Friday, January 9, 2009

Polonium- More Toxic Than Cyanide- Smokers Beware

Jack Dini
Livermore, California

(From, January 209)

What do polonium and cyanide have in common? Answer- both are toxic and both are inhaled by cigarette smokers. However, polonium makes cyanide look like a lightweight since it is 250 billion times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide. (1)

Yet, even non-smokers can’t get away from polonium. John Emsley reports, “We cannot escape having some polonium in our body because it is formed from radioactive radon gas. This gas may be chemically inert, but if breathing it in coincides with its decay to polonium, as can happen because of radon’s short life, the polonium may lodge in the lungs and from there move into the blood stream. Polonium targets no particular organ of the body but, because it is an alpha emitter, wherever it ends up has the potential to damage DNA and that can lead to cancer” (2)

Polonium had its fifteen minutes of fame in November 2006 in connection with its use as a poison to kill Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of the Putin regime. The odds of this happening to any of us are infinitesimally small. But here’s the rub—if you’re a smoker you get a dose of polonium every time you light up.

For a two-pack-a-day smoker the radiation dose to bronchial epithelium from Po-210 inhaled in cigarette smoke is probably at least seven times that from background sources, and in localized areas may be up to 1,000 rem or more in 25 years. Radiation from this source may, therefore, be significant in the genesis of bronchial cancer in smokers, note Edward Radford and Vilma Hunt. (3) So what’s a rem? It’s the amount of energy deposited in the human body by ionizing radiation. For ease of understanding, Mark Hart of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory equates 1 rem to 1 dollar, so 1 millirem is 0.1 cent or 1/10th of a cent. The yearly limit for safe exposure is 5 rem, or 5 dollars. (4)

Another way to look at this is in terms of X-rays. Conservative estimates put the level of radiation absorbed by a pack-and-a-half-day smoker at the equivalent of 300 chest X-rays every year. (5) Others report the equivalent of 800 X-rays and the National Institute of Health published a radiation exposure chart which shows that smoking 30 cigarettes per day is the equivalent of 2,000 chest X-rays per year. (6)

In spite of this you can’t lay all the health issues with smoking on polonium since no one is certain what causes the high death rate in smokers. The major culprits are probably dioxins, nicotine and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) contained in pitchy substances, and radioactive substances, mainly polonium-210, potassium-40, and lead-210. (7) But here’s an important point: polonium-210 is the only component of cigarette smoke that has produced cancers by itself in laboratory animals by inhalation. Tumors appear at a level five times lower than the dose to a heavy smoker. (8)

So, how does polonium get into tobacco? It’s not entirely understood, but uranium ‘daughter products’ naturally present in soils seem to be selectively absorbed by the tobacco plant, where they decay into radioactive polonium. High-phosphate fertilizers may worsen the problem since uranium tends to associate with phosphates, reports Robert Proctor. (5)

So, what’s the mechanism? When you light up a cigarette the polonium is volatilized, you inhale it, and it is quickly deposited in the living tissue of the respiratory system. The intense localized heat in the burning of a cigarette volatilizes the radioactive metals. While cigarette filters can trap chemical carcinogens, they are ineffective against radioactive vapors. (8)

The lungs of a heavy smoker (which may mean only 15 cigarettes per day) become coated with a radioactive lining which irradiates the sensitive lung tissue. Smoking two packs (40 cigarettes a day) gives an alpha particle radiation dose of around 1,300 millirems per year, over six-times the dose received by the average American from breathing radon (200 millirems). Furthermore, polonium-210 is soluble in body fluids and is this percolated through every tissue and cell giving levels of radiation much higher than that received from radon. (1) The proof is that it can be found in the blood and urine of smokers. The circulating polonium-201 causes genetic damage and early death from diseases reminiscent of early radiological pioneers: liver and bladder cancer, stomach ulcers, leukemia, cirrhosis of the liver, and cardiovascular diseases. (8) Concentrations of polonium-210 and lead-210 in rib bones taken form smokers were about twice those in nonsmokers. (9)

Some Final Words

There’s a fear of radiation that comes from the many doomsayers that have used the media and public to their advantage for decades. I’ve written about radiation on a number of occasions, trying to put it in good light (smoking pun intended).

Have you heard?
-Low levels of radiation are beneficial to humans.
-Mice exposed to low levels of radiation lived longer than mice that were not.
-Fish exposed to low levels of radiation grew faster than fish that weren’t.
-Low levels of radiation increase fertility and embryo viability, and decrease sterility and mutations.(10)

It’s more likely you’ve heard about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. When radioactivity from the Chernobyl accident reached our West Coast, the press warned residents about the dangers of possible fallout; speaking of the number of picocuries of radioactivity detected in high clouds without ever explaining that a picocurie is one part per trillion. Nor did the press mention that you would have to drink 63,000 gallons of that radioactive rain water to ingest one picocurie of radioactivity. (10) With Three Mile Island, the most serious damage was from the psychological trauma and over-exaggeration from mishandling of the incident by politicians and the media. (11)

Yet, with polonium and cigarettes I have a different feeling. The facts that polonium can get into the blood stream of smokers and that polonium is the only component of cigarette smoke that has produced cancer by itself in laboratory animals make me thankful that I am not a smoker.

1.Chris Rhodes, “Polonium-210, Russian Spies and Safe Tobacco,” Energy Balance, December 1, 2006
2.John Emsley, Nature’s Building Blocks, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001), 332
3.Edward P. Radford, Jr. and Vilma Hunt, “Polonium-210: A Volatile Radioelement in Cigarettes,” Science 143, 247, January 17, 1964
4.Mark. M. Hart, “Disabling the Terror of Radiological Dispersal,: Nuclear News, 46, 40, July 2003
5.Robert N. Proctor, “Puffing on Polonium,” New York Times, December 1, 2006
6.“Radioactive Polonium in Tobacco,”; July 26, 2005
7.Bogdan Skwarzec, et al., “Polonium 210Po in Cigarettes Produced in Poland,” J. Environ. Sci. Health, A36, 465, 2001
8.“Health effects of polonium,”, July 26, 2005
9.Richard B. Holtzman and Frank H. Ilcewicz, “Led-210 and Polonium-210 in Tissues of Cigarette Smokers.” Science 153, 1259, September 9, 1966
10.Dixy Lee Ray, “Radiation Around Us,” in Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, Jay H. Lehr, Editor, (New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992), 589
11.Edward G. Remmers, “Nuclear Power: Putting the Risks Into Perspective,” Issues on the Environment, (New York, American Council on Science and Health, 1992), 68

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