Is that Polonium on your breath?

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
25 August, 2023

I’m a fan of prizes for rewarding innovation. Prizes motivate. They recognise and certify achievement so others can provide due approbation.

But you can also use them the other way round.

I think we need a prize for the most absurd public health argument.

Because I’ve found a potential award-winner.

Associate Professor Alexander Larcombe penned a piece in The Conversation warning that vapes might contain radioactive Polonium-210.

He reminds readers that the Russians used polonium to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 – they poisoned his tea with it. And it just might be in your vape! Maybe.

It isn’t that a vape manufacturer put polonium into the vape fluid so that their customers can gamble on whether they get radioactive superpowers, or whether they die from it.

No. There’s a longer bow being drawn.

The good Professor reasons thusly.

Tobacco plants can absorb polonium from the soil, air, and high-phosphate fertiliser.

“Whether polonium-210 is found in aerosols produced by e-cigarettes remains to be seen. Although it is feasible if the glycerine in e-liquids comes from plants and similar fertilisers are used to grow them.”

So, the Monty Python-esque chain of reasoning.

Plants can absorb polonium. Glycerine is made from plants. And vape fluid is made using glycerine. Therefore, vape fluid could be like Litvinenko’s tea.

On further worrying investigation, I’ve found that foods generally ultimately comes from plants.

The GST-free fruit and vegetables that Labour would encourage you to eat? They're plants! Fertiliser might have been used on those fields. Can I smell the polonium on your breath, Mr Hipkins?

A strictly carnivorous diet will hardly save you. Meat is made from animals. But animals eat plants, potentially concentrating dangerous polonium.

And what about Litvinenko’s tea?

On our summer holiday, we stopped in at the Zealong Tea Estate outside Hamilton. It’s a lovely spot. But would you believe that tea is just the dried leaves from trees? You might not have known that. But we saw actual tea trees there. And trees are plants.

Sure enough, I found a 2016 article in Radiochemistry that found 1.1 to 25 Bq kg-1 concentration of Polonium-210 in dry tea.

Why does tea not have warning labels? Or at least weird warning articles in The Conversation?

More seriously, I think we have a strong contender for the worst public health argument of 2023.


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