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Radiation in Tobacco

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This page provides a brief overview of radiation in tobacco and its effect on smokers.

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Every year 440,000 people die in the US from tobacco use and smoke-related diseases, which is approximately 20% of all deaths in the United States. Cigarettes kill more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined.

While not an obvious source of radiation exposure, cigarette smokers inhale radioactive material that, over time, contribute large radiation dose to the lungs. Worse, smokers are not the only ones affected by the radiation in cigarettes. Second-hand can be just as harmful to nearby non-smokers.

Naturally-occurring radioactive minerals accumulate on the sticky surfaces of tobacco leaves as the plant grows, and these minerals remain on the leaves throughout the manufacturing process. Additionally, the use of the phosphate fertilizer Apatite – which contains radium, lead-210, and polonium-210 – also increases the amount of radiation in tobacco plants.

The radium that accumulates on the tobacco leaves predominantly emits alpha and gamma radiation. The lead-210 and polonium-210 particles lodge in the smoker’s lungs, where they accumulate for decades (lead-210 has a half-life of 22.3 years). The tar from tobacco builds up on the bronchioles and traps even more of these particles. Over time, these particles can damage the lungs and lead to lung cancer.

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Who is protecting you

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

EPA’s Indoor Environments program has a voluntary smoke-free home campaign to increase awareness of secondhand smoke and the health risks of smoking indoors.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

The Office of the Surgeon General is responsible for warning labels on cigarettes and offers programs to help people stop smoking.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) provides information on tobacco use, promotes disease prevention, and provides educational tools for communities to take action to protect nonsmokers from second-hand tobacco smoke in public places.

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What you can do to protect yourself

To reduce the adverse effects of radiation in tobacco products:

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Smoke Free Homes and Cars Program
August 13, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
On this website, you can learn about second-hand smoke and creating a smoke-free environment. The information is in English and Spanish.
Cigarette Smoking exit EPA
February 2012. American Cancer Society
Here, you can read about the health effects of smoking, nicotine addition and the benefits of quitting.
Smoking & Tobacco Use
August 13, 2012. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
You can find links to useful information on smoking and preventing smoking.
Tobacco Smoke
August 13, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Radiation Protection
Here you can learn more about how radiation gets into tobacco. You can also read more details about its effects in your body.

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