[ RadSafe ] Radiation risks associated with tobacco revised downwards

Colette Tremblay Colette.Tremblay at ssp.ulaval.ca
Tue Jan 6 10:08:49 CST 2009



Here is a quick English translation of a paper published in today's  LE MONDE (Paris, France) newspaper. The original French language article is available at:




Do cigarettes consumers face, without knowing it, the risk of irradiation from radioactive substances in tobacco? A team of French specialists, led by Jacques and Anne Julian Simon (Central Nuclear Medicine, CHU Toulouse Purpan), brings, in a study released Tuesday January 6 at the National Academy of Medicine, a new light, to re-evaluate downwards the estimates of radiation exposure that prevailed until then. 

The question was raised since March 2006, when experts from the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) reported that the "radiation exposure" related to the consumption of 20 cigarettes per day was an average annual dose of 53 millisieverts ( mSv). Such exposure to radiation is far from negligible, since it amounts to more than 20 times the annual average natural exposure in France (about 2.4 mSv) and 2.5 times the individual annual limit that the regulations allow for nuclear workers (20 mSv / year). It would be a statistically significant risk of radiation-induced cancers. 


Although generally unknown to consumers, the radioactive character of tobacco is an accepted by all researchers in this field. The origin of this radiation is due mostly to the application of phosphate fertilizers containing various radionuclides, including radium 226 and polonium 210. The natural radioactivity due to telluric radon 222 is, on the other hand, an indirect cause of the tobacco radioactivity. Various works have also highlighted large differences due to the origin of tobacco plants and cultivation methods. 

It was in this context that was assessed the level of consumer exposure to this radiation and the role it can play in the occurrence of lung cancer. 

Since 2006, the disturbing conclusions of the IAEA have been included in various journals and other researchers found that consumers of tobacco are exposed to higher doses, up to 80 mSv per year. 

In contrast, a study published in March 2007 in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry-concluded that consumption of 20 cigarettes per day corresponded to an exposure of about 0.17 mSv. This dose, 300 times lower than the estimates of the IAEA, corresponds to the radiation exposure caused by a 16-hour duration long-distance flight or two chest X-rays. 

In trying to understand the origin of such discrepancies, the French team carried out a methodical analysis of all available publications. After explaining the different scientific approaches to assess the levels of exposure to such radiation, the authors suggest that smoking "delivers an effective small dose of artificial radiation, around 0.4 mSv per year". "The IAEA estimate at 53 mSv per year can not be accepted," they said. The contradictory data on the artificial radiation linked to smoking are due to the use by the IAEA of an unusual methodology that does not conform to the existing scientific use for studying the expression and quantification of human exposure to ionizing radiation."

The authors point out, however, that smoking is responsible each year in France, of about 60 000 premature deaths, including 45 000 from cancer. 
Jean-Yves Nau.




Colette Tremblay, spécialiste en radioprotection

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