The radiation poisoning death of ex-Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko last week has brought a renewed interest in the cigarette contaminant Polonium-210. This confidential Philip Morris (PM) memo from 1980 written by Roger Comes (a Associate Senior Scientist in PM's Research and Development department in Richmond, Virginia) responds to news reports about a research article that was published at the time by Edward Martell that revealed that cigarette smoke contained low levels of the radioactive alpha particle emitting constituent Polonium-210. The memo confirms that PM was aware at that time that smoke from their cigarettes contained radioactive lead and polonium, and that it was derived from the uranium contained in the calcium phosphate fertilizers that farmers regularly used on tobacco-growing soils. Comes states that
"210-Pb [radioactive lead] and 210-Po [radioactive polonium] are present in tobacco and smoke...."
He also suggested that switching to another fertilizer could probably help the situation:
"...using ammonium phosphate instead of calcium phosphate as fertilizer is probably a valid but expensive point..."
Named PersonMartell, Edward (Scientist who published studies showing presence of radioact)
A larger, clearer copy of the memo can be seen at
That phosphate fertilizer contains natural radioactivity is a well established fact. Natural uranium accumulates in the phosphate rock...Uranium and its daughters are thus carried through the mining and manufacturing process and appear in the commercial product [the fertilizer used on tobacco plants]. Soils to which these products are applied show an increase in radioactivity over that naturally present and this increase is a function of the rate of application and the number of years that the fertilizers have been used....Thus, the smaller particles [of the fertilizer] which would be more likely to be made airborne by normal farming practices, would be expected to settle out on the tobacco leaves during the growing season and/or be more readily taken up by the plant root system. 210-Pb [radioactive lead] and 210-Po [radioactive polonium] are present in tobacco and smoke....For alpha particles from 210-Po to be the cause of lung cancers is unlikely due to the amount of radioactivity of a particular energy necessary for induction. Evidence to date, however, does not allow one to state that this is an impossibility. The recommendation of using ammonium phosphate instead of calcium phosphate as fertilizer is probably a valid but expensive point.... ....The soluble 210-Po is that which one would expect to be cleared by normal physiological processes...A study carried out by us has shown an increase in the soluble 210-Po with time after harvest.... [underlining emphasis added]
- Philip Morris
- Comes, Roger A. (PM R&D Project Leader, Nitrosamine Production)
- Osdene, Thomas Stefan, Ph.D. (Director of Science and Technology, Philip Morris )
Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Ten years of research when he started with PM in 1965. Worked in Chemical Research Division of PM 1965-66; Chemical and Biological Research Division 1966-69; Director of Research 1969-1984, also assumed independent position as Director of Research and Extramural Studies during these years; became Director of Science and Technology in 1984, reporting directly to Philip Morris USA Executive VP Mark Serrano. Involved with Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR) 1988. Attended PM's Operation Downunder Conference in June, 1987. Retired 1993.
published study in New England Journal of Medicine
Subjectpolonium (Tobacco smoke contaminant)
Derived from phosphate fertilizers
contaminants (Unintended foreign additives in cigarettes)
Includes items such as bugs, bug larvae, pesticides or pesticide derivatives, oils, rubber or metal shards from factory machinery belts, perfume, molds, paper clips, blood, etc. that accidentally get into finished product.
Page 1: syr46e00
PH I L I P' MORiR 'I"S U. S.' A.
UNTER-0FF I'CE (tOiR'R'ESPDM'iDENCE
F rom :
. Dr. T. S. Osdene Dat'e: Apri 1 2, 11980
R. A. Comes
Subject: "N'ewscri pt" - Radi oacti ve Ci giarettes 2/ 22/80 .
In response to the "Newscript" article attributed to Dr. E.
ffartell, several comments are pertinent. That phosphate
fertili'zer (specifically super'phosphaite fer'tilizer), ; contains
natural radioactivity is a well established fact.l'2'3'
Natural uranium accumulates in the phosphate rock an~d'has
been shown to substi'tute for calcium in the rock structure.3
Urani uim aind' i trs daugihters are thus carri edl through the
miining and manufacturing processes and' appiear i'n the commercial'
product. Soi1s to which these products are appl'lied show an
increase in radiioactiivity over that natural'ly present and this
increase is a function of the rate of application and'the
number of years that the ferti l i zers have tieen used.''
