I have been researching this story for a number of years – that cigarettes contain radioactive polonium and lead – but never made any progress getting it into the news. A few times I have contacted science correspondents and never received a reply. I guess it just seemed like too much of a wacko-conspiracy theory, a bit like exploding cigars and Fidel Castro.
And then… the Litvinenko murder happens and polonium appears in the news as a major story, for the first (and probably last) time ever. And now the story I have been twittering on about to my generally disbelieving colleagues for years hits the news - at long last.
So what’s it all about?
Basically there has been various research done over the past 30 years or so to show that there is radioactive polonium-210 and lead-210 present in cigarettes. This fact whilst little known, is well acknowledged in the scientific community and beyond dispute.
There is a lot of debate about the possible health impacts of this radioactive content but it is clear that it does enter the lungs in smoke and there is a reasonable case made by a number of authors that this is the direct cause of some, possibly even most, smoking related lung cancer. It is important to note that there is considerable controversy about the extent of the carcinogenic effect of the radioactive content of the cigarettes as this exchange of letters in New England Journal of Medicine from 1982 clearly demonstrates.
Various estimates put the level of radiation absorbed by a pack-and-a-half a day smoker at the equivalent of 300 (Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene) to 800 (The Office of Radiation, Chemical & Biological Safety at Michigan State University) chest X-rays every year – other reports suggest it is much higher, some up to 22,000.
High profile figures have got involved in this debate over the years: The US Surgeon General C Everett Koop stated publicly in 1990 that tobacco radiation is probably responsible for 90% of tobacco-related cancer.
Researchers have induced cancer in animal test subjects that inhaled polonium 210, (Yuille, CL; Berke, HL; Hull, T. 'Lung cancer following Pb210 inhalation in rats.' Radiation Res, 1967. 31:760-774) but were unable to cause cancer through the inhalation of any of the non-radioactive chemical carcinogens found in tobacco.
Some researchers suggest that the radioactive particles are relatively low risk if the exposure is averaged out over the entire exposed surface – but that with inhaled smoke the particles are concentrated in localised regions, the bronchial epithelium (points where the lung airways divide) exposing small numbers of cells to comparatively high levels of radiation – magnifying the carcinogenic effect.
It is clear that the radioactive polonium and lead is present in cigarettes, is being consumed, and a risk – potentially a very serious one - does exist. Marmorstein, J. ('Lung cancer: is the increasing incidence due to radioactive polonium in cigarettes?' South Medical Journal, February 1986. 79(2):145-50), notes that In 1930 the lung cancer death rate for white US males was 3.8 per 100,000 people. By 1956 the rate had increased almost tenfold, to 31 per 100,000.13 Between 1938 and 1960, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco tripled, commensurate with the increased use of chemical fertilizers. Whilst this is not an established causal link, given the terrifying extent of the death rates, It is amazing that this issue hasn’t received more attention.
It now gets more interesting conspiracy fans.
The key source of the radioactive content in tobacco is thought to be phosphate fertilisers. The radioactivity is concentrated in the plant, particularly the tiny sticky hairs on tobacco leaves, as the water is drawn from the soil and evaporates. The radioactivity is also present in lots of farmed foods but it is when the tobacco leaves are smoked and inhaled that the particular lung cancer risk emerges.
This was apparently known to major tobacco companies as far back as 1974, and by 1980 a means to remove the radioactive content was also known – by using ammonium phosphate as a fertilizer, instead of calcium phosphate. This idea is rejected on the basis of expense. This is clearly revealed in the two publically available leaked ‘smoking gun’ memos (reproduced below from the www.tobaccofreedom.com website) from Philip Morris in 1980.
The key quotes are:
"210- Pb and 210 -Po are present in tobacco and smoke."
..."For alpha particles from Po-210 to be the cause of lung cancers in unlikely due to the amount of radioactivity of a particular energy necessary of induction. Evidence to date, however, does not allow one to state this is an impossibility."
“The recommendation of using ammonium phosphate instead of calcium phosphate is probably a valid but expensive point”
So what can we conclude from all this?
Well, obviously tobacco companies primary concern is not public health, they are motivated purely by profits. If there is a model for irresponsible corporations – they are it. No surprise there. They denied tobacco was linked to lung cancer despite overwhelming evidence for years.
More worryingly perhaps is that Government’s in the UK, the US and everywhere else have failed to act on this – either by commissioning the appropriate research or by banning the use of the offending fertilisers. Ultimately it is the governments responsibility to monitoir these issues. They have had 20 years since this has been in the public domain and done nothing. Only now when some unrelated Russian political murder brings this obscure substance into the public eye are we beginning to get a hint of a debate and the potential for change. Lets be under no illusions, this saga is a grotesque failing of our public health infrastructure and a total scandal and disgrace for all governments concerned.
On a broader front serious issues are raised about tobacco control generally and why it has historically been so lax. Things are now improving – with long overdue controls on advertising and smoking in public spaces - and the public health impacts of smoking beginning to fall from their post war high. This is the result of more effective public health education and better legal regulation – something that should obviously underpin effective policy on all drugs. Cigarette tobacco can still have up to 15% non tobacco content and there are 400 or so permitted additives, most of them pretty obnoxious looking (the list is available from the Tobacco Manufacturers Association). Tobacco products should have ingredients listings the same as any other product we put in our bodies:
THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS RADIOACTIVE POLONIUM AND LEAD
Similar lessons need to be applied to alcohol control, still far too unregulated, particularly regards marketing and packaging, contributing to the rapid current rise in alcohol related ill health. Why no health warnings on alcohol products? why no ingredients listings? why do we so rarely see alcohol content in units on alcohol products?
Organic tobacco is fairly widely available which apparently doesn’t use the offending fertilisers. Its not good for you but may be marginally less bad. Alternatively, you could go all Swedish and use ‘snus’ or ‘bandits’ – tobacco which you hold in you mouth rather than smoke. It can give you mouth cancer but is generally far less risky (they have half our level of smoked tobacco in Sweden and half the level of lung cancer).
It is incumbent on the Government to regulate dangerous drugs properly. This must include basic harm reduction measures such as making sure tobacco full of radioactive carcinogens isnt being consumed by millions of people on a daily basis.
In a rather depressing development, apparently a government TV ad that highlights the fact that cigarettes contain polonium-210 has been pulled because of...wait for it...sensitivities to the Litvinenko family. How totally ridiculous. Just as we are about to be told something that has been known for decades, they decide to pull the ad for the most absurd of reasons.
Surely the sensitivities of the tens of 1000s of who have lost relatives to lung cancer, or may do in the future, are more important. Im quite sure Litvinenko would not want this ad being pulled as part of his legacy, and nor would his family. The Litvinenko story is an opportunity to broadcast this story and achieve something positive, not squirrel it away.
(mock cigarette packet photo from www.adbusters.org)