Saturday, January 5, 2013

Tobacco Can be Cancer Free?

This is actually ugly. I would posit that all other obvious carcinogens produced by the combustion process are readily handled by the body itself since we have actually been doing just so for millennia.

The problem is alpha emitters of any kind. Outside the body, they are effectively harmless. Recall how Radium glows so nicely and harmlessly. Inside they are in immediate contact and overwhelm the adjacent cells to trigger radiation induced carcinomas. I suspect that the body finds it difficult to remove these islands and the problems accumulate until the body is overwhelmed.

Why do we not know this and why do we not place a direct warning on our labels? Is it possible that heavy smoking with washed leaves hugely drops the cancer rate and even allows the industry to continue? Look at the second item. There we discover that the direct comparable is cancer free.

Suddenly, it is plausible to make tobacco cancer free. Now we need to make it addiction free and we may have another effective drug delivery system.

So About That ‘Glowing’ Cigarette…


By the end of the 1920s, scientists already knew that tobacco smoke contained a small encyclopedia’s worth of risky chemical compounds: carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide and formaldehyde, ammonia and pyridine (a component in industrial solvents).

I discovered that list when I was researching my book about early 20th century toxicology, The Poisoner’s Handbook. And I remember being surprised because I had believed that it wasn’t until the mid-20th century, maybe a little before the famed 1964 U.S. Surgeon General report on the dangers of smoking – that we really knew anything about the health risks of smoking.

Of course, that 1920s list turns out to only be the bare start of the one we’ve assembled today. By some counts, there are a good 4,000 chemical compounds in cigarettes and, of those, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies more than 100 as dangerous (from carcinogenic to addictive). Given the body of evidence, linking cigarette smoking to disease, it’s not necessarily a surprise to find that the smoke contains well-known bad actors ranging from arsenic to toluene.

Still, I’ll confess to being startled last week when I was researching the suspected radiation poisoning of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and discovered that one of the most common sources of radiation exposure is through smoking cigarettes. I wrote about that in the context of the recent exhumation of Arafat’s body and the toxicity texts underway in a post called “Yasser Arafat and the Radioactive Cigarette.”

And when I read the FDA list of hazardous compounds in cigarette smoke and found not only polonium-210 (the radioactive element suspected in Arafat’s death) but two well-known isotopes of uranium  best associated with nuclear reactors (uranium-235 and uranium-238), I thought – wow, how did I miss that?

As it turns out, there’s a real case to be made that I – and really all of us – missed this because the tobacco companies hid the information, that cigarette makers flagged the problem internally by 1960s and studied it in secret. The best evidence for that comes from the companies’  confidential documents, which were released in the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between four major companies – Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard – and attorney generals from 46 states.

An analysis of those documents by public health researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles was published last year in the journal, Nicotine and Tobacco Research.  As that study(paywall) notes:

The documents show that the industry was well aware of the presence of a radioactive substance in tobacco as early as 1959. Furthermore, the industry was not only cognizant of the potential “cancerous growth” in the lungs of regular smokers but also did quantitative radiobiological calculations to estimate the long-term (25 years) lung radiation absorption dose (rad) of ionizing alpha particles emitted from the cigarette smoke.

This wasn’t the first study to note the corporate coverup; an earlier report in American Journal of Public Health reached the same conclusion.  Still, let’s call the information an imperfectly kept secret (as so many are). In 1964, for instance, we find scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health reporting that they had discovered hot spots, fizzing with polonium-210, in the lungs of regular smokers.  They published that finding in the highly visible New England Journal of Medicine in 1965, warning that “we believe 210Po may be an important factor in the initiation of bronchial carcinoma in humans”.  It wasn’t, actually, that tobacco companies were entirely successful at hiding the radioactive nature of cigarettes; it was that the rest of us weren’t entirely successful at paying attention.

