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Tobacco Firms Knew of Radiation in Cigs—in 1959

They studied polonium and its link to cancer in the 1960s
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 3, 2011 9:10 AM CDT

(Newser) – Tobacco companies were well aware that their products contained radiation—and they discovered this decades ago, UCLA researchers studying 27 historical documents have found. The firms learned of the presence of polonium-210 in cigarettes in 1959, and they examined the radioactive material's effects during the 1960s, documents show. They found that it caused “cancerous growths” in users’ lungs, and figured out just how much radiation a typical smoker would inhale, but the companies didn’t warn the public. Using the original calculations, the researchers determined that the radiation would lead to the deaths of 138 of every 1,000 smokers over 25 years, ABC News reports.

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Not only are you inhaling it, but “you're emitting radiation when you smoke, and your family, your dog, your cat are all inhaling that radiation,” says an expert. What’s more, “some of these radiation particles hang around for decades.” The timing of the original discovery is notable, says an anti-smoking advocate: It happened in an era when Americans "were crawling under our desks during school radiation drills,” meaning the news would have likely had a huge impact. Polonium remains in cigarettes, and a rep for Philip Morris says it’s no secret to public health experts. It’s “a naturally occurring element found in the air, soil, and water,” says the spokesman. (Read more tobacco companies stories.)

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