In November 2006 former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital in what had all the hallmarks of a cold war–style assassination. Despite the intrigue surrounding Litvinenko’s death, the poison that killed him, a rare radioactive isotope called polonium 210, is far more widespread than many of us realize: people worldwide smoke almost six trillion cigarettes a year, and each one delivers a small amount of polonium 210 to the lungs. Puff by puff, the poison builds up to the equivalent radiation dosage of 300 chest x-rays a year for a person who smokes one and a half packs a day.
Although polonium may not be the primary carcinogen in cigarette smoke, it may nonetheless cause thousands of deaths a year in the U.S. alone. And what sets polonium apart is that these deaths could be avoided with simple measures. The tobacco industry has known about polonium in cigarettes for nearly 50 years. By searching through internal tobacco industry documents, I have discovered that manufacturers even devised processes that would dramatically cut down the isotope’s concentrations in cigarette smoke. But Big Tobacco consciously decided to do nothing and to keep its research secret. In consequence, cigarettes still contain as much polonium today as they did half a century ago.