M.. E. Counts2 has shown that the speci.f'ic-activi'ty (activity
per uni t wiei:ght) i nc'r'eaises als the parti'cl e si ze of the super-
phosphate fertil'izer decreases. Thus the smaller parti'cles,
wini'ch wou.l d be more lli kely to be made ai rborne by nor'mal
farminig practices, would be expected to settle out on the
tobacco leaves during the growi'ng season and/or be more readily
taken up by the plant root system.
21'o'Pb..and 210 Po are present i nitobacco and~s'moke. The Martel l'.
"Hot Particle Theory" has been addr'essed in the,past and
has aipparently lost popularity in the scientific comimu'nity
(.1'ack of recent publilcity in this field). For a-particles
fromi 21oPo to be the cause of Tung cancers is uinlike1y'due
to the amount of rad'i'oacti'vity of a particular energy necessary
for ind'uction. Evid!ence to date, however, does not allow one
toistate that this is an impossibility.
The recommendatilon of us i ng aimmoni umiphosphate i'ns teadi of
callciuim phosphate as fertilizer is probably a valid but
expensive point. What Martell appears to be suggesting is
the purification of phosphate rock to obtain Pi0's or HI3P04
free of calcium (urani'um and daughters) and inert materials.
Preparation of ammoniumiphosphate for fertillizer wouldlthen
yi el d a product greatly reduced' i n or free of the natural
radioactivity present in the parent phosphate rock.
Page 2: syr46e00
DF. T, S. ©is;dene
Apri l 2, 11980
The statement as regards the use.of greener tobacco'has
little validity baseld on our fieldi studies in- 1976 and 19,77.
The insolubTe vs soluble 210Pol issue is complex and would
have to be addressed i n consi dleraibl'e dletai 1 to fiul'ly expl ai n.
In summary, however, the insoluble "Martell' particles"have been
shown 'by us to be i n secul ar eqlui 1 i bri um i niboth tobacco and
smoke.5 That, coupled with the fact that it takes approximately
one year for secuil'ar equi l i'bri um to be reached i n, 21 o P'o free
2'oP'b obviates the statement that "when tobacco is -stored.for
long periods of time, more of the radioactive parti'cles decay
iinto dangerous alpha emi'tters"'.
The soluble z1'°'Po is however a different story. The soluble
21oPo fs that which one would expect to be cleared by normal
physioll'ogical processes. A study carried' outr by us6 has
shown an i ncrease i n the sol uibl e 21 ° P'o wi th ti me alfter
The point in addressing each of these i'ssuies in some diietaiT
is to show the complexities raised by relatively simple state-
ments made to, and' expanded' on by the media. We must be extremel!y
careful in respondingi to these i'ssues-on a scientific basis
s.:nce considerable and vari'ed research ils necessaW to prove
or disprove any such statement..
cc: Ted Sanders
R. W. Jenki;ns
References: 1. T.C. Tso, et.al!., "Agronomic ';F-actors
Affecti ng Pol onli um-210 and Lead-210 Level s
in Tobacco. I. Soil and'Fertilizer°,
Agronomy Journall 60, 647 (19618').
2. M..ff. Counts, "Soluble Polonium-210 in Sand,
3. Soi'1 and S'uperphosphate Ferti Ii zer" , Speci ail
Report Acc. N'o. 77_06,8,.
E. J. Bouwer, et.al., "Uranium Assay of
Phosphate Fertilizers and'Other Phosphate
M'aterials°, H'ealth Physics 34, 3'45(19178)..
T'. C. Tso, "Limi ted Remova1 of 21 N
21 o Pb from Soi 1 amd Ferti l i'zer by Leach iing" ,
Agronomy Journal 62, 663(19'7'01) .
5 R. A. Comes, "'I'nvesti gati ons of Pol'oni uim-210 i n W
Cilgarette Tobacco and Whole Smoke Condensate",
Speci a l Report Acc. Ilo. 77-08'9 .
K. Barlow, N.B. 7287, pg 94' cm