Monday, November 1, 2010

The Health Benefits of Radium, or: Why you Should Look Critically at Modern Health Fads.

Today I'd like to write about one of the scarier things I know of: the radiation health fad of the early 1900's. You see, back around a hundred years ago radiation had just been discovered by the pioneering efforts of such scientific greats as the husband-and-wife team Pierre and Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel, but it was still such a new phenomenon that no one knew about the dangers it posed.

Due to radioactive decay in the bedrock that underlies them, many hot springs famed for their healing powers have traces of radon gas in them, and thus higher than average radioactivity. Given how little was known about radiation at the time, it wasn't long before a whole health fad industry sprang up in order to get more of this obviously wonderful radiation to the masses (it reminds me quite a bit of the whole ozone health fad that was in vogue around that time, but that's a topic for another time). One of the earlier products introduced was called Radon Water, bottles of water with radon dissolved it it marketed to the average person who wanted to get in on this new healthy product. Unfortunately, there's a slight problem: the longest-lived isotope of radon has a half life of just 3.82 days, so by the time the bottled water had reached its destination, quite a lot of the radioactivity would be gone.

Nothing daunted, the new start-up Radium Ore Revigator Company came up with a solution to this problem. The dilemma is that radon, being a product of the decay of other elements (notably thorium), is constantly being created but decays too rapidly to really be practically brought to market. The Radium Ore Revigator Company's answer? Instead of bringing the radon to the customer, bring the radioactive elements to them and let them produce their own radon! Thus the Revigator was born.

The Radium Ore Revigator is essentially a large water cooler lined with carnotite, an ore of uranium (and thorium, which uranium decays to) that slowly undergoes radioactive decay to produce radon. The intent was that water would be placed into the Revigator overnight to acquire a healthy dose of radon, then imbibed the next day in order to get as much radioactivity into the user as possible.

 Today, we know that radioactivity in the body is entirely a bad thing, causing cell death or cancerous mutations. It's easy to look back at the thousands (yes, thousands) of Revigator buyers in the 20's and 30's and wonder how they could be so deluded. But the scary part, for me, is that mankind really has not advanced much further today. If you read any of the materials put out by the Radium Ore Revigator Company, they sound eerily similar to claims by many different groups today. You can substitute “radio-activity” with the name of many products today and hardly notice the change. One pamphlet of theirs can be found here. For instance, you can find this little gem of a quote on page 10:
Is radio-activity dangerous to the health? Most everyone offers this questions [sic] because it is only natural to regard this as a drug or medicine. The answer is that radio-activity is not a medicine or drug, but a natural element of water, and that since practically all spring and well water that Nature herself gives for drinking purposes contain this highly effective beneficial element, it is but common sense to restore it to water that has lost it just as we restore oxygen to a stuffy room by opening a window-by eating foods that contain vitamins-or by the installation of window glass that permits the entrance in sun light of the all important ultra violet rays. The United States Government says that the radio-activity of natural water is never strong enough to be injurious. 
 I love the implicit assumption that “It's natural, therefore it must be good for you”. Sure, it's natural, but so are arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. For that matter, so is the mutation-causing ultraviolet light whose effects are compared to those of oxygen and vitamins (!). If you read the whole booklet it is both funny and terrifying, knowing what we do about radioactivity today.

I said before that I don't want to be too hard on the buyers of back then. They simply didn't know what we do now. I also don't wish to be too hard because we today are no better, really. There are many different alternative medicine products out today that we really don't know much about at this time, yet which are selling quite well. I'm not going to claim that all of them are completely without value; they might be, but we really don't know. This is partly because current federal law (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) prohibits the Food and Drug Administration from testing the health claims of most alternative medicines. Thus the companies that produce these products can continue to market them without ever having to provide proof of their efficacy, while the Placebo Effect guarantees that at least some of their buyers will report improvement.

And that I suppose is really what scares me most. If people can be taken in by such things as the health benefits of radiation before, what's to stop it from happening again? Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, so the saying goes, and who's to say how many current health fads will be deemed to be dangerous in fifty years?

I'd like to gratefully acknowledge my inspiration for this post, the incredibly awesome chemistry website Seriously, go check it out. You can find pictures of actual Revigators under radium (atomic number 88), and a picture of a bottle of “Radithor” Radon Water under thorium (atomic number 90). You can also read the much-better-quality article that directly inspired this post and from which a good part of my information comes there.


  1. My favorite way of explaining things like this to alternative medicine proponents is this:

    Do you know what they call alternative medicine that's been proven to work?


  2. Ha ha! Nice. The Wikipedia page on it had something similar. Basically, there are really just two kinds of medicine:

    The kind that works, and the kind that doesn't.

  3. Now that is scary. Especially since I was writing a paper on the effects of nuclear radiation yesterday...


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