But, as the UCLA analysis points out, internal documents revealed something else. Not only did cigarette makers know about polonium-210 contamination of their product for decades – they knew how to fix it and chose not to. And to understand that, you need to know why tobacco plants become such little radiation factories.

The radioactive elements occur naturally in the Earth’s crust. So it’s not surprising to find them in soils where crops are grown. In the case of tobacco, this effect tends to be amplified because the most commonly used fertilizers for that plant are phosphate-rich mixtures based on the mineral apatite. And apatite is known to mix up with radioactive elements. Or as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts it: “When phosphate fertilizer is spread on the tobacco fields year after year, the concentration of lead-210 and polonoium-210 in the soil rises.” When the soil is stirred up – by planting, plowing, wind, whatever – radioactive particles drift into the air, attach to dust and other particulates there. As these settle back down to the ground, they are often trapped by the naturally sticky leaves of the tobacco plant.

These radioactive residues can be removed by acid-washing the plants. But the documents obtained by the California researchers showed that manufacturers refused to do that for fears that the acid would alter the nicotine and decrease the chemical kick that helps make the products popular. The UCLA analysts went on to calculate the resulting radiation health risk from regular smoking, based in part on the industry’s own analysis.  They set the cost of such alpha radiation in the lungs at 120-138 cancer deaths per 1,000 regular smokers.

As a story by British science writer Ed Yong points out, these are tricky numbers to set because the radiation dose comes in a smoke fog of treacherous chemistry. But as he also points there’s no disagreement that having polonium-210 delivered directly to the lungs is a very bad idea.  This is a highly energetic element, with a half-life of only 138 days; it’s considered 5,000 times as radioactive as radium. Like radium, it primarily emits alpha particles which, although, not particularly dangerous outside body (they lose energy on impact and don’t penetrate skin) wreak havoc once inside.

But inside the body, alpha particles are capable of doing wide-spread harm. Polonium-210 lodges in cells of the lungs like little hissing balls of radiation. It travels easily elsewhere in the body, irradiating tissue as it goes.  It settles into and destroys bone marrow, causing a host of blood-related disorders. At smoker-related exposure levels, health expects thus warn of diseases, such as cancer, that follow a kind of chronic, radiation-induced injury. At high levels, though, polonium-210 kills with relative speed.

The classic example is the 2006 death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was purportedly killed by KGB agents who slipped polonium-210 into his drink during a meeting  in London. Litveninko died just three weeks after that November meeting. British police say there is enough evidence to charge two Russian agents with his death but Russia has refused to extradite them and –even today – angrily denies the accusations.

Which brings us back to the other possible assassination, the  suspected poisoning of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004. A months long investigation by Al Jazeera, which included testing of his clothes and even his famous checked kaffiyeh, found some unexpectedly high traces of polonium-210. The publication of those results in July led to calls for further testing and last month his body was exhumed and tissue and bone samples sent to three laboratories (one, ironically, in Russia). Results are not expected until early next year.

In my post last week, I pointed out that a possible explanation for evidence of polonium-210 exposure could, in fact, be cigarette smoke.  Arafat and his colleagues in the Ramallah compound were known to be  heavy smokers. Of course, I also somewhat undermined that idea by also pointing out that Israel had been known to restrict Arafat’s access to tobacco as a form of petty punishment. In other words, it’s worth exploring all possibilities but keeping them ones that make most sense.

It might be, as I’ve suggested,  that a smoky environment accounted for some of the polonium-210 traces in Arafat’s clothing. But there’s still no clear evidence that smoking killed him; no clear evidence that he was a victim of one of those polonium-201 induced lung cancers or similar illness.  So, beyond the first stage of this investigation, if  forensic work is able to show a lethal exposure then – as in the case of Litvinenko – we will indeed be talking about assassination and all its ugly and messy implications.

But while we wait, let me just emphasize my other point. Let me just  quote you the closing line of that UCLA look at radiation in cigarettes: “The evidence of lung cancer risk caused by cigarette smoke radioactivity is compelling enough to warrant its removal.” After all these years, it would be gratifying to see that message get a little traction too. And that conclusion,  we can safely call an understatement.

