Crazy Ways People Have Tried to Use Radiation – Today it seems like common sense not to put radioactive materials in your mouth. And, really, it should have seemed that way a hundred years ago, too. People had been noticing very, very bad effects from high levels of ionizing radiation for decades. But in some circles, word traveled slowly–or was hushed up altogether.
In the late 1800s, scientists and the general public became dazzled by advances in chemistry and physics. Not only could the right combination of chemicals create a really big explosion, but also, by combining the new techniques in the application of electricity and the ability to make a partial vacuum, you could create a more subtle glow, when some mysterious form of energy dubbed “cathode rays” banged into the glass end of the tube opposite the positive electrical pole, or cathode.
Whatever it was made of, it was going fast enough to miss the anode. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen was working with one of these electric vacuum tubes. He happened to have a chemical called barium platinocyanide near the tube, and these crystals started glowing. And they kept glowing, even if you put an opaque object, like a piece of wood, between the tube and the chemical.
So this kind of energy was in some ways like ordinary light rays, but not quite the same. He called the phenomenon X-rays. The “X” designated something unknown, but the name stuck. Soon Röntgen was demonstrating that a photographic plate could record shadows from X-rays, indicating variable amounts of transmission through different substances, in particular the soft tissues and bones of the hand.
Almost immediately the medical community recognized the value of X-rays as a diagnostic tool. Hospitals set up the precursors to radiology departments, both for imaging, and for the treatment of tumors with X-rays. The Queen of Portugal had her ladies in waiting X-rayed to demonstrate the harmful effects of corsets on the skeleton.
But almost as soon as X-rays started showing their promise for healing, they also revealed their more troubling side effects. Technicians who worked with X-rays began to experience burning of the skin. Often an X-ray machine operator would use his own hand for a test image. Within a few years, cancer developed, first in one or more of the fingers, which would be amputated.
But if the effective dosage of radiation was highest in the extremities right in the lineof fire, the rest of the body wasn’t coming away unscathed, and further amputations would follow. But whether due to initial exposure, or the spread of cancer, the conclusion of the process was an early death for a number of the medical pioneers.
A variation of the X-ray imaging was the fluoroscope, developed at Thomas Edison’s lab. In this device, the X-ray image was created on a luminous screen rather than a photograph. Fluoroscopes proved practical as field instruments for army doctors in times of war, since it enabled instant examination of a patient for such tasks as locating a piece of shrapnel.
But Edison’s own assistant was one of the first casualties of overexposure to X-rays,and the celebrity inventor became an early advocate of caution in the use of radiation. Not everyone was listening. Starting around 1920, several people seem to have more or less simultaneously hit upon the idea that a fluoroscope could help with shoe fitting.
In principle, seeing your foot inside a pair of shoes could tell you if it was helping your bones stay in proper alignment, or pushing them into an awkward angle. Well into the 1950s, fluoroscopes became a mainstay of shoe stores, despite eventual skepticism on the part of sales clerks that they were worth the enormous expense.
People were just fascinated to see the bones of their feet. It was a novelty. In time, research would indicate that the machines were frequently blasting many times the recommended dose of radiation. In the U. S. , the machines were eventually banned. In Britain, where for some reason an outright ban never happened, at least a few shoe store fluoroscopes remained in use throughout the 1960s.
A similar journey from wonder to fascination to terror attended the other early star of the science of radiation, the element radium. Working in Paris, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium as a kind of trace contaminant within the more common element uranium. A colleague, Henri Becquerel, observed that without any external energy, uranium emitted some type of rays.
Marie Curie hypothesized that the emission was the result of internal changes within individual atoms of uranium, and called the process radioactivity. Surprisingly, unprocessed uranium ore, called pitchblende or uraninite, was more radioactive than refined uranium. This led the Curies to suspect the waste material contained another element.
Further refining the uraninite slag produced a tiny amount of this other substance, which they named polonium. Finally, by processing the material leftover after the uranium and polonium had been extracted,yet another, even more radioactive chemical emerged, a compound containing a new element,which they named radium.
The Curies received acclaim for their discoveries, becoming a celebrity couple, admired both by scientists and the public, and sharing a Nobel Prize with Becquerel in 1903. In turn, the Curies were fascinated by radium, with its radioactive strength imbuing it with strange powers. Not only could the radium make ordinary metal salts glow; its ability to penetrate and burn tissue suggested that, like X-rays, it might help treat cancer.
