Polonium 210 (210Po) has a life of intrigue and infamy compared to other elements. Since its discovery by Marie Curie 113 years ago, it has been used for a variety of purposes including heating satellites, removing static from photography equipment and even KGB assassinations.
It is also found in every cigarette.
210Po is radioactive and has been connected to 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths per year. According to a UCLA research study, tobacco companies have not only known about the presence of 210Po in their cigarettes since the mid 1960s but have actively covered up and denied any knowledge of the matter.
“Lung cancer was a rare disease before smoking became rampant,” said Hrayr Karagueuzian, a researcher at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and lead author of a paper detailing the tobacco industry’s policies and actions regarding radioactive 210Po. Lung cancer was so rare that when a physician came across a case, he or she would call all colleagues to come and observe.
Tobacco radioactivity has two identified sources: the atmosphere and soil contaminated by certain fertilizers. 210Po is absorbed by the sticky crystals, called trichoms, on the tobacco leaves. The trichoms are water insoluble, which means that rinsing the leaves will do nothing to remove the radioactive particles.
The radiation from 210Po does not evenly distribute in the lungs. It gathers in “hot spots.” The particles gathered in the hot spots cause cell death, and the cells that do survive are mutated.
Humans have a gene called the P53 Tumor Suppressant Gene, which is responsible for repairing damaged DNA that causes tumors. The alpha particles from 210Po disrupt the operations of this gene, which leads to a proliferation of malignant growths – cancer.
In Karagueuzian’s words, “When the cat’s not there, the mice start to dance.”
Even before the publication of this study on cigarettes, doctors had always considered smoking to be a factor in many health problems.
“No matter what disease we look at, we always ask ‘smoker or non-smoker?'” said Jim Sayre of the UCLA department of biostatistics and radiological sciences. “I had no idea that radiation was actually involved,” he said.
Our bodies have natural mechanisms – mucus and cilia – to slowly clear out the sticky tar and smoke particles. But the sheer amount of tar, smoke and nicotine piling up in the lungs prevents the cilia from functioning properly.
“Of the 210Po in the cigarettes, 35 percent is absorbed [by the lung tissue], 50 percent is exhaled and the rest is lost in the environment,” Karagueuzian said. “That 50 percent is discharged to the immediate environment of the smoker.”
Another huge concern is the morality of the tobacco companies’ decision to keep the research on radioactivity secret for more than 50 years.
Tobacco companies have found that a method called acid washing greatly reduced the amount of 210Po in their cigarettes. However, the acid wash also reduced the potency and addictivity of the nicotine.
“The industry is a little bit shady,” Sayre said. “They are going to make a buck however they can.”
Tobacco companies used rebuttal, denial and intimidation to keep the studies under wraps. They even issued an industry-wide ban on publishing any research related to tobacco radioactivity. The tobacco industry also gave all of its documents to corporate lawyers to ensure they were kept secret under attorney-client privilege.
“Lawyers are exempt from having to disclose harmful information because it is given to them in confidence by their clients,” said Rex Perschbacher of UC Davis School of Law.
By California law and legal ethics, there would be no requirement for corporate lawyers to reveal this harmful information. They would have the right to reveal it but would have no obligation to do so.
In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement case ended with an agreement that the tobacco companies help compensate state Medicaid expenses for smoking-related illnesses and release all documents concerning health problems related to tobacco. As of now, over 13 million documents totaling more than 70 million pages have been released.
“There are a lot of secrets in business – good ones, benign ones and bad ones. These companies were at arm’s length from government scrutiny,” Perschbacher said.
The research study will likely lead to an anti-smoking campaign centered around radioactivity in addition to its other negative health effects.
HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.