Radioactive Lead and Polonium-210 in tobacco smoke

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

The following describes a 1974 Liggett & Myers internal memo titled Comments on Recent News Releases Concerning Lead - 210 and Polonium - 210 in Cigarette Smoke

In 1974, a scientist name Edward Martell published a study in the scientific journal Nature that showed cigarette smoke contains radioactive polonium-210 and lead-210. Martell postulated that the alpha radiation emitted by these substances concentrates in the lungs of smokers and may be a contributor to lung cancer. The article caused a stir both inside and outside the tobacco industry. This 1974 Liggett memo acknowledges what Martell found--that radioactive polonium-210 and lead-210 are indeed present in cigarette smoke--and shows Liggett scientists planned to "counterbalance" Martell's information with "opposing opinions of equally reputable scientists..."

In the memo, Vello Norman, then Liggett's Supervisor of Physical Chemistry, states,

[Page 1]: "Tobacco leaf, as do all plant tissues, contains small amounts of many inorganic constituents, among them some lead and polonium."
[Page 2]: "Some of the recent publications have made some very strong statements about the significance of these levels of radiation such as: E.A. Martell, Nature, 249, 217 (1974): 'Thus, is seems that alpha radiation from [Polonium-210] in insoluble smoke particles may be the primary agent of bronchial cancer in smoking."

Norman then writes,

"We will have to counterbalance this by opposing opinions of equally reputable scientists such as: B. Rajewski and W. Stahlhofen: (the calculated dose rate) 'would seem to show that carcinogenesis caused by inhalation of [Polonium-210] with the tobacco smoke is rather unlikely."

Norman discounts Martell's conclusions by saying Martell is after money or "laurels," and essentially admits that the company doesn't know just how damaging the radioactive polonium and lead in smoke are, that they still need to do research to find this out:

Researchers, particularly when in pursuit of research grant monies or some other laurels, have been known to occasionally overstate what is warranted by facts in order to enhance the merits of their own thing. As it stands, we shall have to delay objective judgment as to just how significant Po-210 [polonium-210] in smoke is until considerable additional research is completed.

Title Comments on Recent News Releases Concerning Lead-210 and Polonium-210 in cigarette smoke
Org. Author Liggett & Myers
Per. Author Vello Norman
Date 19740725
Type Memorandum, Scientific report
Bates 81151933/1935
Collection Lorillard
Pages 3

Related tobacco industry documents

A confidential Philip Morris (PM) memo from 1980 written by Roger Comes (a Associate Senior Scientist in PM's Research and Development department in Richmond, Virginia) responds to news reports about a research article that was published at the time by Edward Martell that revealed that cigarette smoke contained low levels of the radioactive alpha particle-emitting constituent Polonium-210. The memo confirms that PM was aware at that time that smoke from their cigarettes contained radioactive lead and polonium, and that it was derived from the uranium contained in the calcium phosphate fertilizers that farmers regularly used on tobacco-growing soils. Comes states that

"210-Pb [radioactive lead] and 210-Po [radioactive polonium] are present in tobacco and smoke...."

He also suggested that switching to another fertilizer could probably help the situation:

"...using ammonium phosphate instead of calcium phosphate as fertilizer is probably a valid but expensive point..."

Title: "Newscript" Radioactive Cigarettes 800222
Organizational Author: Philip Morris
Per. Author: R.A. Comes
Date: 19800402 (April 2, 1980)
Type: Memorandum, bibliography, scientific report
Bates No. 2012611337/1338
Collection: Philip Morris
Pages: 2

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External resources

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