Jump to main content.

Tobacco Smoke
Becoming Aware of Radiation Sources:

Tobacco Smoke

While cigarette smoke is not an obvious source of radiation exposure, it contains small amounts of radioactive materials which smokers bring into their lungs as they inhale. The radioactive particles lodge in lung tissue and over time contribute a huge radiation dose. Radioactivity may be one of the key factors in lung cancer among smokers.

On this page:

How many people are exposed to radioactivity in cigarettes?

According to the American Lung Association, there are about 48 million adult smokers in the U.S., and 4.8 million adolescent smokers. This means that the U.S., population, directly exposed to radioactivity in cigarette smoke, is approximately 53 million.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of adult tobacco users started smoking as teens; 35 percent had become daily smokers by age 18. Thirty nine percent of adult smokers smoke one pack of cigarettes per day, and 20% smoke more than a pack a day.

Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the U.S., with 443,000 deaths, or 1 of every 5 deaths, in the United States each year. And, there are 123,000 lung cancer deaths annually attributed to smoking cigarettes. Nearly 1 of every 5 deaths is related to smoking, more than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined.

In addition to smokers, those exposed to secondhand or side-stream smoke have been shown to risk disease as well. In some studies, it has been found that side-stream or secondhand smoke is two to five times more concentrated in some carcinogens than the mainstream smoke inhaled by a smoker. Each year, approximately 3,400 nonsmoking adults die of lung cancer as a result of breathing the smoke of others’ cigarettes. Environmental tobacco smoke also causes an estimated 46,000 deaths from heart disease in people who are not current smokers. Secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 chemical compounds, including 69 known carcinogens such as formaldehyde, lead, arsenic, benzene, and radioactive polonium 210.

Top of page

How does radioactive material get into a cigarette?

The tobacco leaves used in making cigarettes contain radioactive material, particularly lead-210 and polonium-210. The radionuclide content of tobacco leaves depends heavily on soil conditions and fertilizer use.

Soils that contain elevated radium lead to high radon gas emanations rising into the growing tobacco crop. Radon rapidly decays into a series of solid, highly radioactive metals (radon decay products). These metals cling to dust particles which in turn are collected by the sticky tobacco leaves. The sticky compound that seeps from the trichomes is not water soluble, so the particles do not wash off in the rain. There they stay, through curing process, cutting, and manufacture into cigarettes.Lead-210 and Polonium-210 can be absorbed into tobacco leaves directly from the soil. But more importantly, fine, sticky hairs (called trichomes) on both sides of tobacco leaves grab airborne radioactive particles.

For example, phosphate fertilizers, favored by the tobacco industry, contain radium and its decay products (including lead-210 and polonium-210). When phosphate fertilizer is spread on tobacco fields year after year, the concentration of lead-210 and polonium-210 in the soil rises.

Top of page

What happens when I smoke a cigarette?

Research indicates that lead-210 and polonium-210 are present in tobacco smoke as it passes into the lung. The concentration of lead-210 and polonium-210 in tobacco leaf is relatively low, however, this low concentration can accumulate into very high concentrations in the lungs of smokers.

As it passes into the lungs, the smoke impacts the branches of the lung passages, called bronchioles, where the branches split. Tar from tobacco smoke builds up there, and traps lead-210 and polonium-210 against the sensitive tissues of the bronchioles. Studies show filters on ordinary commercial cigarette remove only a modest amount of radioactivity from the smoke inhaled into the lungs of smokers. Most of what is deposited is lead-210, but polonium-210 (whose half life is about 138 days) quickly grows in as the lead-210 (half life = 22.3 years) decays and becomes the dominant radionuclide. Over time, the concentration of polonium-210 directly on tissues of the bronchioles grows very high, and intense localized radiation doses can occur at the bronchioles.

Top of page


Cancer Facts & Figures 2008 Exit EPA Disclaimer
August 2008 - American Cancer Society
Trends in Tobacco Use Exit EPA Disclaimer
July 2011 - American Lung Association
Source of Lead-210 and Polonium-210 in Tobacco Exit EPA Disclaimer
August 2008
2004 Surgeon General's Report—The Health Consequences of Smoking Exit EPA Disclaimer
August 2008
The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General Exit EPA Disclaimer
June 2006
Statement by American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Exit EPA Disclaimer
March 2009
Radioactivity in Tobacco Leaves Exit EPA Disclaimer
August 2008

Top of page

†There is very little information concerning radioactivity in cigar, pipe, or smokeless tobacco, or on the potential health effects from radioactivity in tobacco products other than cigarettes.


Local Navigation

Radiation Home

Jump to main content.