Big Tobacco knew radioactive particles in cigarettes posed cancer risk but kept quiet

Big Tobacco knew radioactive particles in cigarettes posed cancer risk but kept quiet

Kim Irwin | 

Tobacco companies knew that cigarette smoke contained radioactive alpha particles for more than four decades and developed “deep and intimate” knowledge of these particles’ cancer-causing potential, but they deliberately kept their findings from the public, according to a new study by UCLA researchers.
The analysis of dozens of previously unexamined internal tobacco industry documents, made available in 1998 as the result of a legal settlement, reveals that the industry was aware of cigarette radioactivity some five years earlier than previously thought and that tobacco companies, concerned about the potential lung cancer risk, began in-depth investigations into the possible effects of radioactivity on smokers as early as the 1960s.
“The documents show that the industry was well aware of the presence of a radioactive substance in tobacco as early as 1959,” the authors write. “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 study, published online Sept. 27 in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, adds to a growing body of research detailing the industry’s knowledge of cigarette smoke radioactivity and its efforts to suppress that information.
“They knew that the cigarette smoke was radioactive way back then and that it could potentially result in cancer, and they deliberately kept that information under wraps,” said the study’s first author, Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, an adjunct professor of cardiology who conducts research at UCLA’s Cardiovascular Research Laboratory, part of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Specifically, we show here that the industry used misleading statements to obfuscate the hazard of ionizing alpha particles to the lungs of smokers and, more importantly, banned any and all publication on tobacco smoke radioactivity.”
The radioactive substance — which the UCLA study shows was first brought to the attention of the tobacco industry in 1959 — was identified in 1964 as the isotope polonium-210, which emits carcinogenic alpha radiation. Polonium-210 can be found in all commercially available domestic and foreign cigarette brands, Karagueuzian said, and is absorbed by tobacco leaves through naturally occurring radon gas in the atmosphere and through high-phosphate chemical fertilizers used by tobacco growers. The substance is eventually inhaled by smokers into the lungs.
The study outlines the industry’s growing concerns about the cancer risk posed by polonium-210 inhalation and the research that industry scientists conducted over the decades to assess the radioactive isotope’s potential effect on smokers — including one study that quantitatively measured the potential lung burden from radiation exposure in a two-pack-a-day smoker over a two-decade period.
Karagueuzian and his colleagues made independent calculations using industry and academic data and arrived at results that very closely mirrored those of that industry study, which was conducted nearly a quarter-century ago. They then compared those results to rates used by the Environmental Protection Agency to estimate lung cancer risk among individuals exposed to similar amounts of alpha particle–emitting radon gas in their homes.
“The gathered data from the documents on the relevant radiobiological parameters of the alpha particles — such as dose, distribution and retention time — permitted us to duplicate the industry’s secretly estimated radiation absorbed dose by regular smokers over a 20- or 25-year period, which equaled 40 to 50 rads,” he said. “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.”
Despite the potential risk of lung cancer, tobacco companies declined to adopt a technique discovered in 1959, and another discovered 1980, that could have helped eliminate polonium-210 from tobacco, the researchers said. The technique, known as an acid-wash, was found to be highly effective in removing the radioisotope from tobacco plants, where it forms a water-insoluble complex with the sticky, hair-like structures called trichomes that cover the leaves.
And while the industry frequently cited concerns over the cost and the possible environmental impact as rationales for not using the acid wash, UCLA researchers uncovered documents that they say indicate the reason may have been far different.
“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. “The industry also were well aware that the curing of the tobacco leaves for more than a one-year period also would not eliminate the polonium-210, which has a half-life of 135 days, from the tobacco leaves because it was derived from its parent, lead-210, which has a half-life of 22 years.”
Karagueuzian said the insoluble alpha particles bind with resins in the cigarette smoke and get stuck and accumulate at the bronchial bifurcations of the lungs, forming “hot spots,” instead of dispersing throughout the lungs. In fact, previous research on lung autopsies in smokers who died of lung cancer showed that malignant growths were primarily located at the same bronchial bifurcations where these hot spots reside.