The elaborate process of extracting radium required lots of hands-on work, but Marie at first was unbothered by the burns they were experiencing. The work left them feeling fatigued, though–a result of radiation poisoning, a non existent diagnosis in the 1890s. And the turn of the 20th century found a public enthusiastic about the recent advances in science.
Glowing radium was a symbol for a new, modern age that saw electricity, powered vehicles,moving images, and other seemingly magical effects entering wide use one after the other. A Broadway musical featured a dance number about radium, which was becoming a buzzword alongside other, more established precious metals like gold.
But Pierre Curie, who eventually developed severe and long-lasting burns from contact with radium, noted that he wouldn’t even want to be in the same room as a kilogram of radium:he suggested it would burn all the skin off his body. Exposure to that quantity wasn’t a possibility, but in minute amounts radium would soon make its way into the marketplace.
Asking if radiation is dangerous is kind of like asking if animals are dangerous: it depends on how close you get, and which animal you’re talking about. Uranium and radium were found to give off different types of radiation, with different properties. Alpha radiation tends not to penetrate solid objects too deeply.
Beta radiation, on the other hand, bores right through opaque material, as does gamma radiation. Beta rays turn out to be ordinary electrons. Just being around a strong enough source of beta rays can be bad news. Gamma rays, like X-rays, are photons, the same stuff light is made of, only with a much higher frequency than visible light, not only letting them pass through many solid objects, but also potentially to mess with the molecules they bump into.
So, prolonged or repeated exposure to gamma rays can also damage the body. Alpha rays are flying streams of helium atoms–without their electrons–making alpha particles much,much more massive than beta, if more limited in their mobility. But if you ingest something that emits alpha rays, the rays don’t have to travel far tostart boring holes in your body from the inside.
Unfortunately, in the early 20th century, people began to experience that effect. Very early on, some researchers were very optimistic about the healing powers of radium. In addition to its demonstrated power to kill cancerous tissue, the purported medical benefits of radium were said to include relief from arthritis and rheumatism, allergies, digestive disorders, diabetes, and waning sexual power.
This honeymoon was short-lived, and by the 1910s the medical community was also gathering evidence that radium, far from being a health tonic, was very bad for you. But in the meantime, an industry of quack supplements and nostrums was growing, basking in the shine of radium’s novelty. Some merely used the word radium, or something similar-sounding, like the fictitious substanceirium, in their names.
But plenty of actual radium, uranium, and thorium–another radioactive element–made their way into American and European medicine cabinets. And the trend lasted well into the 1940s. At first there was a certain kind of misguided logic to the merchandise. Since ancient times people have gone to hot springs and naturally occurring mineral baths, in part because of the alleged health benefits of the substances found there.
Radon, yet another radioactive element discovered as a daughter element of decaying radium,turned out to be the special sauce at these retreats. Spas began bottling radon water as a way to expand their market. But unlike radium, which in a common form keeps a consistent radioactive decay for centuries,radon, which occurs as a gas, breaks down in a matter of days into a series of other radioactive elements.
Again, applying the twisted logic that radon, perhaps because of its first generation relationship to radium, was the stuff you really wanted in your water, manufacturers rose to the challenge of bottling that lightning with two solutions. One idea, as ingenious as it was misguided, was to create ceramic water jugs with the radium baked in.
The most famous brand name was Revigator, but it had no shortage of competitors for the radioactive water market. Advertisements for the product show pseudoscience collapsing in on itself, claiming that ordinary drinking water frequently lacked the vital something-or-other that, presumably, treatment with radioactive chemicals could replace.
The first part of the claim is clearly nonsense, but they were honest about the water turning radioactive. Left in the attractive looking decanters, water would in fact come to carry a suspension of radon, as well as the products of radon’s decay. A convenient alternative was to place a radioactive cone inside an ordinary jar, for much the same purported benefit.
A more aggressive, and potentially much more expensive approach, simply sprinkled radioactive material straight into water. The potions came in bottles resembling medicine, although a selling point of radioactive remedies was that they were natural elements, unlike the artificial chemicals of actual pharmaceuticals.
