive polonium in their tobacco products
From this rather brief discussion of some obvious highlights, it is seen that a study of polonium in tobacco and smoke could easily become a major project. Since I am personally skeptical about the scientific significance of the wild surmises, assumptions and guesses of Radford and Hunt, I hesitate to recommend that we go into this.
13. 1975 Phillip Morris internal memo regarding removal of polonium from tobacco
14. 1977 Phillip Morris report on Polonium in Fertilizer
15. "EPA estimates that radon causes about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year."
16. World Health Organization
From the results of the same study, when a non-smoker is exposed to radon concentrations of 0, 100 and 400 Bq/m3, the risk of lung cancer by age 75 years will be about 4, 5 and 7 in a 1000, respectively. However, for those who smoke, the risk of lung cancer is about 25 times greater, namely 100, 120 and 160 in a 1000, respectively. Most of the radon-induced lung cancer cases occur among smokers.
17. Florida Institute of Phosphate Research
Results indicate that the radionuclides associated with phosphogypsum do not report to the ammonium sulfate product but are found instead almost exclusively in the by-product calcium carbonate.
1980 Philip Morris memo states the removal of polonium is too expensive
The recommendation of using ammonium phosphate instead of calcium phosphate as fertilizer is probably a valid but expensive point.
18. Organic Fertilizers
J Environ Radioact. 2006;85(1):94-102
Concentration levels of 210Pb and 210Po in dry tobacco leaves in Greece
Savidou A, Kehagia K, Eleftheriadis K.
J Environ Radioact. 2004;71(1):33-41
Polonium-210 budget in cigarettes.
Pediatrics 1993 Sep;92(3):464-5
Cigarette smoke = radiation hazard
Evans GD, Department of Pediatrics, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Vallejo, CA 94589-2485.
Ohio Med 1987 Feb;83(2):113-6
Tobacco's radiation: its sources and potential hazards
Rahman SM, Albert CP, Reehal BS
Radiat Res 1980 Jul;83(1):190-6
Alpha Radioactivity in cigarette smoke
Cohen BS, Eisenbud M, Harley NH
Nature 1974 May 17;249(454):215-7
Radioactivity of tobacco trichomes and insoluble cigarette smoke particles
Health Physics. 32(4):285-90, 1977 Apr.
The need for radiation controls in the phosphate and related industries
Health Physics. 32(l), 39-40, 1977
Upper limits of alpha-radioactivity per particle of cigarette smoke
Morgro-Campero A. Fleischer RL.