“We used to think that only the chemicals in the cigarettes were causing lung cancer,” Karagueuzian said. “But the case of the these hot spots, acknowledged by the industry and academia alike, makes a strong case for an increased probability of long-term development of malignancies caused by the alpha particles. If we’re lucky, the alpha particle–irradiated cell dies. If it doesn’t, it could mutate and become cancerous.”
Karagueuzian said the findings are very timely in light of the June 2009 passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which grants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration broad authority to regulate and remove harmful substances — with the exception of nicotine — from tobacco products. The UCLA research, he said, makes a strong case that the FDA ought to consider making the removal of alpha particles from tobacco products a top priority.
“Such a move could have a considerable public health impact, due to the public’s graphic perception of radiation hazards,” he said.
To uncover the information, Karagueuzian and his team combed through the internal tobacco industry documents made available online as part of the landmark 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Documents from Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Brown I Williamson, the American Tobacco Company, the Tobacco Institutes and the Council for Tobacco Research, as well as the Bliley documents, were examined, Karagueuzian said.
The team searched for key terms such as “polonium-210,” “atmospheric fallout,” “bronchial epithelium,” “hot particle” and “lung cancer,” among others.
Karagueuzian said the earliest causal link between alpha particles and cancer was made around 1920, when alpha particle–emitting radium paint was used to paint luminescent numbers on watch dials. The painting was done by hand, and the workers commonly used their lips to produce a point on the tip of the paint brush. Many workers accumulated significant burdens of alpha particles through ingestion and absorption of radium-226 into the bones and subsequently developed jaw and mouth cancers. The practice was eventually discontinued.
Another example involves liver cancer in patients exposed to chronic low-dose internal alpha particles emitted from the poorly soluble deposits of thorium dioxide after receiving the contrast agent Thorotrast. It has been suggested that the liver cancers resulted from point mutations of the tumor suppressor gene p53 by the accumulated alpha particles present in the contrast media. The use of Thorotrast as contrast agent was stopped in the 1950s.
In addition to Karagueuzian, authors of the study include the late Amos Norman, professor emeritus in the departments of radiation oncology and radiological sciences at UCLA; James Sayre, of the departments of biostatistics and radiological sciences at UCLA; and Celia White, who served from 1999 to 2002 as director of content and services at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, which contains more than 13 million documents created by major tobacco companies related to their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales and scientific research activities.
The study was funded by the University of California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, established by the passage of California’s SB1613 in 1989 to fund a comprehensive University of California grant program to support research into the prevention, causes and treatment of tobacco-related diseases.
The authors report no conflict of interest.


At last! polonium 210 in cigarettes hits the news

This was apparently known to major tobacco companies as far back as 1974, and by 1980 a means to remove the radioactive content was also known – by using ammonium phosphate as a fertilizer, instead of calcium phosphate. This idea is rejected on the basis of expense. This is clearly revealed in the two publically available leaked ‘smoking gun’ memos (reproduced below from the website) from Philip Morris in 1980. 

The key quotes are: 

“210- Pb and 210 -Po are present in tobacco and smoke.”

…”For alpha particles from Po-210 to be the cause of lung cancers in unlikely due to the amount of radioactivity of a particular energy necessary of induction. Evidence to date, however, does not allow one to state this is an impossibility.”

“The recommendation of using ammonium phosphate instead of calcium phosphate is probably a valid but expensive point”

So what can we conclude from all this?

Well, obviously tobacco companies primary concern is not public health, they are motivated purely by profits. If there is a model for irresponsible corporations – they are it. No surprise there. They denied tobacco was linked to lung cancer despite overwhelming evidence for years.

More worryingly perhaps is that Government’s in the UK, the US and everywhere else have failed to act on this – either by commissioning the appropriate research or by banning the use of the offending fertilisers. Ultimately it is the governments responsibility to monitoir these issues. They have had 20 years since this has been in the public domain and done nothing. Only now when some unrelated Russian political murder brings this obscure substance into the public eye are we beginning to get a hint of a debate and the potential for change. Lets be under no illusions, this saga is a grotesque failing of our public health infrastructure and a total scandal and disgrace for all governments concerned. 