Radithor, which boasted not only radium, but also some thorium for good measure, was one of the leading brands in this market. As it turned out, Radithor would also feature prominently in the demise of these dangerous sport drinks, in the tragic and public case of one zealous influencer, Eben Byers. A wealthy and athletic resident of Pittsburg, Byers began drinking Radith or after suffering a broken arm getting off a train.
Impressed by the concoction, he recommended it to his friends, gave it to his racehorses,and consumed about three bottles per day. This habit didn’t end well. When Byers died in 1932, his symptoms, including the loss of teeth and his jaw, mirrored those of other acute radium poisoning cases that were developing. Products touted as containing radioactive ingredients include some that are almost unbelievable.
During World War II, a German manufacturer added thorium to its Doramad brand of toothpaste. Another German company patented a chocolate bar prepared with radium. Near the mine that supplied the world with radium in the modern day Czech Republic, at least one bakery traded on the radioactive water they used to make their bread.
Around 1910, the New York State-based Radium Compound Company stated, on the label of its Radium Hand Cleaner, that the multipurpose product “takes off everything but the skin. “On both sides of the Atlantic, cosmetic companies offered lines of radioactive make-up, with ads showing what was meant to be a healthy glow.
Arguably, the lighting effect on the illustration of an impassive model for the French company Tho-Radia has a tinge of the early horror movie poster. Some brand extensions almost defy belief. Some companies offered uranium-laced blankets, while others pretty much just gave you a sack of radioactive material.
NUTEX Radium Condoms, available from the late 1920s through the 1940s, ran into trouble at least once with U. S. regulators, for making false claims about disease prevention. The claimants, apparently, were complaining about overall quality, however–not whether or not they actually contained radium as promised.
Accounts differ on that matter. But the principle of radium for vigor, sexual and otherwise, shows up in products that are unequivocal in their application. The Radium Remedies Corporation of Pittsburg offered a complete line of products that claimed to treat all manner of ailments. Convenient Radio-X tablets would help your body detox, somehow, and also kill microbes.
There were in-soles, pads, and ointments, as well as suppositories. This last, which they describe as “A Modern Remedy — Not a Drug,” were for the relief of “Hemorrhoids, Ovarian Troubles, and Female Weakness”. On the other hand, Vita Radium Suppositories, a product that the Journal of the American Medical Association aptly described as a “nauseatingly filthy piece of quackery”, were marketed with the call “Weak Discouraged Men! Now Bubble Over with Joyous Vitality Through the Use of Glands and Radium”.
The U.S. Postal Service shut this line down for fraud in 1931. On a similar note, the Radiendocrinator was a small, gold-colored box containing radium,which the user placed in his athletic supporter. This existed. But the case that best illustrates the tragic gap between the hype of radium and the growing scientific certainty about its dangers is the story of the Radium Girls.
In an account of the crisis, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women,author Kate Moore describes what was at first a dream job for many young women in New Jersey just before the start of World War I. The United States Radium Corporation paid incredibly well, offered a challenging job, and camaraderie in an enjoyable, even glamorous workplace.
The only downside was, they killed you, painfully. The co-founder of the company, Sabin Arnold von Sochocky, learned of a formula for radium-based glowing paint, with the alluring trade name “Undark,” and developed one of its key applications,the painting of clock and watch dials. At first a novel convenience, radium watch dials became an important part of U.S. soldiers’kits in World War I, and the company grew to hundreds of employees.
There was a gender-based division of labor, with men working working to refine the radium,and women–many actually were girls in their teens–painting the clock faces. Painting the often tiny numerals required precision, and even with very narrow camelhair brushes, the individual hairs would spread too wide if they weren’t continually squeezed back into a fine tip.
The girls were trained to do this by putting the brush tips in their mouth, letting their lips form the proper shape. Workers had misgivings. Some were put off by the taste, although others apparently liked it. But their floor manager always allayed their fears, and Sochocky himself explained that the small quantities of radium were quite innocuous.
The key there being the quantity: the company’s own policies show that they knew radium to be dangerous. The men extracting radium in the adjoining facility wore lead aprons and used tongs to handle tubes of radium. Nevertheless, both he and his co-founder, George Willis, took a cavalier attitude and carried radium around without the safety equipment.
