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The Radioactive Polonium In Tobacco Leaves

Updated on April 3, 2017

Introduction

For fifty years the tobacco industry has known that cigarettes contain a dangerous isotope called Polonium 210. Yjey knew this fact for awhile and could have easily removed it but they did nothing and allow it to remain in the cigarettes, exposing millions of smokers to this deadly radioactive material. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now has the authority to force these companies to remove or reduce the level of this component in tobacco leaves thanks to a bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009.

 Drawing of tobacco plant to illustrate the source of polonium. Drawing by Melpor.
Drawing of tobacco plant to illustrate the source of polonium. Drawing by Melpor.

Where does Polonium 210 comes from?

Polonium 210 comes from the fertilizer used to grow tobacco and other plants on farms. It is also absorbed by the leaves from the air around the plants at ground level. Polonium 210 is one of the many decay products of uranium 238, which occurs naturally in the soil but is found in a much higher concentration in phosphate rocks used to make fertilizers. Uranium 238 decays to lead 210 in the soil and is absorbed into the tobacco leaves through the roots and is later converted into polonium 210. As I mentioned before, the other way polonium 210 gets into the leaves is from the air from radon 222. It is another decay product of uranium 238 and it exists as a gas. The gaseous radon 222 is converted to lead 210, which eventually settles on the leaves and later converted to polonium 210.

When the smoke from the leaves is inhaled it tends to settle and becomes concentrated in certain regions of the lung. These regions become "hotspots"which develops into lung cancer. However, polonium 210 is not the main carcinogen or cancer causing agent in smoke. There are hundreds of other carcinogens present in cigarette smoke that cause thousands of deaths every year from smoking.

Litvinenko, the former Russian KGB killed by polonium poison.
Litvinenko, the former Russian KGB killed by polonium poison.

Polonium 210 as a murder weapon

The public first heard about polonium 210 as a murder weapon when it was mentioned in a news report broadcasted in 2006. The broadcast stated Litvinenko, a former KGB operative, has died in a London hospital due to acute radiation syndrome. It was later determined he was murdered with the deadly radioactive isotope called polonium 210. Investigators at the time never determined how Litvinenko was exposed to the polonium 210 isotope and as a result there were many theories circulating at the time how it happened including the one that the Russian government killed him. Nonetheless, polonium 210 must be ingested or it had to come in direct contact with Litvinenko to kill him since polonium is an alpha particle emitter. I will explain what an alpha particle emitter is in more detail later.

Unfortunately, this deadly element is found in small amounts in the tobacco leaves harvested for the manufacturing of cigarettes. People worldwide smoke more than six trillion cigarettes a year and each cigarette delivers a small amount of this substance into the lungs of smokers. If a typical smoker puffs one and a half packs of cigarettes a day the amount of polonium 210 deposited in his lungs will give off the amount of radiation equivalent to 300 chest x-rays a year.

Some of the component found in cigarettes including polonium 210
Some of the component found in cigarettes including polonium 210

The Accidental Discovery of Polonium 210 in Cigarettes

Polonium 210 was discovered by accident that it was accumulating in the lungs of smokers. In the 1960s radiation and radioactive fallout was the hottest topic in the scientific community. Radioactivity was a major theme in many sci-fi movies at the time so obviously there was a lot of research going on this subject. A radiochemist, Vilma E. Hunt at the Harvard School of Public Health, developed a technique for measuring low levels of radium and polonium, and around 1964 she decided to try her measuring device on cigarette ashes. She was surprised that there was no detection of polonium in the ashes since small amount of polonium 210 is found in background radiation and in all organic material, specifically plants. All animals have low levels of polonium 210 since we are all part of the large food chain including the plant-eating (herbivores) animal. The question was where did the polonium go? She then realized that the polonium in the tobacco went up in smoke. Vilwa confirmed her conclusion by measuring the level of polonium in the smoke. The results were conclusive.

As a result, other scientist at the school began studying polonium both in the cigarettes and in the lungs of deceased smokers. It was determined from the studies that polonium accumulated in specific spots in the lungs at the points of bifurication or branching. These spots are called “Hot Spots” of radioactivity where polonium 210 emitted alpha particles. Alpha particles are the weakest form of radioactivity. A sheet of paper can easily stop these particles and they cannot penetrate the skin surface. This is why radioactive polonium and even plutonium (mainly an alpha emitter) do not do any harm to you until it is ingested, especially by inhalation into your body. This is why the Japanese authorities had to evacuate an area of more than 50 miles from the nuclear power plants because they were concerned that the gaseous plutonium will travel that far from the site. As a matter of fact, you can hold these radioactive materials in your hands with gloves on them without any serious harmful effects. On the other hand beta and gamma particles are more penetrating and will do harm to biological tissues.


