Pyramid Science

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007


The radioactive heavy metal Polonium-210 (210Po), which killed Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy, has crashed into public awareness. 210Po is a rare radioactive metalloid that is chemically similar to tellurium and bismuth, and occurs in uranium ores. It was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. Less than 100 grams are manufactured each year and its principle industrial use is in nuclear reactors to superheat water.

210Po is a highly radioactive and an extremely toxic element. Even in milligram or microgram amounts it is very hazardous and requires specialised equipment with strict handling procedures. 210Po does not penetrate the skin's epidermis and is not a threat so long as it remains outside the body. A milligram of 210Po emits as much alpha radiation as about 5 grams of radium, and enough gamma radiation to cause a blue glow in the air around it.

The level of 210Po in American tobacco has tripled in recent years, coinciding with the increased use of calcium phosphate fertilisers. The ores of calcium phosphate attract and accumulate uranium, which slowly releases radon gas. As radon decays, its electrically charged daughter products attach themselves to dust particles, which adhere to the sticky hairs on the underside of tobacco leaves. This leaves a deposit of radioactive polonium on the leaves. Then, the intense localized heat in the burning tip of a cigarette volatilises the radioactive metals. While cigarette filters can trap some tar and nicotinic chemical carcinogens, they are ineffective against the radioactive vapours. The lungs of a chronic smoker wind up with a radioactive lining, which actually emits radiation. Smoking two packs of cigarettes a day imparts a radiation dose by alpha particles of about 1,300 millirem per year. Consider, for comparison, that the annual radiation dose to the average American from inhaled radon is 200 mrem.

210Po is soluble and is circulated through the body to every tissue and cell in levels much higher than from residential radon. The proof is that it can be found in the blood and urine of smokers. The circulating 210Po causes genetic damage and early death from diseases reminiscent of early radiological pioneers: liver and bladder cancer, stomach ulcer, leukaemia, liver cirrhosis and cardiovascular diseases. Allegedly, radioactivity rather than tar accounts for at least 90% of all smoking-related lung cancers.

The Centres for Disease Control concluded, "Americans are exposed to far more radiation from tobacco smoke than from any other source."

“Chelators” (Greek: to claw) are synthetic drugs that are designed to attach to heavy metals and eliminate them from the body, but such drugs can themselves be quite toxic and also remove a portion of desirable minerals from the body.

The text is not wholly original