Radiation in Cigarette Smoke Known for 50 Years

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If there is one stereotype that seems to hold water, it is that of the evil tobacco executive who knowingly promote sales of products even when made aware of health risks. A report in Science News Daily demonstrates another example of this.

Researchers reexamined documents turned over during the famous tobacco lawsuits to find that information about radiation in tobacco smoke was suppressed. When did they first know about it? As far back as the early 1960s.

Why is this significant? Well, besides being another example of ignoring morality for money, it may help explain how cigarette smoke contributes to cancers. The radioactive elements emit alpha particles, a type of radiation that we seem to be able to handle well. For example, they only penetrate a few cells deep through our skin and can be blocked by clothing. The lungs, however, are a different story. Here the tissues are extremely thin and delicate. This is necessary to allow oxygen to cross into our blood. A few cells deep matters in lung tissue.

Where does the radiation come from? Obviously, it is in the tobacco leaf, but then the question is how does it get there? The answer turns out to be that tobacco preferentially absorbs radioactive polonium (a breakdown product of naturally occurring radon) which is in the environment. Added to this are elements that come from phosphate fertilizers used by tobacco growers.

Because this is related to the tobacco leaf itself, all brands and types of cigarettes are affected. The accusation is that the industry as a whole suppressed research into radioactivity and tobacco smoke. What’s worse is they came up with a method to significantly reduce the radiation (an acid wash), but concerns about reducing nicotine content and the expense kept them from taking this measure.

The added risk to smokers is cumulative and over an extended period will increase mortality. From the article: “These levels of rads, according to the EPA's estimate of lung cancer risk in residents exposed to radon gas, equal 120 to 138 deaths per 1,000 regular smokers over a 25-year period.”

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