On a broader front serious issues are raised about tobacco control generally and why it has historically been so lax. Things are now improving – with long overdue controls on advertising and smoking in public spaces – and the public health impacts of smoking beginning to fall from their post war high. This is the result of more effective public health education and better legal regulation – something that should obviously underpin effective policy on all drugs. Cigarette tobacco can still have up to 15% non tobacco content and there are 400 or so permitted additives, most of them pretty obnoxious looking (the list is available from the Tobacco Manufacturers Association). Tobacco products should have ingredients listings the same as any other product we put in our bodies: 


Similar lessons need to be applied to alcohol control, still far too unregulated, particularly regards marketing and packaging, contributing to the rapid current rise in alcohol related ill health. Why no health warnings on alcohol products? why no ingredients listings? why do we so rarely see alcohol content in units on alcohol products? 

Organic tobacco is fairly widely available which apparently doesn’t use the offending fertilisers. Its not good for you but may be marginally less bad. Alternatively, you could go all Swedish and use ‘snus’ or ‘bandits’ – tobacco which you hold in you mouth rather than smoke. It can give you mouth cancer but is generally far less risky (they have half our level of smoked tobacco in Sweden and half the level of lung cancer). 

It is incumbent on the Government to regulate dangerous drugs properly. This must include basic harm reduction measures such as making sure tobacco full of radioactive carcinogens isnt being consumed by millions of people on a daily basis. 

LATEST: 12.12.06

In a rather depressing development, apparently a government TV ad that highlights the fact that cigarettes contain polonium-210 has been pulled because of…wait for it…sensitivities to the Litvinenko family. How totally ridiculous. Just as we are about to be told something that has been known for decades, they decide to pull the ad for the most absurd of reasons. 

Surely the sensitivities of the tens of 1000s of who have lost relatives to lung cancer, or may do in the future, are more important. Im quite sure Litvinenko would not want this ad being pulled as part of his legacy, and nor would his family. The Litvinenko story is an opportunity to broadcast this story and achieve something positive, not squirrel it away. 

The Polonium Brief: A Hidden History of Cancer, Radiation, and the Tobacco Industry

Brianna Rego*

*Department of History, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305‐2024; [email protected].

The Polonium Brief
A Hidden History of Cancer, Radiation, and the
Tobacco Industry
By Brianna Rego*
The first scientific paper on polonium-210 in tobacco was published in 1964, and in the following decades there would be more research linking radioisotopes in cigarettes with lung cancer in smokers. While external scientists worked to determine whether polonium could be a cause of lung cancer, industry scientists silently pursued similar work with the goal of protecting business interests should the polonium problem ever become public. Despite forty years of research suggesting that polonium is a leading carcinogen in tobacco, the manufacturers have not made a definitive move to reduce the concentration of radioactive isotopes in cigarettes. The polonium story therefore presents yet another chapter in the long tradition of industry use of science and scientific authority in an effort to thwart disease prevention. The impressive extent to which tobacco manufacturers understood the hazards of polonium and the high executive level at which the problem and potential solutions were discussed within the industry are exposed here by means of internal documents made available through litigation.

The American public is exposed to far more radiation from the smoking of tobacco than they are from any other source.
—Reimert Thorolf Ravenholt (1982)

[Publishing our research] has the potential of waking a sleeping giant.
This subject is rumbling . . . and I doubt we should provide facts.
—Paul A. Eichorn of Philip Morris, cautioning against publishing internal
industry research on polonium (1978)

Am J Public Health. 2008 September; 98(9): 1643–1650.doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.130963PMCID: PMC2509609PMID: 18633078

Waking a Sleeping Giant: The Tobacco Industry’s Response to the Polonium-210 Issue

Monique E. Muggli, MPH, Jon O. Ebbert, MD, Channing Robertson, PhD, and Richard D. Hurt, MD