Study Finds No Link Between Marijuana Use And Lung Cancer

May 26, 2006 — People who smoke marijuana--even heavy, long-term marijuana users--do not appear to be at increased risk of developing lung cancer, according to a study to be presented at the American Thoracic Society International Conference on May 23rd.
Marijuana smoking also did not appear to increase the risk of head and neck cancers, such as cancer of the tongue, mouth, throat, or esophagus, the study found.

The findings were a surprise to the researchers. "We expected that we would find that a history of heavy marijuana use--more than 500-1,000 uses--would increase the risk of cancer from several years to decades after exposure to marijuana," said the senior researcher, Donald Tashkin, M.D., Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in Los Angeles.

The study looked at 611 people in Los Angeles County who developed lung cancer, 601 who developed cancer of the head or neck regions, and 1,040 people without cancer who were matched on age, gender and neighborhood. The researchers used the University of Southern California Tumor Registry, which is notified as soon as a patient in Los Angeles County receives a diagnosis of cancer.

They limited the study to people under age 60. "If you were born prior to 1940, you were unlikely to be exposed to marijuana use during your teens and 20s--the time of peak marijuana use," Dr. Tashkin said. People who were exposed to marijuana use in their youth are just now getting to the age when cancer typically starts to develop, he added.

Subjects were asked about lifetime use of marijuana, tobacco and alcohol, as well as other drugs, their diet, occupation, family history of cancer and socioeconomic status. The subjects' reported use of marijuana was similar to that found in other surveys, Dr. Tashkin noted.

The heaviest smokers in the study had smoked more than 22,000 marijuana cigarettes, or joints, while moderately heavy smokers had smoked between 11,000 to 22,000 joints. Even these smokers did not have an increased risk of developing cancer. People who smoked more marijuana were not at any increased risk compared with those who smoked less marijuana or none at all.
The study found that 80% of lung cancer patients and 70% of patients with head and neck cancer had smoked tobacco, while only about half of patients with both types of cancer smoked marijuana.

There was a clear association between smoking tobacco and cancer. The study found a 20-fold increased risk of lung cancer in people who smoked two or more packs of cigarettes a day. The more tobacco a person smoked, the greater the risk of developing both lung cancer and head and neck cancers, findings that were consistent with many previous studies.

The new findings are surprising for several reasons, Dr. Tashkin said. Previous studies have shown that marijuana tar contains about 50% higher concentrations of chemicals linked to lung cancer, compared with tobacco tar, he noted. Smoking a marijuana cigarette deposits four times more tar in the lungs than smoking an equivalent amount of tobacco. "Marijuana is packed more loosely than tobacco, so there's less filtration through the rod of the cigarette, so more particles will be inhaled," Dr. Tashkin said. "And marijuana smokers typically smoke differently than tobacco smokers--they hold their breath about four times longer, allowing more time for extra fine particles to deposit in the lung."

One possible explanation for the new findings, he said, is that THC, a chemical in marijuana smoke, may encourage aging cells to die earlier and therefore be less likely to undergo cancerous transformation.

The next step, Dr. Tashkin says, is to study the DNA samples of the subjects, to see whether there are some heavy marijuana users who may be at increased risk of developing cancer if they have a genetic susceptibility for cancer.

1 comment:

KP said...

That tobacco study strikes me as meaningless blab unless it has rates for non-smokers who eat the food grown in the radioactive wasteland next to the field of tobacco, where you eat the same amount of uranium as the smoker smokes.

On top of that is also the rates of cancer caused by the Americans, the British, the French, the Russians and the Chinese (plus others) who blew thousands of tons of highly radioactive dust into the upper atmosphere and left us all to breathe it and get it onto our skin over the last 50years.

I am quite unsurprised at the increasing rates of skin & lung cancer.