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Tobacco Radioactivity

Updated on August 17, 2014
Billboard in Houston, Texas, sponsored by some local high school students. You know that old expression that begins, "...from the mouths of babes..." Seems like these youngsters know more about tobacco than do many adults.
Billboard in Houston, Texas, sponsored by some local high school students. You know that old expression that begins, "...from the mouths of babes..." Seems like these youngsters know more about tobacco than do many adults. | Source

Although by 1950 it was understood that smoke from burning tobacco contained radioactivity, its danger to tobacco smokers was then considered to be minimal. It was not until the mid-1960s that investigators accelerated their work in this area. Their new studies showed that radioactivity in tobacco smoke posed significant danger to tobacco smokers and to persons exposed to tobacco smoke from active smokers.

More Bad Stuff Found

Observations now identified another two radioactive elements in tobacco smoke. These were lead-210 (210Pb) and polonium-210 (210Po), the latter being a descendant of the radioactive lead following its nuclear decay. Investigator Ed Martell explained that these two radioactive metals adsorb onto the leaves of growing tobacco from the air above heavily fertilized soils in which tobacco is grown. The source of this heavy-metal radioactivity, Martell stated, was largely apatite mineral from which agricultural fertilizers were made.

Apatite is rich in radioactive uranium and uranium's many post-decay radioactive elements.One of those decay products is radon-222 (and a lesser amount of radon-220), which in the gaseous state are present in the air under and around growing tobacco. There, radon can undergo radioactive decay, producing lead-210 and its daughter product, polonium-210. These two radioactive metals have been shown to "grab onto" dust particles and other aerosols in the air around the tobacco plants and, from there be taken up by sticky-surfaced trichomes (hairs) on the tobacco leaves. There, radioactivity remains throughout tobacco processing until it is released into the lungs and other organs of those who inhale tobacco smoke.

You Smoke it, You Own It

Those who inhale tobacco smoke also inhale smoke-borne tobacco “tars,” sticky substances that can adhere to the surface tissues in the breathing organs, such as the linings of bronchial tubes and tiny alveoli (air sacks) in the lungs. Tobacco's radioactive material, mixed in with the sticky tars, tends to lock onto breathing organ surfaces, particularly at locations where the bronchial tubes bifurcate (branch) and in the alveoli at tube ends, There the radioactive material sits, emitting radiation, until it eventually decays away to become non-radioactive lead metal.

A Little Goes a Long Way, and it Goes and Goes and Goes

The amount of radioactivity per tobacco cigarette, cigar,or pipe-load is very tiny, but, because of buildup of radioactive material within bronchi, bronchioles, and alveoli, radiation to exposed tissues increases over time. Lead-210 has a half-life of approximately 22 years – the time required for half of an available quantity of the radioactive lead to disintegrate, atom by atom, on its way to becoming the even more dangerously radioactive element, polonium-210. It is this radioactive polonium that actually causes the most damage from tobacco smoke inhalation.

How Does 5.3 Million Electron Volts Sound to You?

Radioactive polonium is continually produced by decay of its predecessor radioisotope, radioactive lead. This polonium-210 then disintegrates according to its own half-life schedule of essentially 138 days. Upon polonium's disintegration an alpha particle is emitted, and on rare occasion, a powerful gamma ray may be released as well. The alpha particle has 5.3 million electron volts of ionizing energy due to its relatively large mass and double-positive electrical charge.

Although alpha particles cannot travel very far in body tissue due to their mass (the same as a helium atom nucleus – 4 atomic mass units) and charge, they are very destructive to sensitive body tissues onto which lead-210 and its resulting polonium-210 are plastered. When and if the alpha particles reach and interact with cellular DNA or other cell "officiators," mutations can be produced, and those might lead to mutation defects toward cancer formation and other malformations.

Do You Really Need a Chest X-ray Every Day?

Thus it is that a person who smokes 20 or more tobacco cigarettes a day for 25 years receives an equivalent amount of ionizing irradiation as that person would get from one chest X-ray per day – every day – for the balance of the smoker's life. Tobacco does not emit X-rays, but the comparison here is to the X-ray equivalent radiation exposure from the body's burden of continuously emitting radioactive material it took on from years of tobacco smoking.

Keep on Reading, But You May Not Enjoy It

There is a great deal more to be discussed regarding the radioactivity of tobacco smoke and the dangers tobacco smoke poses to active and to passive tobacco smokers. This very short article only touches on some of the lesser-known aspects of tobacco smoke dangers. More should be reviewed and understood by everyone, smokers and non-smokers alike.