The President's steps In to change things

Since the tobacco industry knew about the presence of polonium 210 in tobacco leaves these are the steps they could have taken to reduce it presence in the leaves. For starters, chemicals could have been added to cigarettes to prevent the polonium 210 from vaporizing so the smokers will not inhale it. The tobacco growers could have switch to low-uranium fertilizer. The leaves could have been washed before harvesting the tobacco. An ion-exchange filter could have been put on the cigarettes to block the polonium and finally, they could have genetically engineer the tobacco plant to have “hairless” leaves so that that the leaves will not capture the polonium converted from the captured lead particles.

Unfortunately, the tobacco industry did not perform these steps because they were not require to since the government did not regulate it. Some of these steps were quite simple to do and obviously we can see why they did not perform them. Thousands of people have lost their lives because the industry wanted to keep this process of reducing the polonium level a secret.

The situation is now changing for cigarette smokers since President Obama signed the "Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act" into law in 2009. This law places the tobacco industry under the control of the FDA allowing the agency to regulate the cigarette manufacturing process. The law also forces the tobacco companies to remove the polonium from the cigarettes thus reducing the number of deaths from cigarette

smoke.

Conclusion

In the 1990s historic lawsuits brought against the tobacco companies by 46 states force them to admit that smoking is dangerous and additive, and resulted in the release of millions of internal documents. These documents showed that the tobacco companies knowingly held all the research results and facts about polonium in tobacco leaves. The companies knew if this information have gotten out there would have been a very serious monetary damage to them despite the fact that Vilma Hunt and other scientists outside the tobacco circle had published their research in 1964. Unfortunately, the general public did not see these documents published in the scientific journals until the damage has already been done years later.

© 2011 Melvin Porter

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    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      6 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Conradofontanilla, thanks for the additional information and for reading my hub.

    • conradofontanilla profile image

      conradofontanilla 

      6 years ago from Philippines

      Useful and interesting. Tobacco also contains lead 210 that has a longer half life, 22 years, than polonium 210 which as a half life of 138.4 days. Both of these radioactive materials decay into lead 206 which is stable. Both have 84 protons, each paired with electrons. During alpha particle decay, two protons bump into each other and destroy each other emitting x-rays and generating free radicals. X-rays rearrange electrons of atoms that make up DNA molecules like phosphorus resulting in mutations then tumor or cancer. The two protons that annihilated each other leave behind two unpaired electrons that make lead and polonium free radicals. Unpaired electrons grab other electrons from molecules of cells resulting in mutations then tumor or cancer.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Critical Thinker, sorry he signed it into law on June 23, 2009. Thinks for catching my mistake.

    • profile image

      Critical Thinker 

      7 years ago

      "thanks to a bill signed into law by President Obama in 2006."

      How did President Obama sign a bill into law 3 years before his presidency began in January 2009?

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Just About It, everyone is effected by polonium 210 because we eat vegetables and other plants grown from the earth's soil. Polonium 210 is also in the soil but is more concentrated in the fertilizer used for growing plants. Smokers are affected by polonium 210 more than non-smokers because the polonium is aerosolized and sit in the lung tissues for years thus increasing the risk of cancer. Keep in mind polonium 210 is not the only chemical in cigarette smoke that is carcinogenic. On the other hand when we eat vegetables, the polonium ends up in our digestive tract and passes rather quickly through our system in most cases in a few days so it doesn't just sit in one spot to harm our cells.

    • Just About It profile image

      Just About It 

      7 years ago from southern CA

      It seems that smokers would not be the only people affected by polonium 210. Any time a plant is burned that was fertilized with fertilizer containing polonium 210 would have the same results if breathed into the lungs frequently.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      PhoenixV, thanks for stopping by to read my hub. Smoking is very scary when you become aware of the harmful activities going on in your body every time you take a puff. Unfortunately, many smokers do not think about the affect smoking has on the their body.

    • PhoenixV profile image

      PhoenixV 

      7 years ago from USA

      Very scary, thanks for the info.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      2Besure, thanks for stopping by to read my hub. Smoking simply is bad for anyone especially if you are inhaling smoke from anything burning. It just seems so unatural to do that to your body. I am glad you have stop smoking. You have taken the first step in reducing your risk of getting cancer.

