Tobacco, spies, polonium-210, and cancer

This is the “director’s cut” of my letter published in the Guardian 5th Dec 2006, when the BIG story was a fugitive Russian spy who had been poisoned with polonium-210 in London. It’s not really news that spies get fiendishly terminated in real life as well as the movies. It was getting caught, and the novelty of the technique, that gave this story wings.
I was already familiar with a more sinister side to polonium-210 and thought this spy-killing affair would be a good hook to hang it on. My letter was published but never ignited into the story it deserves to be. Feed it to the blog, I say!

Dear Letters Editor,

In the ongoing Alexander Litvinenko poisoning story, polonium-210 continues to be described as a rare isotope. Unfortunately it is not rare at all, and is even available at a discount from most international airports. Whilst it appears as though the death of a Russian spy has alerted us to an exotic new poison, Polonium-210 already kills tens of thousands of Britons annually.

tobacco geiger
Four men testing a radioactive tobacco plant at Farm and Home Week in August 1952

In 1990, American Surgeon General C. Everett Coop declared that radioactivity, not tar, accounts for 90% of smoking-related lung cancers. Cigarettes are lightly radioactive. Most of that radiation comes from the rock-mineral fertilizer (apatite) used by subsidized American tobacco farmers. This captures and holds onto radon gas, which decays to deposit polonium-210 in the fine hairs of tobacco leaves. This deposits in smokers’ lungs, beaming out deadly alpha radiation for years and damaging DNA.

Increasing usage of radon-rich fertilizers accompanied an 18-fold increase in the per capita incidence of lung cancer between 1930-80 in the USA. In the same period smoking decreased 20% but tobacco’s polonium-210 content tripled. It was estimated in 1982 (New England Journal of Medicine) that a 30-cigarette a day smoker’s lungs will accumulate radiation equivalent to 300 chest x-rays per year.

Of 33,000 UK deaths per annum from lung cancer (2005), 90% would equate to 30,000 caused by radiation. Whilst the death of Alexander Litvinenko fixates us, it is sobering to realize that some 575 Britons die every week as a result of gradually ingesting the same substance that poisoned him.

We can appreciate that it is neither in the interests of the government nor the tobacco industry to publicize the radiation situation, which they jointly brought about. Nor do anti-smoking campaigners wish to give attention to confusing data which might show that smoking is not, of itself, the killer. They are all well aware of the situation, and their reluctance to do anything about it is nothing short of criminal.

Perhaps we could benefit from the polonium-210 publicity bonanza by recognizing it as the unnecessary toxin in a common drug. However socially undesirable is the smoking of tobacco, it need not lead to the suffering and tragic death by lung cancer of so many users. Though I don’t smoke, a lot of my friends do and I respect their right to do so.

Whilst we must all be saddened by the tragic loss of one Russian spy, his end may have been for the greater good if, through raising this issue, the lives of millions of future smokers may be saved.

Gregory Sams

References supporting the data are all included at this site: http://www.acsa2000.net/HealthAlert/radioactive_tobacco.html

Gregory’s website

2015 POSTSCRIPT:

An enquiry into Litvinenko’s killing began in July 2014, finishing a year later. The report should be published by the end of 2015.
This comes from the BBC link: “After leaving the service Mr Litvinenko wrote a book, Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within, in which he claimed FSB agents had been responsible for the bombing of apartment blocks in Moscow and two other cities in 1999.”
If you are a defected spy accusing your former boss of murderous deeds then their getting murderous with you is a distinct possibility. Edward Snowden is still in hiding; Julian Assange safe but trapped; Private Bradley Manning, captured and jailed for 35 years.

The enquiry was set up, eight years after his death, positioning this as a major crime at a time when the West is seeking to counter Russia politically. His death represented a major failure of the UK intelligence service who had promised him protection, under his new identity as Edwin Redwald Carter.

Do they really think that if they can pin this on some Russian spymaster, or Putin himself, it will make a difference? What a waste of our money. Many worse things are known to have been done by our own and other governments including Russian and American around the world. This includes waging wars that killed thousands on false pretences.

  • – – – –

Cancer just loves genetic damage and for that, radioactivity is the best stuff by far. That said, some six hundred additives are approved for use in tobacco products. Were cigarettes and rolling tobacco subject to ingredient labelling we would know how few or how many go into what is being smoked. I guess from 3-10 additives would be in any given product. Many of these may contribute to health complaints that detract from lifespan. Some of those in the list of 600 are considered carcinogenic and some are natural harmless additions, such as nutmeg oil. Perhaps Mr Coop got it wrong and only 75% of tobacco deaths, not 90% are from radioactivity and the rest from other ingredients. Ingredient listing is the way forward, and quitting is even better.

Syria – is the end in sight?

Go Russia Go!

At last there may be an end in sight to the disaster that Western foreign policy has landed upon Syria, formerly one of the most stable and secular nations in the Middle East. One also with a strong military force that held stocks of unused chemical weapons primarily to counter the threat of Israel’s nuclear stockpile. It initially seemed clear that Assad had not used Sarin in a fight he was already winning at Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus where his soldiers were stationed.

