This was kept as a deep, dark secret for almost 40 years, from its discovery in 1959 through 1998, when it was revealed as part of a legal settlement. According to a new study, tobacco companies knew that cigarette smoke contained radioactive alpha particles for more than four decades and developed "deep and intimate" knowledge of these particles' cancer-causing potential, but they deliberately kept their findings from the public.
It turns out it occurs naturally: the radioactive substance, which was first brought to the attention of the tobacco industry in 1959, was identified in 1964 as the isotope polonium-210, which emits carcinogenic alpha radiation. Polonium-210 can be found in all commercially available domestic and foreign cigarette brands. It is absorbed by tobacco leaves through naturally occurring radon gas in the atmosphere and through high-phosphate chemical fertilizers used by tobacco growers. The substance is eventually inhaled by smokers into the lungs. This may be one more reason, aside from "tar" and nicotine, why smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.
The analysis of dozens of previously unexamined internal tobacco industry documents, made available in 1998 as the result of a legal settlement, reveals that the industry was aware of cigarette radioactivity some five years earlier than previously thought and that tobacco companies, concerned about the potential lung cancer risk, began in-depth investigations into the possible effects of radioactivity on smokers as early as the 1960s. Despite the potential risk of lung cancer, tobacco companies declined to adopt a technique discovered in 1959 and then another developed in 1980 that could have helped eliminate polonium-210 from tobacco.
The 1980 technique, known as an acid-wash, was found to be highly effective in removing the radioisotope from tobacco plants. Cardiologist Hrayr S. Karagueuzian says, "The industry was concerned that the acid would ionize the nicotine, making it more difficult to be absorbed into the brains of smokers and depriving them of that instant nicotine rush that fuels their addiction."
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