The Hidden Danger of Radioactive Polonium in Tobacco

Photo by: Bigstockphoto
Photo by: Bigstockphoto

Cigarette smoke contains over 8,000 toxic chemicals, 7 of which cause cancer. But an accidental discovery suggests that cigarettes are even more dangerous than previously believed. It appears that cigarette contains polonium, an extremely toxic compound.

Polonium is a highly radioactive chemical with no stable isotopes. It was discovered in 1898 by Marie Curie herself – together with Pierre Curie. Polonium is often used as a component for heaters in space probes. It’s found in all plants and organic materials.

Discovering Polonium in Cigarette Smoke

Polonium in cigarettes was discovered in the 60s by accident. Vilma E. Hunt, a radiochemist at the Harvard School of Public Health developed a method that measures low levels of polonium and radium. All plants and most animals have a low level of polonium 210. But when Hunt used her device to detect polonium in cigarette ash, she was surprised to find zero traces of the chemical. It’s virtually impossible for a plant product not to have traces of polonium 210. Hunt concluded that the polonium in cigarettes was vaporized into the smoke. This would explain why heavy smokers have high levels of polonium in the lungs.

Hunt – together with her team of scientists – wrote a report about their discovery. Tobacco companies were informed about the study and yet did nothing. The report was published in 1964, but the public was not able to see the documents in most scientific journals.

This discovery prompted other scientists to take a deeper look at the polonium content in cigarettes. They also analyzed the lungs of deceased smokers. Studies show that polonium did collect in various parts of the lungs. These parts were tagged as radioactive “hot spots.” Such radioactive chemicals cannot penetrate the skin. You can hold a radioactive chemical with gloved hands and you will not sustain any injuries.

But once it enters the body, it will break down all organs. In Japan, authorities issued an evacuation order in an area where more than 50 miles of plants were suspected of being tainted by plutonium. Local authorities fear that gaseous plutonium could travel to various towns.

Large tobacco companies could have done something to stop polonium from tainting their products. There are chemicals they could add to cigarettes to eliminate polonium. Growers could also turn to low uranium fertilizers to prevent the presence of polonium. Workers could’ve washed the tobacco leaves thoroughly to decrease polonium.

However, they did not do these steps. They did not improve their processes simply because the government was not regulating how tobacco products were processed then. The result was catastrophic. Millions of smokers died from complications rooted in radioactivity.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act

In 2009, President Obama just signed the “Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act” into a law. This gives the US Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate how cigarettes are manufactured. Tobacco companies have no choice but to comply with the guidelines imposed by the agency. It also forces all tobacco companies to remove polonium from their products to decrease deaths.


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