Early Research on Polonium 210

Research in the 1970s and 1980s began to unveil a stronger link between cigarette smoke and lung cancer.

| March/April 1982

  • Smoke
     Research in the 1970s and 1980s found a link between cigarettes and cancer.  

  • Smoke

For decades, scientists researching the health effects of cigarette smoking have observed a correlation between that habit and such illnesses as heart disease, lung cancer and other tumors . . . but they've never been able to prove just how such a relationship might be brought about. Of course, it makes sense that cigarette smoke, which contains many proven carcinogens, could cause lung cancer from the simple accumulation of the harmful substances over a period of time. But — despite the fact that tens of millions of dollars have been spent on research — scientists still don't understand exactly why smokers face such a high risk of developing bladder and pancreatic cancers or atherosclerosis.
Now, however, a small group of medical experts — all of whom are highly respected specialists in the field of radiation hazard research — have proposed an unusual (and frightening) explanation of the devastating health consequences of cigarette smoking. For the past 16 years, this group has gathered evidence to support what they call the "warm particle theory." Their line of reasoning asserts that insoluble low-level alpha-emitting radioactive particles in cigarette smoke trigger the majority of diseases associated with smoking. Or, to phrase it more directly: These experts claim that cigarettes are actually radioactive!
Tobacco, like all other organic matter — including soil, food, water, and our bodies — contains trace amounts of radioactive isotopes, most of which are soluble in water. When those particles enter the human body (which is more than 90 percent water), they are suspended in solution and then quickly and safely excreted.
Most tobacco-related radioactivity, therefore, simply washes out of the lungs. But, some other radioactive particles are insoluble, so they accumulate in the lungs and bombard delicate tissue with low-level alpha radiation, which is the same kind of radiation emitted by plutonium! Now alpha particles aren't particularly dangerous outside the body, but inside — and particularly in the lungs — they pose a serious health hazard.

According to Dr. John Gofman (former director of biomedical research at Lawrence Livermore Lab and author of the recently published book Radiation and Human Health), the presence of even one one-millionth of a gram of plutonium in the lung virtually guarantees the development of cancer there within 20 years.

Radon's Dangerous Daughter

The specific alpha-emitter in tobacco smoke is polonium 210, a naturally occurring product — or "daughter" — of the decay of radium 226, which is, itself, a natural radioisotope. Polonium 210 was first isolated in cigarette smoke, in minute but significant amounts, by Dr. Edward P. Radford (professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh and chairman of the prestigious Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation — BEIR — Committee of the National Academy of Sciences) and Dr. Vilma Hunt (now a senior official in the Environmental Protection Agency).

In 1965, Radford and Hunt — along with several other researchers — published a report in the New England Journal of Medicine that related their findings of significant concentrations of polonium 210 in smokers' bronchial tissues. The article suggested that the cumulative dose of alpha radiation from years of smoking and inhaling polonium 210 might well be a key factor in the development of lung cancer.

Other scientists criticized the Radford-Hunt hypothesis, largely because they believed it unlikely that a relatively short-lived isotope such as polonium 210 (with a half-life of only 138 days) could expose lung tissue to enough radiation to cause cancer before its water-soluble particles were washed out of the lungs.

Further research was carried out in 1974 and 1975 by Dr. Edward Martell, a radiochemist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Col., and the author of more than 75 scientific research papers. He discovered that the tiny leaf hairs on tobacco, called trichomes, attract high levels of lead 210 . . . another decay "daughter" of radium 226, which — unlike polonium 210 — is carried into the lungs in insoluble smoke particles, and remains there for a 22-year half-life. In related experiments, Martell also found a rather startling match between the areas in which polonium 210 accumulates in the body and the sites of the major illnesses most often linked to smoking.



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