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Something different; Tobacco and Polonium.

  1. May 25, 2013 #1
    Well, I've been searching for answers for probably the last hour now, and have found nothing but info on cigarettes...

    I'm wondering if the tobacco used in cigars, pipe tobacco, or even black and milds, contain any level of Po-210?
    Also if cigarettes may simply contain something like Po because of the fertilizer and/or chemicals used in manufacturing?
    And if so, would organic cigarettes still contain some levels of Po?

    Why am I posting this in a Physics forum? as my first post?
    Because every answer I think I find, ends up being smokers on some "cigar forum" that don't have the slightest idea of what they're saying when it comes to Radioactivity, Half-lifes, or even Po itself.. They all seem to say it's not harmful because they don't inhale...... :rolleyes:

    So, I decided to ask some place where the members have much more knowledge of such things than a 20 year old that only knows what he taught himself.

    Smoker or not, any feedback is appreciated :smile:
  2. jcsd
  3. May 25, 2013 #2


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    Atoms are tiny. In general, you can find nearly all (not too short-living) elements everywhere, if your measurement device is sensitive enough. A few atoms are not dangerous, of course.

    Take a liter of water, distribute it evenly on the surface of earth. Afterwards, each liter of water anywhere will contain many atoms (oxygen/hydrogen) from that initial liter.
    There is more polonium distributed on earth than just a liter.

    There are signs of more polonium in tobacco, but that is "just" a quantitative issue.
  4. May 25, 2013 #3


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    This Polonium in tobacco is quite a strange story which pops up every now and then. It's proponents seem to claim that the harmfull effects of polonium, especially its ability to induce lung cancer, is the main reason for the lung cancers observed in smokers. This is complete nonsense. The levels of polonium in tobacco many orders of magnitude to low to explain the lung cancer rates observed in smokers.
  5. May 25, 2013 #4


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    Here is a long and detailed article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2008 regarding Polonium in Tobacco, along with one paragraph from its summary:

    Am J Public Health. 2008 September; 98(9): 1643–1650.
    doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.130963
    PMCID: PMC2509609

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

    “The tobacco industry remains silent on the PO-210 issue, suggesting that it continues to fear public reaction. We found no mention of radioactive particles in tobacco and tobacco smoke on any of the major transnational tobacco companies’ current Web sites that present smoking and health information aimed at consumers. We support a proposed new warning label on cigarettes: “Surgeon General’s Warning: Cigarettes are a Major Source of Radiation Exposure.”
  6. May 26, 2013 #5


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  7. May 26, 2013 #6
    Sorry I'm late to reply, trying to adjust to a polyphasic sleep pattern is hell...

    Anyway, While I understand that we are exposed to natural levels of radiation everyday, from the tiny amount of cosmic radiation that makes it past our atmosphere, to this laptop, I thought it was odd that I couldn't find anything regarding just how radioactive Po is and how much is in tobacco. I'm glad to see that no one here believes it's too dangerous. Guess I fell victim to the writers who made it out to be the reason tobacco kills so many.

    :edit: Just found this,
    "people worldwide smoke almost six trillion cigarettes a year, and each one delivers a small amount of polonium 210 to the lungs. Puff by puff, the poison builds up to the equivalent radiation dosage of 300 chest x-rays a year for a person who smokes one and a half packs a day."

    So, 3-4 cigarettes a day would be equal to 30-40 chest x-rays a year.
    Doesn't seem too bad. Considering I most likely get something close to this everyday between the natural environment and electronics.
    Last edited: May 26, 2013
  8. May 26, 2013 #7

    Andy Resnick

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  9. May 27, 2013 #8


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    Looking at some articles, the effective dose corresponds more to about 0.1 - 0.2 mSv per pack-year.
  10. May 28, 2013 #9
    It is well documented that tobacco has an elevated concentration of Po-210.
    There are two theories as to why:
    1) Tobacco roots selectively absorb Po-210 from the soil
    2) Radon-222 decays in the atmosphere and the decay products falls onto the the leaves of Tobacco plants. These products eventually decay into Po-210.

    As I understand it the atmospheric decay is the primary source of Po-210 in tobacco.

    Either way the Po-210 in tobacco comes from the decay of natural Uranium. Going organic isn't going to reduce its concentration.

    You also have to be incredibly careful when talking about doses. When talking about health effects not all doses are equal. In the case of Po-210, this is very true.

    Po-210 is an alpha emitter. Alpha particles don't travel very far in solids. This has two consequences.

    First they are easily to shield. In fact the outer layer of our skin, which is all dead cells, is enough to stop most alphas particles. Thus an external exposure to alphas carries a small heath risk.

    Second, because they don't travel far in solids, they deposit all there energy in a small region. As a consequence alpha emitters are really bad when they are ingested or inhaled. They tend to do a lot of damage locally.

    Concerning the heath effects of Po-210 in tobacco. Its not the primary cause of the numerous heath risks associated with smoking. At the same time, it probably causes some cases of cancer.
  11. May 28, 2013 #10


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  12. May 29, 2013 #11


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    ... and this is only Po-210, not all radioactive materials. On the other hand, smokers get their additional Po-210 in the lungs only and not via food. The route to end up in urine is different.
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