Radioactive Fertilizer—The Surprising Primary Cause of Lung Cancer in Smokers

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February 10, 2014 | 328,892 views

Story at-a-glance

  • It’s well-recognized that smoking cigarettes can cause lung cancer, but it may come as a surprise to find out that the most likely culprit is not a chemical additive, but a radioactive element found in phosphate fertilizers
  • Research suggests that polonium-210, a radioactive element that is also chemically toxic, causes the most lung damage. Polonium is the only component of cigarette smoke shown to produce cancer in laboratory animals
  • According to previous research, smoking 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes per day can expose your bronchial epithelium to a radiation dose equivalent to a radiation dose to your skin from 300 chest x-rays per year
  • According to a recent study, American meat products and dairy may expose your organs to radiation doses that are equivalent to the dose received by smokers via cigarette smoke

By Dr. Mercola

It's well-recognized that smoking cigarettes can cause lung cancer. What isn't clear is exactly what it is in the cigarette or its smoke that causes it. Interestingly, while it may seem obvious that added chemicals would be prime culprits, research suggests it may be something else entirely.

This "something else" in turn could also have potential ramifications for our food supply, and might be an indicator of potential carcinogenicity in genetically engineered foods as well as tobacco, although there's no evidence of such a link as of yet.

The factor I'm talking about is polonium-210—a highly radioactive element1 that releases alpha particles as it decays. It's also chemically toxic.2 While alpha particles cannot penetrate deeply into your body, they can cause serious damage to cells they do come into contact with.

While naturally present in small amounts in the environment, one of the primary sources of exposure is via calcium phosphate fertilizers, used on tobacco fields and food crops respectively.

The Hidden Threat of Radioactive Fertilizer Contamination

Research suggests that it's the radiation from these fertilizers that appear to cause the most lung damage, and are the primary cause of cancer in smokers.3, 4, 5 In fact, polonium is the only component of cigarette smoke shown to produce cancer in laboratory animals.6 As noted in a 2009 study:7

"In a person smoking 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes per day, the radiation dose to the bronchial epithelium in areas of bifurcation is 8000 mrem per year -- the equivalent of the dose to the skin from 300 x-ray films of the chest per year."

According to a 2011 report published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research,8 secret internal documents obtained from the major tobacco industries in 1998 reveal that the industry was well aware of the presence of this radioactive element in cigarettes as early as 1959.

"Acid wash was discovered in 1980 to be highly effectively in removing polonium-210 from the tobacco leaves; however, the industry avoided its use for concerns that acid media would ionize nicotine converting it into a poorly absorbable form into the brain of smokers thus depriving them of the much sought after instant 'nicotine kick' sensation," the researchers noted.

The report concluded that "the evidence of lung cancer risk caused by cigarette smoke radioactivity is compelling enough to warrant its removal." Now, if tobacco leaves become a source of cancer-causing radioactivity due to the fertilizers used, what about food grown with these phosphate fertilizers?

Remarkably, according to a report by the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research,9 American meat products and dairy may expose your organs to radiation doses that are equivalent to the dose received by smokers via cigarette smoke. I bet that might come as a huge shock to you.

Fluoridated Water—Another Hidden Source of Radioactive Polonium

You can also consume polonium by drinking fluoridated water, courtesy of the fluorosilicic acid used. While pharmaceutical grade fluoride is a harmful-enough drug, this is not the type of fluoride being added to drinking water. If it was, at least then it would be a pure, uncontaminated form.

Rather the fluoride that is typically used to fluoridate local water supplies is a frequently contaminated chemical byproduct created during the phosphate fertilizer manufacturing process. It's a concentrated, highly toxic chemical riddled with hazardous impurities, making it extremely expensive to safely dispose of when not sold for profit as a water additive. 

Uranium and radium are two known carcinogens found in fluorosilicic acid used for water fluoridation, and polonium-210 is one of two decay products of uranium. Furthermore, polonium decays into stable lead-206, which also has significant health risks—especially in children—and research has indeed shown that drinking fluoridated water increases lead absorption in your body.

