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Polonium: the radioactive killer from tobacco smoke

Vincenzo Zagà* Enrico Gattavecchia**

*AUSL di Bologna (Italia)

**Unità Complessa di Scienze Chimiche, Radiochimiche e Metallurgiche-Università degli Studi di Bologna (Italia)


Among all carcinogenic substances contained in tobacco smoke, Polonium 210 (Po-210), with a half-life of 138 days, is one of the most dangerous, by exerting a devastating, chronic, slow and progressive carcinogenesis activity. The main source of Po-210 in tobacco is represented by fertilizers (polyphosphates) containing radium-226 (Ra-222) which decades to plumb 210 (Pb-210).Through the thricomes Pb-210 is concentrated in the tobacco leaves, where it turns to Po-210, which at the cigarette combustion temperature (800-900 °C) reaches the gaseous state and it is absorbed by the micro particles released into tobacco smoke. Thus, smoke becomes radioactive in both its gaseous and corpuscular components and reaches the airways, where, particularly at the branches level and together with other substances, it exerts its  carcinogenic activity, especially in those subjects with impaired respiratory mucosal clearance. The carcinogenic risk/one year lifetime of a smoker of 20 cigarettes per day is equivalent to that of undertaking 300 chest x-rays. It is calculated that Po-210 may be independently responsible of 4 lung cancers every 10,000 smokers. During cigarette' combustion, tobacco smoke is also released in the air, contributing to serious health risks for those exposed to passive smoke.

Key words: Polonium, radioactivity, lung cancer, polyphosphates, tobacco smoke