Friday, December 01, 2006

Another reason not to smoke: Polonium poisoning

From an Op-Ed in the New York Times:

WHEN the former K.G.B. agent Alexander V. Litvinenko was found to have been poisoned by radioactive polonium 210 last week, there was one group that must have been particularly horrified: the tobacco industry.

........The industry has been aware at least since the 1960s that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium. Exactly how it gets into tobacco is 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.

In 1968, the American Tobacco Company began a secret research effort to find out. Using precision analytic techniques, the researchers found that smokers inhale an average of about .04 picocuries of polonium 210 per cigarette.

........A fraction of a trillionth of a curie (a unit of radiation named for polonium’s discoverers, Marie and Pierre Curie) may not sound like much, but remember that we’re talking about a powerful radionuclide disgorging alpha particles — the most dangerous kind when it comes to lung cancer — at a much higher rate even than the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Polonium 210 has a half life of about 138 days, making it thousands of times more radioactive than the nuclear fuels used in early atomic bombs.

We should also recall that people smoke a lot of cigarettes — about 5.7 trillion worldwide every year, enough to make a continuous chain from the earth to the sun and back, with enough left over for a few side-trips to Mars. If .04 picocuries of polonium are inhaled with every cigarette, about a quarter of a curie of one of the world’s most radioactive poisons is inhaled along with the tar, nicotine and cyanide of all the world’s cigarettes smoked each year. Pack-and-a-half smokers are dosed to the tune of about 300 chest X-rays.

Is it therefore really correct to say, as Britain’s Health Protection Agency did this week, that the risk of having been exposed to this substance remains low? That statement might be true for whatever particular supplies were used to poison Mr. Litvinenko, but consider also this: London’s smokers (and those Londoners exposed to secondhand smoke), taken as a group, probably inhale more polonium 210 on any given day than the former spy ingested with his sushi.

So now you all know - stay away from the ciggies if you want to avoid Litvienko's fate!


Mark Wadsworth said...

I like the stat about the chain theoretically reaching to the sun and back, which seems about right. But this wouldn't work in practice, as soon as you get anywhere near the sun, they'd burn up! Or maybe not, as it's in space so there's no oxygen? Any thoughts?

Tom Freeman said...

When I was about 12, I was the school geek, and keenly found out all the many diseases that smoking could cause. I proudly waved around the factoids that one cigarette takes 15 mins off your life, and that smoking killed as many people as one Lockerbie crash a day. Or three a day, or something like that.

For a biology class, we had to do anti-smoking posters, and I confidently drew a ciggie lit from the filter end...

(On reflection, I needed a slap. Or at least to discover girls and/or booze, which I fortunately did before long.)

Anyway, I knew about polonium 210 in fags over 15 years ago, and so am this week feeling very pleased with my former self. Even though he was a bit of a gimp. But his smugness lives on in part of me...