500 words: Blistering blue barnacles

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At a party, many years ago, I listened to a supercilious biology student holding court over genetically modified crops. It was a gentler time, the bucolic 1990s, back when the world still had the capacity to consider the implications of complicated environmental catastrophes before the blitzkrieg of climate change marched in like a gigantine toddler on the piss.

I listened to his points as he skirted a more common and immediate catastrophe; ‘local warming’ – the deadly combination of flaming black sambuca and lubricious pirate shirt.

I don’t remember much more about that evening, most likely overwhelmed by a combination of menthol smoke and Joop but I do remember thinking that lung cancer could be caused by radiation. Which I knew, I suppose, because…..radon. And it’s well known that people who undergo radiation therapy have higher rates of other cancers later down the track. What was new to me was the idea that cigarettes contained significant amounts of radioactive material – polonium.

When It Comes to our Cigarettes, Polonium is the Least of your Worries! – Rothmans, 1987

That’s right, cigarettes are filled to the brim with carcinogenic materials, all competing to see which one will polish you off first, but they also contain significant amounts of polonium. Radioactive substances occur in nature all over the place but tobacco seems to concentrate polonium, more so than other plants. Further, it seems that much of the radioactive juju that ends up in the plant comes from the large amounts of fertiliser used in its growth,

The fertilizer that farmers use to increase the size of their tobacco crops contains the naturally occurring radionuclide, radium. Radium radioactively decays to release radon, which rises from the soil around the plants. The radon and its decay products cling to the sticky hairs (trichomes) on the bottom of tobacco leaves as the plant grows.

That’s where I got really curious, and I still am. After all, not all fertilisers are created equal (the panic is generally around phosphate based fertilisers).

As with anything science related, misleading analogies abound. For instance, I’ve heard that smoking 1.5 packets a day is like being exposed to 300 chest xrays a year – which is ridiculous because at least one of them would show up a dirty great tumour bubbling away.

Ahhh where was I?

Ah yes. I’ve had a bit of a look and decided that there is a risk of contracting lung cancer through exposure to polonium, but it’s probably very small compared to your risk of being fritzed by any one of the other nasties in tobacco lining up to do you in. It seems that it might cause about 120-138 lung cancer deaths per year per 1,000 regular smokers.

Some interesting facts emerged from this article;

Acid wash was discovered in 1980 to be highly effectively in removing (210)Po from the tobacco leaves; however, the industry avoided its use for concerns that acid media would ionize nicotine converting it into a poorly absorbable form into the brain of smokers thus depriving them of the much sought after instant “nicotine kick” sensation.

I’m leaving this with more questions than answers;

– how can we know the rate at which other plants extract and concentrate polonium out of fertiliser? I don’t know, but I’d like to.

– what’s the impact on passive smokers? Can that even be isolated, given the complexity of multiplicative effects?

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