Tobacco firms accused of hiding polonium danger


Cigarette firms suppressed research into the lethal radioactive substance polonium 210 in cigarettes and smoke owing to PR and litigation concerns, says a report.

This content was published on September 3, 2008 - 13:07

Polonium 210 is known to cause lung cancers in animals, and studies suggest it is responsible for one per cent of all lung cancers each year in the United States. British American Tobacco Switzerland rejects the claims.

Polonium 210 came to public attention recently when it was found to have been used in the fatal poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

In the September edition of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University revealed that tobacco companies knew tobacco smoke actually exposed smokers and those around them to as much radiation as they would receive from 300 chest X-rays a year.

Citing prior research, the study states, "PO-210 [polonium 210] has been estimated to be responsible for one per cent of all US lung cancers... PO-210 may be responsible for more than 1,600 deaths in the United States and 11,700 deaths in the world every year."

Yet, while attempting but failing to remove the substance from their products, firms have kept quiet about their research, scientists claim.

The US researchers painstakingly examined 1,500 internal documents from tobacco firms going back over 40 years – all of which were made public through legal actions. One document said publication of the information on polonium would be like "waking a sleeping giant".

The authors of the article also say tobacco companies feared possible litigation.

The researchers are calling for all cigarette packs to carry a radiation-exposure warning label.

Hazardous particles

Polonium is a rare, naturally occurring radioactive material that emits highly hazardous alpha particles. Polonium 210 is its most common form.

There are very small amounts of polonium 210 in the soil and in the atmosphere, and everyone has a small amount of it in their body.

In her report, lead researcher Monique Muggli revealed how cigarette industry studies show polonium is present on the tobacco leaf and inside it as part of its chemical make-up.

Tobacco company scientists spent years trying to remove the substance by washing the leaf, achieving only partial success. Attempts at genetic modification and creating filters to remove it also failed.

The lead author said that, while tobacco companies tried to obscure other health controversies, their line on polonium seemed to be simply not to raise the issue.

"Unlike other smoking and health issues, where the industry line was to create doubt, in relation to polonium 210 and the radioactivity of cigarettes, the companies wanted to hide from that issue publicly. They continue to minimise the recognition of radioactivity in their products in smoking and health litigation," she said.

Present in strawberries

Audrey Guibat, a spokeswoman for British American Tobacco Switzerland, told swissinfo that it was not clear which constituents of cigarette smoke caused cancer and argued that polonium 210 is also ubiquitous.

"Tobacco is a plant and therefore can contain miniscule amounts of polonium 210, which is also present in many types of fruit and vegetables, including cabbages, onions, potatoes, strawberries and wheat," she said.

"The World Health Organisation (WHO) is trying to determine which constituents of tobacco smoke are most important in diseases including lung cancer, but as yet have not concluded polonium 210 is a priority constituent."

BAT said the story is not new and rejected accusations of a cover-up.

"From the 1950s to 1990 over 100 papers had been published investigating the radioactivity present in tobacco and tobacco smoke, with the majority of these focused on polonium 210. It is therefore illogical to claim that the presence of polonium 210 in tobacco has been covered up, or is a secret," she said.

A spokesman for Philip Morris said that while all consumer packaging of tobacco products should bear health warnings, governments best determine the content of those warnings.

But according to law professor John Banzhaf from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the US federal government has no power to regulate the amounts of polonium in cigarettes, nor even to require tobacco companies to disclose this ingredient to the public.

Swiss and EU regulations

The European Union, for its part, has regulated additional substances found in tobacco products such as nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide, but did not take into account the tobacco leaf itself.

Michael Anderegg, tobacco expert at the Federal Health Office, said the Swiss government is able to inscribe in the tobacco regulations the need to declare harmful substances in tobacco, and has done so for three dangerous substances in cigarette smoke (tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide) - in line with the EU law.

"But there are currently no plans to limit polonium occurrence in tobacco in Switzerland...nor to carry out a study in Switzerland into the amounts of polonium in tobacco so far," he told swissinfo.

According to the news website EurActiv, the European Commission is currently looking into whether polonium should be included on the list of regulated ingredients.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Switzerland and cigarettes

In 2007 12.5 billion cigarettes were sold in Switzerland.

Also in 2007, 29% of 14 to 65 year olds were smokers – 33 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women. Switzerland, Hungary, Poland and Ireland are the highest consumers of tobacco products per head in Europe.

This rate has dropped from 33 per cent in 2001 (37 per cent men, 30 per cent women).

Smoking causes 8,000 premature deaths each year in Switzerland.

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Polonium 210 and tobacco

Polonium is a rare, naturally occurring radioactive material that emits highly hazardous alpha (positively charged) particles. Polonium 210 is its most-common form.

During the 1960s, the major tobacco manufacturers determined that Polonium 210 was a constituent of tobacco and tobacco smoke. It is one of 69 toxic chemicals in tobacco and tobacco smoke known to cause cancer.

Inhalation experiments showed Polonium 210 to be a cause of lung cancers in animals. It is estimated that smokers of 1.5 packs of cigarettes a day are exposed to as much radiation as they would receive from 300 chest X-rays a year.

Although the atmosphere contains Polonium 210 arising from radium-226 that occurs naturally in the earth's crust, the majority of Polonium 210 in tobacco plants likely comes from high-phosphate fertilizers applied to the tobacco crop.

Polonium 210 is thought to be encapsulated with calcium phosphate and lead-210 into insoluble radioactive particles, which are subsequently transferred directly into the mainstream smoke (the smoke that is inhaled directly into smokers' lungs).

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