Wednesday, December 13, 2006

More Junk Science from Anti-Tobacco Crowd

Just when I was beginning to hope (irrationally) that the anti-tobacco people would stop using junk science to support their precious political cause (i.e., turning smokers into social pariahs), Professor Robert Proctor seizes upon the tragic poisoning of Alexander V. Litvinenko to further the agenda.

In his NYT op-ed entitled "Puffing on Polonium," Proctor discloses that "the industry has been aware at least since the 1960s that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium." Significant levels. **GASP** As if the tar and nicotine fears weren't enough, now smokers have to worry about losing their hair before dying a slow and painful death.

How much is "significant?" After some fast calculations, he concludes:

"London’s smokers (and those Londoners exposed to secondhand smoke), taken as a group, probably inhale more polonium 210 on any given day than the former spy ingested with his sushi." **GASP** It's in the air around us?!?!?!? (Cue the widespread panic)."

If this statement is ominous but not blunt enough, his conclusion is:

"I suspect that even some of our more enlightened smokers will be surprised to learn that cigarette smoke is radioactive, and that these odd fears spilling from a poisoned K.G.B. man may be molehills compared with our really big cancer mountains."

Wow. Cigarette smoke "is radioactive," and the polonium poison of Litvinenko is a molehill compared to the polonium poisoning of all of us by cigarette smoke. Wow.

What about Professor Proctor? According to his page on the Stanford University website, he is a Professor of the History of Science, and has been quite active in the anti-tobacco cause for years. No surprise there. If you care to review the nature of "where he is coming from," his report entitled A HISTORICAL RECONSTRUCTION OF TOBACCO AND HEALTH IN THE U.S., 1954-1994 , is a good place to start.

As to his findings on polonium and the threat that it's presence in cigarettes causes, Charles W. Magee, Jr., author of Lab Lemming Lounge, provides the following mathematics:

"For analogy lovers, here’s a more correct one that what Professor Proctor has dished out: Potassium, which is a vital nutrient, has a slightly radioactive minor isotope, 40K. With an isotopic abundance of .01% and a half-life of 1.25 billion years, a banana with 450 mg of K will kick out 14 decays every second. So a banana is over nine thousand times more radioactive than the polonium in a cigarette.

Now, how many cigarettes would it take to get a lethal dose? Well, the LD 50 for ingestion is around 8 million becquerels (decays/sec). So with 1.48x10-3 Bq per fag, you would need about 5.4 billion of them to accumulate a lethal dose of polonium. I reckon the nicotine would get you first.

Professor Proctor writes, “London’s smokers (and those Londoners exposed to secondhand smoke), taken as a group, probably inhale more polonium 210 on any given day than the former spy ingested with his sushi.” Can this be true? Well, with a lethal dose 5.4 billion times greater than that of a fag, and assuming that 5.4 million Londoners smoke, they’d have to suck down a thousand cigs a day (50 packs) in order for the figures to be correct. Muscovites may think a 50 pack day is cold turkey, but Londoners? I doubt it."

As Magee says in a comment to his own post, "here are plenty of sound reasons to discourage smoking; we don't need to discard them for sensationalized scare tactics."


UPDATE: Far surpassing Magee in both mathematical precision and eloquence is one Russell Seitz, who adds even more clarity and irony to the issue:

The human body excretes polonium 210 about three times faster than the isotope decays . Since the 0.04 picoCurie Proctor invokes works out to half a million atoms ingested by a pack -a-day smoker, the equivalent annual dosage is ~3 × 10^-8 J/kg day) times 365 = ~ 10 microsievert per year, or 1/240 of average background radiation of 2.4 millisievert. So a cigarette adds about one part in 1.7 million to a smoker's radiation exposure.

If counts count , reckoning polonium's place in the hierarchy of hazards is scarcely a two-pipe problem -- smoking a Camel scarely rivals hanging around Professor Proctor for an hour.

It's a great read.

(H/T Overlawyered)

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?