Reference: Cancer Risk in Relation to Radioactivity in Tobacco. Radiol Technol: 1996;67(3):217 (also see

The billboard image was photographed in Houston, Texas. Produced by some local high school students, it shows the cartoon character used by the state health department in its anti-smoking campaign, still on-going through the Internet Website, “”

Eat Your Broccoli and Turnips

Someone asked me one time if it were “safe” to eat fruits and vegetables grown in soil which had been treated using the same types of chemical fertilizers used in tobacco growing. Think of that situation. Foods we swallow zip through our digestive tracts quickly and are gone. If they contained insoluble radioactive metals, such as polonium and lead, they would not hang around in the body long enough to do the degree of damage to tissues that can come from inhaling radioactivity into the breathing system; that is, unless the food is first dried and then smoked as people do with tobacco. Think “smoking 20 carrots a day for 25 years.” I believe I'd stay away from someone who did that, even if the carrots were not at all radioactive.

But you go ahead and have a nice day today. Eat your veggies as “Mama” taught you. That way your eyes will sparkle, your feet won't hurt, and you will always smell really good. Not like with smoking tobacco,OK?

Copyright 2014 GF Kilthau


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    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      4 years ago from USA

      Akriti Mattu - Your compliment is much appreciated. Your suggestion that more people need to learn about tobacco's radioactivity is a form of valuable advice, but few will do as you suggest. Many who read such things will not understand the importance of those teeny-tiny specks of radioactivity that take up residence in the bodies of tobacco smokers. It is much like saving pennies or small pieces of rupees - you can scarcely tell they are present until you get so many piled up that you can't get rid of them - and the weight of the pile crushes your health.

      An interesting thing about tobacco's radioactivity is that tobacco typically farmed in India contains about 1/7 the radioactivity of that grown in countries in which mineral fertilizers are used beneath the rows of tobacco plants in the growing fields.


      Gus :-)))

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      4 years ago from Shimla, India

      This a good post. More people need to read it .

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      5 years ago from USA

      Howdy Conrad (conradfontanilla) -

      Thank you for your comment. It is often difficult to know if a reference document is worthy, correct, and useful to the writer as to his own article(s). Using popular publications to put a base under your own works is always risky - sort of like using People Magazine as a good information source as to genetics or medicine. Keep digging, Conrad. You write well and will do OK.

      Gus :-)

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      5 years ago from USA

      Richard1988 - Do not feel alone in your not knowing of tobacco smoke's radioactivity content. Now that you do know of it's presence in tobacco smoke, do your friends a favor and clue them in about it.

      Gus :-)

    • Richard1988 profile image


      5 years ago from Hampshire - England

      I don't smoke, but this was a very interesting read! Never knew that smoke could be radioactive!

    • conradofontanilla profile image


      5 years ago from Philippines

      I found that some references I used in writing my previous Hubs err, according to the references I reviewed the latest. I hope that those I used to revise my Hubs on radioactivity are not erroneous as well. I do not intend to falsify data given that the references are correct. I try hard to make my paraphrases approximate with high fidelity the original reference. I am engaged in toning down the language level and not match the complex language of the original.

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      5 years ago from USA

      Hello again, Conrado (conradofontanilla) -

      Fortunately, two of your hubs that were once listed as recommended reading, above, have been removed from the listing. There remains one more of your articles on the list, and I would really like it a whole lot if that one would also be removed.

      I read that hub. It is not badly written but it has many errors of fact within it, perhaps beginning with your notion that Polonium-210 and Lead-210 are productive of "x-rays" upon their radioactive decay. It is a mystery to me where you may have gotten that idea and some of the others you promulgate in your hub, but errors like that (and some of your other errors of fact) do not belong in an article that pretends to be factual when it is so fictional.

      I would not object to that article remaining somewhere on HubPages, but it has no place here as any sort of recommended reading reference in association with this hub of mine. Good luck to us both in this regard.

      If you like, I can E-mail some good references for you to use in making corrections both to your thinking on tobacco radioactivity and your several articles on the subject. You can contact me by E-mail through the good offices of HubPages, as I did in contacting you earlier.

      Gus :)

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      5 years ago from USA

      Hello Conrado (conradofontanilla) -

      I have reviewed the several articles that are listed in your name following my small article as recommended reading. Although they showed a lot of hard work on your part in the "researching" and the production of your hubs, I disagree with a great deal of what you have to say within them.

      As to all plants absorbing polonium or lead, plants take pretty much what is available to them from the media in which they grow. Often enough plants absorb things through their roots (and the like) that are of immediate detriment to the lives of various plants (such as weed killers, heavy metals, and so on).

