Cigarettes Are Radioactive

A little known fact is that besides containing arsenic and cyanide, cigarettes also contain a radioactive element called polonium. This is the same element used to assassinate former-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 in London. For some unknown reason, the tobacco plant seems to selectively absorb uranium by-products from the soil, which later decay into radioactive polonium.

Just how radioactive are cigarettes? According to the Army Corps of Engineers (PDF), smoking two packs a day for a year will cause a person to absorb 80 milliSieverts (mSv) of radiation, which is about 20x more than all the radiation a non-smoker gets from the usual sources (airplane flights, bananas, x-rays, watching TV, etc). The minimum radiation dose clearly linked to increased risk of cancer is 100 mSv per year, and two packs a day is not far from that at all. So if you’re a heavy-smoking pilot who breaks bones a lot, you’re kinda screwed.

Photo by RawMotion


But let’s say you’re not a heavy smoker and you want to know how much radiation is in one pack of smokes. A little math tells us that’s 110 µSv, which is a little more than five chest x-rays, and a little less than half of what a nuclear power plant is allowed to produce per year. Again, that’s in one pack. So if you smoke a pack a week, that adds about 5.7 mSv per year, which means you  absorb about 2.5x more radiation than the average non-smoker, but still only about 10% of the yearly radiation dose clearly linked to cancer.

Meanwhile, the electronic cigarette lobby implies that their products don’t contain polonium.

Sources: The New York Times, US Army Corps of Engineers, and xkcd


  1. The Truth About Dangerous Radiation Levels | Apt46 - pingback on May 22, 2011 at 11:28 pm

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