Cigarette Smoking and Radiation
CDC estimates that cigarettes and tobacco use kill more Americans each year than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined. Most people know that cigarette smoke and tobacco contain many toxic substances including tar, arsenic, nicotine and cyanide.
The common dangers of cigarettes have been known for decades. However, few people know that tobacco also contains radioactive materials: polonium-210 and lead-210. Together, the toxic and radioactive substances in cigarettes harm smokers. They also harm people exposed to secondhand smoke. For more information on secondhand smoke, please see the CDC website, Smoking and Tobacco Use.
What are Polonium-210 and Lead-210?
Radioactive materials, like polonium-210 and lead-210 are found naturally in the soil and air. They are also found in the high-phosphate fertilizers that farmers use on their crops. Polonium-210 and lead-210 get into and onto tobacco leaves and remain there even after the tobacco has been processed.
When a smoker lights a cigarette and inhales the tobacco smoke, the toxic and radioactive substances in the smoke enter the lungs where they can cause direct and immediate damage to the cells and tissues. The same toxic and radioactive substances can also damage the lungs of people nearby.
For more details about polonium-210, see the CDC fact sheet, Facts About Exposure to Polonium-210 from Naturally-Occurring Sources.
How can Cigarettes, Tobacco, and Radiation Affect Your Health?
Polonium 210 and lead-210 accumulate for decades in the lungs of smokers. Sticky tar in the tobacco builds up in the small air passageways in the lungs (bronchioles) and radioactive substances get trapped. Over time, these substances can lead to lung cancer. CDC studies show that smoking causes 80% of all lung cancer deaths in women and 90% of all lung cancer deaths in men. For more information about the increased health risks of smoking, see CDC’s Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking.