Cannabis is often compared to tobacco, with the damage caused by smoking tobacco given as a reason to prohibit use of cannabis. Yet most of the harms caused by tobacco use are due not to tar, but to the use of radioactive fertilizers. Surprisingly, radiation seems to be the most dangerous and important factor behind tobacco lung damage.
It’s a well established but little known fact that commercially grown tobacco is contaminated with radiation. The major source of this radiation is phosphate fertilizer.1 The big tobacco companies all use chemical phosphate fertilizer, which is high in radioactive metals, year after year on the same soil. These metals build up in the soil, attach themselves to the resinous tobacco leaf and ride tobacco trichomes in tobacco smoke, gathering in small “hot spots” in the small-air passageways of the lungs.2 Tobacco is especially effective at absorbing radioactive elements from phosphate fertilizers, and also from naturally occurring radiation in the soil, air, and water.3
To grow what the tobacco industry calls “more flavorful” tobacco, US farmers use high-phosphate fertilizers. The phosphate is taken from a rock mineral, apatite, that is ground into powder, dissolved in acid and further processed. Apatite rock also contains radium, and the radioactive elements lead 210 and polonium 210. The radioactivity of common chemical fertilizer can be verified with a Geiger-Mueller counter and an open sack of everyday 13-13-13 type of fertilizer (or any other chemical fertilizer high in phosphate content).4
Conservative estimates put the level of radiation absorbed by a pack-and-a-half a day smoker at the equivalent of 300 chest X-rays every year.5 The Office of Radiation, Chemical & Biological Safety at Michigan State University reports that the radiation level for the same smoker was as high as 800 chest X-rays per year.6 Another report argues that a typical nicotine user might be getting the equivalent of almost 22,000 chest X-rays per year.7
US Surgeon General C Everett Koop stated on national television in 1990 that tobacco radiation is probably responsible for 90% of tobacco-related cancer.8 Dr RT Ravenholt, former director of World Health Surveys at the Centers for Disease Control, has stated that “Americans are exposed to far more radiation from tobacco smoke than from any other source.”9
Researchers have induced cancer in animal test subjects that inhaled polonium 210, but were unable to cause cancer through the inhalation of any of the non-radioactive chemical carcinogens found in tobacco.10 The most potent non-radioactive chemical, benzopyrene, exists in cigarettes in amounts sufficient to account for only 1% of the cancer found in smokers.9
Surprisingly, the US National Cancer Institute, with an annual budget of $500 million, has no active grants for research on radiation as a cause of lung cancer.1
Tobacco smoking has been popular for centuries,11 but lung cancer rates have only increased significantly after the 1930’s.12 In 1930 the lung cancer death rate for white US males was 3.8 per 100,000 people. By 1956 the rate had increased almost tenfold, to 31 per 100,000.13 Between 1938 and 1960, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco tripled, commensurate with the increased use of chemical fertilizers.14
Publicly available internal memos of tobacco giant Philip Morris indicate that the tobacco corporation was well aware of radiation contamination in 1974, and that they had means to remove polonium from tobacco in 1980, by using ammonium phosphate as a fertilizer, instead of calcium phosphate. One memo describes switching to ammonium phosphate as a “valid but expensive point.”15
Attorney Amos Hausner, son of the prosecutor who sent Nazi Adolf Eichmann to the gallows, is using these memos as evidence to fight the biggest lawsuit in Israel’s history, to make one Israeli and six US tobacco companies pay up to $8 billion for allegedly poisoning Israelis with radioactive cigarettes.16
The radioactive elements in phosphate fertilizers also make their way into our food and drink. Many food products, especially nuts, fruits, and leafy plants like tobacco absorb radioactive elements from the soil, and concentrate them within themselves.17
The fluorosilicic acid used to make the “fluoridated water” most of us get from our taps is made from various fluorine gases captured in pollution scrubbers during the manufacture of phosphate fertilizers. This fluoride solution put into our water for “strong teeth” also contains radioactive elements from the phosphate extraction.18
Although eating and drinking radioactive products is not beneficial, the most harmful and direct way to consume these elements is through smoking them.19
The unnecessary radiation delivered from soil-damaging, synthetic chemical fertilizers can easily be reduced through the use of alternative phosphate sources including organic fertilizers.20 In one test, an organic fertilizer appeared to emit less alpha radiation than a chemical fertilizer.21 More tests are needed to confirm this vital bit of harm-reduction information.
Organic fertilizers such as organic vegetable compost, animal manure, wood ash and seaweed have proven to be sustainable and non-harmful to microbes, worms, farmers and eaters or smokers. Chemical phosphates may seem like a bargain compared to natural phosphorous, until you factor in the health and environmental costs.
To ensure that cannabis remains the safest way to get high, we must always use organic fertilizers and non-toxic pesticides. We should also properly cure the buds, take advantage of high-potency breeding and use smart-smoking devices like vaporizers and double-chambered glass water bongs. These will all help to address concern over potential lung damage far more effectively than either a jail cell or a 12-step program.
Tobacco smokers can also use this information to avoid radioactive brands of tobacco. American Spirit is one of a few companies that offers an organic line of cigarettes, and organic cigars are also available from a few companies. You can also grow your own tobacco, which is surprisingly easy and fun.
Until the public has an accurate understanding of how phosphate fertilizers carry radiation, and why commercial tobacco causes lung cancer but cannabis does not, there will be many needless tobacco-related deaths, and increased resistance to the full legalization of marijuana.
1. Winters, TH and Franza, JR. ‘Radioactivity in Cigarette Smoke,’ New England Journal of Medicine, 1982. 306(6): 364-365, web
2. Edward A Martell, PhD. ‘Letter to the Editor,’ New England Journal of Medicine, 1982. 307(5): 309-313, web
3. Ponte, Lowell. ‘Radioactivity: The New-Found Danger in Cigarettes,’ Reader’s Digest, March 1986. pp. 123-127.
4. Kilthau, GF. ‘Cancer risk in relation to radioactivity in tobacco,’ Radiologic Technology, Vol 67, January 11, 1996,