      Some chemicals are taken up in very small amounts, and even the chemicals absorbed in large amounts may be difficult to detect unless you do your measurements using appropriate techniques and equipment. For example, detecting polonium-210 requires special radioactivity testing gear (Geiger counters do not work on a per tobacco cigarette basis) unless there is a relatively huge amount of polonium in the test samples. Distinguishing radioactive lead from non-radioactive lead is similarly distinguished.

      People do not smoke jatropha, cashew, pteris vitata, etc., so they are not truly relevant to tobacco's radioactivity. They may be indicative of some plant root barrier mechanism. God made plant roots, so all things may be possible there.

      Further, most of the radioactive materials associated with smoking tobacco are deposited ON the xticky trichomes of tobacco leaves and remain there, mostly as lead-210, throughout smoking tobacco production and curing. Those daughter product metallic radioisotopes are from gaseous Radon, and are adsorbed (deposited) onto aerosols (like dust particles) in the air around growing tobacco plants, more so than they are aBsorbed through the plant roots. (Absorb and Adsorb do not mean the same things.)

      There are several other things of note in your two hubs that sound correct to the uninformed. First, X-rays are not IN smoking tobacco, although there may be a stray X-ray produced upon decay of an existing radioisotope in the leaf or upon emitted particle interaction with some other atomic component (for example electron rearrangments, etc.).

      (X-rays do not "stick around" any more than does visible light. They are creatures of the electromagnetic spectrum. Once produced, they go elsewhere, either traveling forever or having their energies absorbed by some sort of mass or possibly by the newfangled "dark energy" we now hear so much about.

      Further, polonium-210 decays almost exclusively by its production of alpha particles, the 4-mass combination particle composed of 2 protons and 2 neutrons and rather identical to the nucleus of a helium atom. Polonium-210's radioactive decay is not caused by 2 protons meeting together and destroying each other as your hub declares. Virtually NO polonium-210 decays with emission of a medium value gamma ray, one more member of the electromagnetic energy spectrum.

      Lead-210 is a Beta Particle (electrons) emitter upon its atomic disintegration. There are no alpha particle emissions from Lead-210 whatsoever.

      It is extremely doubtful that the limits of damage threshold for various metals enter into the real dangers from tobacco's contribution of lead-210 and polonium-21o into the bodies of tobacco smokers, and if someone had equipment sensitive and accurate enough to measure their weights as body burdens, it would be via measurement of their radioactivity. Perhaps this has been done sometime, somewhere. It is of low importance in the matters related to tobacco smoking, so I would guess that no one has bothered with that measurement at all.

      Good luck to you in your work. As to the radioactivity in tobacco and in its smoke, I fear that you are at the starting line of your research and that your cited references are seemingly at that point as well.

      There was more for me to comment about in your two hubs, but I will leave this comment with the suggestion that you refer to the literature surrounding this subject and see what you can come up with toward less objectionable articles. All you need do to verify that piece of advice you can quickly get from any peer-reviewed journal that would ordinarily welcome article submissions of a reliable nature. I would like to learn that you have done this and that your revised articles have been accepted for real publication in a more critical publication, science-wise, than is HubPages, a publication for writers, not particularly knowledge-wise as to complex science.

      Thank you for your comment. I truly did appreciate receiving it.


      Gus The Redneck

    • conradofontanilla profile image


      5 years ago from Philippines

      Not all plants absorb or use polonium or lead. For example, amaranth accumulates zinc. Jatropha accumulates copper. Cashew accumulates selenium. Pteris vitata, a fern, accumulates arsenic. There are safe thresholds of metals for human beings. 25 parts per million, if my memory does not fail me, is the threshold for copper.

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      5 years ago from USA

      Hi Eric (Ericdierker) -

      To many readers, this small amount of information will be new. There has come to be a large number of projects and reports in the literature about tobacco's radioactivity. That seemed to have come into its own back around the middle of the 1960s.

      Gus :)

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting information here.

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      5 years ago from USA

      Ms Mary (Blond Logic) - boas tardes...

      I first learned of this property of tobacco from a tiny (1-inch) piece in a newspaper. Quite a surprise. Following a lengthy project to confirm that news, our lab's report was deemed funny by the journal to which it had been sent. That was in 1964-65. It was not until 1996 that the research was accepted and published - and by the same outfit that had laughed at us more than 30 years earlier. Yes. Most people not only do not know about radioactivity in tobacco, they don't believe a word of it usually. It is difficult to believe that which you cannot see, taste, feel, smell, or hear.

      You wondered how many smokers know about these things. For most, knowing would make little slowdown of a very strong addiction. Nicotine is "tough stuff."

      Gus :)

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      5 years ago from Brazil

      I had no idea tobacco was radioactive. I wonder how many smokers actually know this.

      Thanks for info.


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