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Tobacco industry hid lung cancer risk from public for decades

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Radioactive polonium 210 in cigarettes hidden from the public for decades.

A UCLA study found big tobacco industries hid the risk of lung cancer from smoking from the public for more than four decades.


Papers that have been released reveal tobacco companies began their own investigation into a known carcinogenic radioactive substance in cigarettes as early as the 1960’s.

Polonium 210 risk for lung cancer hidden from the public

Chemicals in cigarette tobacco have been implicated for causing lung harm that can lead to cancer, but it’s isotope polonium-210, which emits alpha radiation that is especially risky for lung cancer.

The radioactive substance is found in all commercial foreign and domestic cigarettes.

The study authors say their review of documents shows the tobacco industry “was well aware of the presence of a radioactive substance in tobacco as early as 1959.”

Furthermore, the industry was not only cognizant of the potential 'cancerous growth' in the lungs of regular smokers, but also did quantitative radiobiological calculations to estimate the long-term lung radiation absorption dose of ionizing alpha particles emitted from cigarette smoke."

The documents reviewed were made available in 1998 as part of a legal settlement, showing tobacco companies began their own investigation into the potential for lung cancer 5 years before it was brought to public attention.

Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, a professor of cardiology who conducts research at UCLA's Cardiovascular Research Laboratory, part of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA says the tobacco industry knew cigarette smoke was radioactive.

They kept the information suppressed because they didn’t want to make changes in the way tobacco is processed. Doing so would make tobacco less addictive.

Protecting smokers from polonium-210 would require a process of acid washing of tobacco leaves.

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The radioactive substance is absorbed from radon gas in the atmosphere and from high-phosphate chemical fertilizers used by tobacco growers. Ultimately, smokers absorb the isotope into their lungs.

The acid-wash technique that would have removed the radioactive substance from cigarettes was declined by tobacco companies who said it was too expensive.

But according to the UCLA researchers, documents show the concern wasn’t about expense or alleged concerns for the environmental impact of tobacco acid-wash.

"The industry was concerned that the acid media would ionize the nicotine, making it more difficult to be absorbed into the brains of smokers and depriving them of that instant nicotine rush that fuels their addiction," Karagueuzian said.

He also said the half-life of polonium-210 is 135 days. Curing tobacco for more than year would do nothing to remove the radioactive cigarette substance because it was derived from its parent, lead-210, which has a half-life of 22 years – something the tobacco companies also knew.

The researchers suggest the FDA make it a top priority to have the alpha radiation emitting particles removed from tobacco that bind with resins from tobacco creating cancer “hot spots” in the lungs.

The scientists say autopsies often show cancer malignancies located in the lungs of smokers where the “hot spots” reside.

Karagueuzian said the findings make a “strong case for an increased probability of long-term development of malignancies caused by the alpha particles.”

The FDA has the ability to mandate the radioactive substance be removed from tobacco since the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, making the finding timely.

The study. published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, shows the tobacco industry misled the public. According to the UCLA investigation, the tobacco industry had "deep and intimate" knowledge that cigarette smoke was radioactive and could increase the risk of lung cancer decades before it was revealed to the public.

Nicotine & Tobacco Research
doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntr145
"Cigarette Smoke Radioactivity and Lung Cancer Risk"
Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, Ph.D et al.
September, 2011