Sochocky would later die of the same disease as his employees. Demand for glowing clock faces didn’t flag after the war, and so the workforce at USRC stayed robust. Another major manufacturer, the Radium Dial Company, started in Chicago, and, flourishing, moved to a larger facility in the town of Ottawa, Illinois. For some reason, this company took a different attitude toward the radium paint than their East Coast rival.
Whereas USRC treated the paint as precious, reclaiming as much of the dust from the workstations and even the clothing of the workers as possible, the Radium Dial Company encouraged the young women to have fun with it. They applied it as make-up, creating a luminous look for evenings out. In fact, their colleagues in New Jersey did much the same–they just had to be a littleless obvious about it.
People seeing the girls leaving after their shift compared the glowing figures to ghosts in the night. They’d wear their nice clothes to work to impart an enchanting sheen. The first worker died in 1922. It happened quickly. First, Mollie Maggia’s teeth began falling out. The gaping holes left by the lost teeth became infected, and wouldn’t heal, a source of constant agony.
Without the use of instruments, her dentist broke and removed her brittle lower jaw. After months of suffering, at last her jugular burst, and the 24-year-old Maggia quickly bled to death. In short order, coworkers followed her to the grave. One woman developed a tumor the size of a softball below her jaw.
Others developed tumors on the pelvis or leg. Ingesting a steady course of radium destroys your bones. The body mistakes it for calcium. Once a trace of radium gets lodged in the bone tissue, it begins emitting rays from inside the body, destroying bone, growing tumors, and impeding the production of blood cells.
Two hundred or more women worked at the New Jersey dial factory during much of its peak production, and there were several other facilities around the country with similar practices. A long tenure at one of these plants was often a death sentence. Grace Fryer, one of the radium girls afflicted with radium poisoning, along with four of her poisoned coworkers, successfully sued USRC.
They five received a settlement of $10,000 each, plus coverage of all medical expenses,and an annual payment of $600 for the rest of their lives. Those lives would be very short. At least fifty radium dial painters were were killed by 1927; others were still alive, but already had cancer by then–not a final tally, since cancer can take years to develop.
By 1929, 23 more workers had died of conditions caused by radium other than cancer. Official records of the time listed 1,600 dial painters, but one estimate puts the total number of painters exposed at 4,000. The eventual death toll is unknown, although studies did track survivors until the 1990s.
At least two dial painters from the early era survived into the 2010s, although in one case the survivor was only employed at a dial factory for a few days. The other had refused to tip her brush with her lips. The Radium Girls represented the first widespread phenomenon of death from radiation exposure.
As the author Moore notes, both the legal precedent and the medical data would guide decision making, both in workplace safety, and the use of radioactive materials. The twentieth century would have plenty of opportunity to put the new standards to use. By the end of World War II, radium was phased out in clock painting, in favor of tritium and other less dangerous radioactive substances.
A disturbing postscript: Inexplicably, consumer products containing radium, sometimes as a solid state deodorizer, continued manufacture, notably in Japan. A thorium water infuser was sold in Japan as late as 2005. Some clock hands painted with radium were available for sale to clock makers into the 1990s.
And despite everything, right now, the Austrian spa town of Bad Gastein has an unsettling attraction. Spa proprietors invite visitors to relax in a hot cave. There you can supposedly receive health benefits by breathing in air rich with radon. They say it helps with arthritis, asthma, and other persistent conditions.
You’re always exposed to some radiation, from the soil, from outer space, and so on. In an article published on the health and science site Mosaic, Christoph Köstinger,the director of the facility, and a physicist, offers an estimate of your exposure at the site: about nine months dose over the course of a three-week stay at Bad Gastein.
That translates into 13 times the typical background amount. Unlike, say, a chunk of uranium under glass, radon isn’t just something you’re exposed to and walk away from. Radon is something you ingest. Inhaling radon is considered the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U. S. The element isn’t any better for you in Austria.
But people who want to voluntarily expose themselves to high doses of the carcinogen can also do so at a spa in Montana, or at a resort in the Czech Republic, near the mines that supplied the Curies with their radium. Are there any everyday products in the present day that you think would be better off gettin grid of? Let us know what you think in the comments.