By Melody Parker
We’re all aware of the Surgeon General’s caution against the risks of lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema, but what cigarette packages fail to warn us against is the link between cigarettes and radioactive substances.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website, cigarette smoke causes 430,000 deaths a year and roughly 25 percent of all cigarette smoke-induced lung cancer is caused by radioactivity. The agency estimates that smoking one and a half packs per day is roughly the equivalent of getting one chest X-ray every day of the year. EPA is also concerned that the filters on ordinary cigarettes only remove a small amount of radioactivity from the smoke inhaled in one drag.
Brianna Rego, a Stanford University History of Science graduate student, has been studying the effects of radioactive substances in cigarettes since 2006. She recently presented her findings to the History of Science Society in Washington, D.C.
“The tobacco industry has been well aware of the presence of polonium in cigarettes and the potential health hazards since 1964,” Rego told City on a Hill Press in an e-mail. She added that the tobacco industry has devoted large sums of money to a radiochemical research program that was kept secret from the scientific community and the public.
According to Rego, a paper published in Science Magazine in 1964 first exposed the presence of polonium 210, the key chemical component linked to radiation in cigarettes. Polonium 210, a naturally occurring semi-metal, poses a serious health risk because it exposes both smokers and second-hand smokers to radioactivity.
Kenneth Bruland, a UC Santa Cruz environmental chemist, said that the radiation from polonium 210 is extremely hazardous and potentially fatal.
“The temperature at which a cigarette burns is enough to vaporize polonium 210 so that you are able to breathe it in,” Bruland said. “[Polonium] has this tremendous energy [that] shoots out onto your lungs and that is what causes cancer and damage to your DNA.” He explained that the polonium particles settle on a smoker’s lungs after inhalation and more radiation builds over time.
Bruland said that polonium, which comes from radon, gets into cigarettes from naturally occurring radon in the atmosphere. The radon disperses into the air and is captured by raindrops that settle onto tobacco leaves or onto the soil of tobacco plants.
Shelly Rosenblum, environmental engineer in the EPA’s Air Division, said that fertilizers regularly used on tobacco fields contain phosphate and are a major source of the radiation in cigarettes.
“[Polonium] is a very potent form of radiation with very serious consequences,” he said.
Rosenblum added that while polonium is the main radioactive ingredient in cigarettes, the EPA will not propose alterations to the warning label anytime soon; polonium is only seen as one component within the larger issue of smoking cigarettes.
“We don’t really have the authority to put another label on cigarettes,” Rosenblum said. “It was hard enough to put the first label on [cigarette packages] when there are clear statements and evidence against smoking.”
_For more information visit the EPA website at http://www.epa.gov_