Back in 1983, the Deputy Administrator of the EPA Office of Water, Rebecca Hanmer, summarized and defended the EPA's policy on adding toxic fluoride to drinking water in the following manner,10 which is quite telling once you know where the fluoride comes from, and the origins of the idea behind water fluoridation as a public health policy:

"In regard to the use of fluosilicic (fluorosilicic) acid as a source of fluoride for fluoridation, this agency regards such use as an ideal environmental solution to a long-standing problem. By recovering by-product fluosilicic acid from fertilizer manufacturing, water and air pollution are minimized, and water utilities have a low-cost source of fluoride available to them." [Emphasis mine]

How Polonium Affects Your Body

But let's get back to phosphate fertilizers and its use on tobacco and food crops... According to the report in Nicotine and Tobacco Research,11 radioactivity in tobacco comes from two sources: the atmosphere and uptake through soil rich in calcium phosphate fertilizer contaminated with polonium phosphates. In 1995, the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research12 stated that:

"It has been known for many years that phosphate fertilizer ore contains 50~150 parts per million (ppm) of natural Uranium, and hence its radioactive decay products [i.e. polonium and radon], when compared to most other soil and rocks - which average 1 or 2 ppm."

A CNN article13 from last year addressed the health effects of polonium when the radioactive element was being investigated as a potential cause in the death of Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. According to their report:

"If you ingest polonium-210, about 50 percent to 90 percent of the substance will exit the body through feces, according to a fact sheet from Argonne National Laboratory. What is left will enter the bloodstream. About 45 percent of polonium ingested gets into the spleen, kidneys and liver, and 10 percent is deposited in the bone marrow.

Radiation poisoning from polonium-210 looks like the end stage of cancer... Liver and kidney damage ensue, along with extreme nausea and severe headaches. Victims often experience vomiting, diarrhea and hair loss. The alpha particles emitted from the decaying substance get absorbed in the body, which is what causes harm."

Phosphate Fertilizers Also Used in GMO Agriculture

Phosphate fertilizers linked to lung cancer in smokers, via the route of inhaling the smoke from contaminated tobacco leaves, are also used on food crops. Granted, food-borne polonium may be absorbed and react differently in your body than that in tobacco smoke.

Still, as stated by the International Atomic Energy Agency,14 internal exposure, which is more or less the only dangerous form, does occur primarily through food, water, and inhaling contaminated air. So it's possible that you might be exposed to greater levels of this (and other) radioactive elements than was previously thought, through the aggressive use of phosphate fertilizers in food production.

While we may not be able to estimate the potential cancer risk from contaminated foods, and GMOs in particular, research has shown that dietary calcium phosphate has a detrimental effect on your gut health. According to a 2002 study in the Journal of Nutrition:15

"Most Gram-positive bacteria are susceptible to the bactericidal action of fatty acids and bile acids. Because dietary calcium phosphate (CaP(i)) lowers the intestinal concentration of these antimicrobial agents, high CaP(i) intake may enhance intestinal colonization of Gram-positive pathogens and the subsequent pathogenesis."

Interestingly, the adverse effect of dietary calcium phosphate was found to be dependent on the type of dietary fat consumed. In rats given diets containing corn oil, the calcium phosphate stimulated colonization of pathogenic bacteria, whereas this adverse effect was not found in animals given a diet with milk fat. There are many drawbacks to conventional fertilizers, and radioactive food can perhaps be added to that list (with or without radioactive fallout from Japan, which is a whole other story). While modern agricultural methods may appear to be the most cost effective and efficient strategy at first glance, it quickly becomes one of the most costly ways to produce food once you take into account the environmental and human health consequences.

There Are Better Alternatives

Modern fertilizer consists of varying amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). But both phosphorus and potassium, neither of which can be synthesized, are becoming increasingly sparse.16 According to the Swedish-run Global Phosphorus Research Initiative,17 we could hit "peak phosphorus" as early as 2030. Without these fertilizer ingredients, the entire world would quickly be in trouble—unless we change our ways, that is. And there are more than a few good reasons for making a U-turn back toward time-tested biological growing methods.

Calcium phosphate, mined primarily in the Western Sahara, Saskatchewan or Florida, typically contains polonium and that's the type of NPK fertilizer typically used on tobacco fields. Ammonium phosphate is typically used in the growing of GMO crops, and as mentioned earlier, the toxic byproduct from that process is fluorosilicic acid, used for water fluoridation. Now, it's possible that ammonium phosphate has very little polonium, since it tends to end up in the fluoride (and hence drinking water around the US). But it all has to end up somewhere...

