Facts About Cigarette Smoking and Radiation

At a glance

  • Tobacco contains many toxic substances including radioactive materials.
  • Radioactive materials, like polonium-210 and lead-210 can remain on tobacco leaves after processing.
  • Polonium-210 and lead-210 accumulate in the lungs of people who smoke and can lead to cancer.
No smoking sign

The basics

Cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke exposure cause more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States.

Cigarette smoke and tobacco contain many toxic substances including tar, arsenic, nicotine, and cyanide. Tobacco also contains radioactive materials such as polonium-210 and lead-210.

Together, the toxic and radioactive substances in cigarettes harm people who smoke. They also harm people exposed to secondhand smoke.

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 person lights a cigarette and inhales the tobacco smoke, toxic and radioactive substances in the smoke enter the lungs. They can then cause direct and immediate damage to the cells and tissues. The same toxic and radioactive substances can also damage the lungs of people nearby.


Polonium-210 and lead-210 accumulate for decades in the lungs of people who smoke. 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.

For more information about quitting smoking, visit CDC.gov/quit‎

Quitting smoking is one of the most important steps you can take to improve your health.