    • 2besure profile image

      Pamela Lipscomb 

      7 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      Very enlightening hub! It is a shame the these companies care so little about people. I stopped smoking int 1977 when cigarettes were 80 cents a pack. I can't imagine paying 4 or $5 for a pack, for the privilege of getting cancer.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Wesman Todd Shaw, thanks for reading my hub. I hope this is your first step in the difficult journey of quitting smoking. Good luck.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Well, you forced me to stubb one out. I'd not heard of this thing at all, so good job with the info!

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Ahbless, I read about cold fusion experiments a few years ago. It sounded like a good, clean source of energy at the time but the reported results obtain from the original experiment could not be repeated with subsequent experiments. It is still a concept on paper.

    • ahbless profile image

      ahbless 

      7 years ago

      What are your thoughts on cold fusion?

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      DashingScorpio and Norma Budden, thanks for your comments. Your comments are the reason I never started smoking. I cannot understand why people want to suck smoke into their lungs instead of just life-substaining air. It doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, we are all dying a slow death, smoking a cigarette just speeds it up.

    • Norma Budden profile image

      Norma Budden 

      7 years ago from Nunavut, Canada

      Thankfully, I've never smoked. However, I developed an allergic reaction to tobacco smoke when I was 9; it used to give me hives instantly.

      The allergy has evolved since then, though, and now affects my respiratory system. Within seconds, I undergo an asthma attack - which is only triggered by tobacco smoke.

      When I explained my symptoms to a nurse - of feeling light-headed, not being able to breathe properly, then gasping for air and feeling such overwhelming tightness in the chest afterward, she said it was an asthma attack which went right into an anxiety attack because I panic from not getting air into my lungs.

      Whatever the case, the inhaler is useless because the reaction takes place so quickly that I can't even use it.

      If I had to be 100% honest, I would have to say it seems unfair that I would suffer from these issues simply because people smoke. Thankfully, it usually doesn't happens more than 6-8 times per year - because I control my environment as much as possible.

      However, when someone does something stupid like daring me by trying to shove a cigarette into my mouth, it's hard to think Christian thoughts when I know I will spend the next 45 minutes face down on a floor somewhere, trying to recover.

    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 

      7 years ago

      Older people are really starting to take note of the dangers of smoking.

      Unfortunately (young people) could care less about what is in cigarettes.

      In fact if you made the package black and placed skull and crossbones on them they’d probably even sell quicker.

      It’s like maintaining a diet of high fat and high sugar.

      We can warn people about the “risks” to their health but they will continue to ignore those risks as long as they believe the danger is not “immediate”.

      As George Bernard Shaw once stated, “Youth is wasted on the young”

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Jantamaya, thanks again for your comment. Thanks for your suggestion. I will write an article about irradiated food in the near future because most people do not understand why irradiated food is better than non-irradiated food. For starters, irradiated food stay fresh longer in storage than non-irradiated food because all the bacteria, mold, and other micro-organisms on it are destroyed in the process. Also irradiated food is not radioactive as some people think it is.

    • jantamaya profile image

      Maria Janta-Cooper 

      7 years ago from UK

      Thanks Melpor. Very interesting and great explanation. Please write a hub about this topic because not everybody is aware of it. Washing vegetables makes more sense now! :) Do you know that some vegetables are irradiated? In this way, they stay longer fresh. … I don’t like this idea, though.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Jantamaya, thanks for your comment. Yes, polonium is pretty much in everything that grows from the soil but in small quantities. It is one of the reasons cancer occurs in the human body because it accumulates over time in our bones and other tissues from our diet and stay there for 40 to 50 years. This is the other reason why it is important to wash your vegetables before cooking because polonium accumulates on the leaves of some plants as a by-product of the decay of gaseous radioactive radon isotope that exist near the ground where most vegetables are grown. Washing reduces the quantity of polonium entering our body from our diet.

    • jantamaya profile image

      Maria Janta-Cooper 

      7 years ago from UK

      Great hub. I loved to read it. Accidentally, I'm writing a hub about Marie Curie right now. As you know, she gave polonium its name. :) However, it is shocking to find polonium in cigarettes... What about food???

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Ez Kay, thanks for your comment. Smokers are literally killing themselves intentionally every time they take a puff.

    • Ez Kay profile image

      Ez Kay 

      7 years ago

      Interesting and educative article which i urge all smokers who hubs too to take their time and digest this article so that they will know the implication of what they are actually doing to their system.

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