After the propaganda machines weighed in though, you could be forgiven for thinking Assad would do something so incredibly stupid, soon after Obama declared use of chemical weapons to be America’s “red line.” Assad isn’t stupid. We should follow the money and ask who benefited? The rebel terrorists and the arms industry profited as countless millions of taxpayers’ money was poured into funding the “moderate” opposition, prolonging a conflict that was nearing its end. That opposition, the Free Syrian Army is now little more than a name, but one we hear more of than the hundreds of other militias in the field, predominantly Islamic.

If successful, the so-called revolution that we have been fanning and funding would inevitably lead to the absorption of Syria into the expanding Islamic State, a body that was underwritten by Western money and armaments, now supplemented by oil and taxation revenues from conquered lands. Islamic State are not stupid either, just a new and very upstart state. Should they succeed, it would not be revolution, but conquest. Western efforts to combat IS have been singularly ineffective, with the world’s mightiest war machine unable or unwilling to halt their progress. There is little doubt that if Assad falls Islamic State would rapidly incorporate or eliminate every other faction in the fight, destroy any remaining ancient monuments and be irreversibly en route to one day claiming a seat at the United Nations.

Is this where we want to go?

Is it not a strange turn of affairs that tough-guy Vladimir Putin, the West’s current faputin syriavourite bad guy, should be the only world leader to realize this is not a good place to go? He may be a gangster, but at least he’s his own gangster and not manipulated by the dark shadowy forces of the military industrial complex that American President Eisenhower warned us of and Kennedy strongly condemned. In Sept 2013 Putin narrowly stopped the US from going on a Syrian bombing spree (prompted by allegations of chemical weapons use) through getting Assad’s agreement to clear out and hand over Syria’s entire chemical weapons stock. Clever move, and one hugely frustrating to those who control the US.

So now Russia steps into the arena, openly and at the request of the legitimate Syrian government. They realize that terrorists are terrorists – these are not revolutionaries seeking democracy and would all meld into IS if Assad fell. Why screw around playing one side against the other, unless you are manipulated by those conflict-loving forces of which Kennedy and Eisenhower spoke? That’s the positive side of being a gangster boss politician – you’re in nobody’s pockets but your own and see no benefit in waging war for the sake of war itself. Even in Crimea, the minimal fighting stopped once Russia’s objective was achieved. Conflict for conflict’s sake is not on the Russian agenda. Curious how we rail about Russian jets straying into Turkish airspace while our jets bomb hospitals and our close ally Saudi Arabia kills thousands of civilians in Yemen with the weapons we supply.

Yes it’s strange for me, a passionate advocate of non-violence to be rallying behind military effort by a powerful state. As do most, I long to see the war over so that refugees can return to rebuild their lives, and believe Russian action could achieve this goal. When we watched refugees flooding into Germany they were fleeing the fighting, NOT politics or religious persecution. Most of them would love to go home. Human beings are amazing animals, able to rebuild lives, towns and cities, as did Europe and Asia after the last big war. Hiroshima and Dresden thrive today. We can do it.

The fighting has to stop.
Full power to you Russia.
History will be grateful.

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Peace is not defined by the absence of conflict.

SIOOD Cover wShdw Email
the wheel needs a new hub, not just another revolution

Powerful puppet meets tough gangster

ObamPutinThis current cover of “The Week” is very apt. And now, with an intended attack on Syria looking foiled, it makes sense that a Russian gangster should be the one to out maneouver a US president reading from his autocue.  Unlike the shadowy puppet-masters of Western governments, even gangsters spare a thought for the world their children will inherit, knowing that unnecessary wars are both dangerous and damaging.  The banking, military, and arms establishment take a different viewpoint. Their industry would grind to a halt if armaments were never put to use, prompting replacements bought with bank loans by both sides.

With Putin at least, the nature of the beast is clear; the man is a ruthless boss who brooks no opposition, and twists the justice system as he plays the autocrat. Yet he is able to exercise his own thoughts and appears to be in control, rather than under control.  That increases the likelihood of rational actions reflecting the old-fashioned notion that a military is there to protect us from external aggressors. This boldly challenges the existing paradigm that wars of aggression are there to protect the profits of the Military Industrial Complex. We live in interesting times.From “A Terminal Toolbag” Chapter 10

The world’s military pow­ers were distraught when the Cold War ended, a situation helpfully resolved by invading Iraq and Afghanistan to fight terrorism and gift democracy. Consequently, terrorism is breaking out all over, serving to renew the fear and convince us to accept more shackles to feel safe. It’s straight out of George Orwell’s seminal book, 1984, with vague undefined enemies whose allegiances are always shifting. Our constantly cooked up fear of terrorists has provided the excuse to move the “cameras” inside our homes too, as the state gives itself the right to snoop through our phone calls, emails, and digital trails.”