An Indianapolis anti-smoking advocate has publicly claimed that chronic radiation poisoning from Polonium-210 is common in individuals exposed to secondhand smoke. This revelation adds to the growing and alarming risks of secondhand smoke, coming on the heels of anti-smoking groups' statements that secondhand smoke causes heart disease within 30 minutes, devastates coronary artery function in 30 seconds, causes heart attacks within seconds, contains radioactive plutonium, and causes cyanosis in children.
The advocate, who chairs the Department of Public Health at a university in Indianapolis, claimed in a letter to the editor published in the Indianapolis Star that:
"a form of chronic poisoning with polonium 210 is common in those who ... inhale secondhand smoke."
The Rest of the Story
If one assumes, conservatively, that by "common" the advocate means that at least 10% of people exposed have the condition, then he is apparently claiming that there are about 10 million nonsmokers in the United States with chronic polonium-210 poisoning. Even if "common" means that only 1% of people exposed have the condition, then he is claiming that 1 million nonsmokers have chronic radiation poisoning from polonium-210.
No matter how you slice it, this is one of the most absurd and most misleading claims being made by the tobacco control movement about the health effects of secondhand smoke.
In some ways, this is a much more misleading claim than the St. Louis University Tobacco Prevention Center's assertion that secondhand smoke contains plutonium. At least the Tobacco Prevention Center didn't actually claim that millions of nonsmokers throughout the country have chronic plutonium poisoning.
Here, the claim could easily mislead nonsmokers into believing that somehow they have clinically significant radiation poisoning from polonium-210 in tobacco smoke.
To be clear, there is no evidence that nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke have chronic poisoning from polonium-210.
As has previously been the case, this fallacious and misleading claim is completely unnecessary. The truth should be enough. There is enough bad stuff in tobacco smoke, including polonium-210, that simply making people aware of the constituents and health effects of the smoke should be enough. But to exaggerate and distort the truth so much that it actually misleads people into believing something that is untrue is unfortunate, inappropriate, unnecessary, and by my account - unethical.
If the advocate had merely pointed out that tobacco smoke contains polonium-210, it would have been enough.
Had he pointed out that tobacco smoke contains polonium-210 and that smokers may have elevated levels of polonium-210, putting them at possible risk of cancers such as acute leukemia, that would have been enough.
Had he pointed out that tobacco smoke contains polonium-210 and that smokers may have elevated levels of polonium-210 that puts them at possible risk of cancers and that nonsmokers may also be exposed to polonium-210, that would have been enough.
But to add on that nonsmokers are chronically poisoned by polonium-210 is going too far. It is the difference between scientific accuracy and widespread deception of the public. It is the difference between responsible public health advocacy and irresponsible health communication. And it is the difference between ethical public health practice and unethical tactics.
It is undoubtedly true that smokers inhale polonium-210 and it is also true that some have speculated that this polonium exposure could be associated with an increased risk for certain cancers (especially acute myeloid leukemia). In fact, I myself was the first to report a conclusive link between active smoking and acute myeloid leukemia and I myself speculated that the polonium-210 contained in cigarette smoke could be a contributing factor (see: Siegel M. Smoking and leukemia: Evaluation of a causal hypothesis. American Journal of Epidemiology 1993; 138:1-9).
But to claim that nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke are chronically poisoned by polonium-210 is an errant and unscientific extrapolation.
Again, I think any short-term gains to be obtained by scaring people and creating a more emotional and shocking public appeal are going to be far outweighed by the long-term loss of credibility of the tobacco control movement if these types of absurd claims continue.