As I've started writing about lately, biological agriculture can be profoundly efficient, out-performing virtually any conventional farming strategy, including genetic engineering. I've been implementing organic, biological farming strategies in my own garden, and the leaves on some of my plants, like fruit trees (limes, figs, mango, orange, tangerine, cherries, peach, plum, and banana), have a number of leaves that are literally 300 to 400 percent bigger than the typical leaf of these plants. You wouldn't even imagine that a leaf could grow this big—all without ANY chemicals, just using strategies that optimize soil health, such as using rock dust powders, compost teas and biochar. These strategies seem to maximize the hidden genetic potential of the plants.

Sustainable Soil Science to the Rescue

Earlier this year, I interviewed Dr. Elaine Ingham, an internationally recognized expert on the benefits of sustainable soil science. I also visited her at her new position at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. According to Dr. Ingham and other soil experts, a key component of successful agriculture lies in having the right helper organisms in the soil; beneficial species of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes (not the weedfeeders), microarthropods, and earthworms—all of which contribute to plant growth in a number of different ways.

Nutrient cycling is another major issue. According to Dr. Ingham, there's no soil on Earth that lacks the nutrients to grow a plant. She believes the concept that your soil is deficient and needs added phosphorus or nitrogen, etc. in order to grow plants is seriously flawed, and largely orchestrated by the chemical companies, because it's based on looking at the soluble, inorganic nutrients that are partly present in your soil.

The real nutrition your plants require is actually derived from microorganisms in the soil. These organisms take the mineral material that's in your soil and convert it into a plant-available form. Without these bioorganisms, your plants cannot get the nutrients they need. So what you need is not more chemical soil additives, what you need is the proper balance of beneficial soil organisms. According to Dr. Ingham:

"It's very necessary to have these organisms. They will supply your plant with precisely the right balances of all the nutrients the plant requires. When you start to realize that one of the major roles and functions of life in the soil is to provide nutrients to the plants in the proper forms, then we don't need inorganic fertilizers. We certainly don't have to have genetically engineered plants or to utilize inorganic fertilizers if we get this proper biology back in the soil.

If we balance the proper biology, we select against the growth of weeds, so the whole issue with herbicides is done away with. We don't need the herbicides if we can get the proper life back into the soil and select for the growth of the plants that we want to grow and against the growth of the weedy species."

Interestingly enough, you can use a starter culture to boost the fermentation and generation of beneficial bacteria much in the same way you can boost the probiotics in your fermented vegetables. For compost, this strategy is used if you want to compost very rapidly. In that case, you can use a starter to inoculate the specific sets of organisms that you need to encourage in that compost. For optimal physical health, you need plant foods to contain the full set of nutrients that will allow the plant to grow in a healthy fashion, because that's the proper balance of nutrients for us human beings as well. Dr. Ingham has written several books on this topic, including The Field Guide for Actively Aerated Compost Tea, and The Compost Tea Brewing Manual.

Who Would Have Guessed...

With all the thousands of chemical additives in cigarettes, it's pretty staggering to consider that potentially the most carcinogenic ingredient in a cigarette appears to be contamination from the fertilizer used to grow the tobacco. It's even more disconcerting to consider that this contaminant can also be found in fluoridated drinking water and potentially genetically engineered and conventionally grown foods as well. From my point of view, this is simply one more reason to switch to a whole food organic diet, ideally grown locally to ensure maximum freshness. Here are some great resources to obtain wholesome food that supports not only you but also the environment:

  1. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
  2. Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
  3. Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  4. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  5. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
  6. FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 International Atomic Energy Agency, Polonium-210 Factsheet
  • 2 International Atomic Energy Agency, Polonium-210 Factsheet
  • 3, Radioactive Polonium in Food and Water
  • 4, Radioactive Polonium Found in Tobacco
  • 5, Radioactive Tobacco
  • 6, Radioactive Tobacco
  • 7 Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009 February; 6(2): 558–567
  • 8 Nicotine and Tobacco Research September 27, 2011
  • 9 Polonium-2I0 and Lead-210 in Food and Tobacco Products: A Review of Parameters and an Estimate of Potential Exposure and Dose
  • 10 US EPA March 30, 1983 (PDF)
  • 11 Nicotine and Tobacco Research September 27, 2011
  • 12 Florida Institute of Phosphate Research, FIPR Publication #05-040-111, March 1995
  • 13 CNN November 29, 2012
  • 14 International Atomic Energy Agency, Polonium-210 Factsheet
  • 15 J Nutr. 2002 Jun;132(6):1269-74
  • 16 Environment 360 July 7, 2011
  • 17 Global Phosphorus Research Initiative