Radioactive Quackery Is Back!

 

Radioactive symbolIn the early years of the 20th century, there was a craze of medical quackery following the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 and the isolation of radium in 1898.  Radioactive quackery quickly spawned numerous products which claimed to have a variety of medical benefits.  Many of these products were completely bogus, but some, to the detriment of their buyers, were actually genuine.  Radithor, for example, was a patent medicine composed of distilled water containing at least one microcurie of radium salts.  Wealthy U.S. industrialist Eben Byers, who ingested large quantities of the stuff, died in 1932 of a variety of cancers and degeneration of his bones.  He was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

Well, that was then and this is now, right?  Certainly we’ve learned the risks of radiation, how silly people were to think of radiation as a medical panacea or fountain of youth, and people in developed countries are protected by their powerful and benevolent health and safety regulators, right?  Right?

Wrong.  Do a search for “negative ion bracelet” on Amazon or eBay.  You will find a long list of products, many manufactured in China, which claim a litany of health benefits from “negative ions” they are said to produce.  Now, many of them are completely bogus, and are made of materials such as titanium, copper, and permanent magnet alloys which produce no ions whatsoever.  But like the original radium craze, even worse, some of them do produce ions, or at least, ionising radiation, by containing thorium, usually in the form of thorium dioxide.  Thorium and its daughter nuclides, including isotopes of radium, actinium, radon, polonium, lead, bismuth, and thallium, emit alpha, beta, and gamma radiation.

One of the bracelets, when tested, was found to expose the skin immediately beneath it to radiation of 5.6 microSieverts per hour, which is equivalent to a dental X-ray every two hours.  Background radiation at Fourmilab is around 0.16 μSv/h, so this is around 35 times higher than background.  Worse, some of the bracelets simply have thorium dioxide powder embedded in silicone plastic and, as the plastic ages and erodes, are likely to shed radioactive dust that can be inhaled, which is about the worst thing that can happen with radioactive material, especially alpha emitters.

Here is a video from The Thought Emporium analysing a variety of these “negative ion” products and the radiation doses they deliver and the consequences thereof.

Oh, and there is no evidence that negative ions have any health benefits at all.  Air ionisers can be useful in removing particulate matter contamination from air and reducing static build-up which can damage electronics, but these are effects which have nothing to do with the claims for these medical quackery products, radioactive or not.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

27 thoughts on “Radioactive Quackery Is Back!”

  1. 10 Cents:
    You mean I won’t get super powers. I have read books. Dr Stan Lee says ….

    I’d go with the spider venom—works (almost) every time.  But with great power comes great responsibility.

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  2. John Walker:

    10 Cents:
    You mean I won’t get super powers. I have read books. Dr Stan Lee says ….

    I’d go with the spider venom—works (almost) every time.  But with great power comes great responsibility.

    Is that last sentence from the Stalin book you read?

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  3. PhCheese:
    Remember the machine at the shoe store where you could see your bones. I ran to it every time my parents took me for shoes.

    Florsheim, as I recall. I did the same and have wondered for years if they were shielded or if I radiated all my innards. As I haven’t (yet that I know of) come down with cancer, maybe they were. Primary malignancy of the various tissues of the feet, themselves, are very rare.

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  4. civil westman:
    I did the same and have wondered for years if they were shielded or if I radiated all my innards.

    They irradiated your innards. Furthermore, since detection methods were more primitive, higher doses had to be used in the olden days compared to today, e.g., for dental x-rays. So, unless you were wearing your lead BVDs…

    Here’s a period piece that goes with this.

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  5. drlorentz:
    Furthermore, since detection methods were more primitive, higher doses had to be used in the olden days compared to today, e.g., for dental x-rays. So, unless you were wearing your lead BVDs…

    Heh.  Remember “sunshine units”?  This was used as a unit of dose from absorption of strontium-90 from nuclear fallout by the U.S. Department of Defense.  It was replaced by “strontium unit” due to ridicule, including by George Carlin.

    Here’s a period piece that goes with this.

    Here is a document from 1955 that I scanned and put on the Web, “Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region”.  It’s full of great quotes like, “We can expect many reports that ‘Geiger counters were going crazy here today.’ Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don’t let them bother you.”  The illustrations are also great.

    Atomic Test in Nevada (1955 U.S. government publication)

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  6. PhCheese:
    Remember the machine at the shoe store where you could see your bones. I ran to it every time my parents took me for shoes.

    There was a discussion of this, started by, uh…you, on the legacy podcast site.  It was excellent remembering looking at those fuzzy green images and wiggling one’s toes to watch the bones move.

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  7. John Walker:
    Heh.  Remember “sunshine units”?

    DoD always had a knack for the well-turned phrase.

    John Walker:
    Here is a document from 1955 that I scanned and put on the Web, “Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region”.  It’s full of great quotes like, “We can expect many reports that ‘Geiger counters were going crazy here today.’ Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don’t let them bother you.”  The illustrations are also great.

    Indeed, the pictures are great. Fallout and radiation burns are always good for some yuks.

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  8. Wow. So I have a happy light with a negative ion  generator  option. I had never heard of that, but the product brochure said it lifted the mood! I have not had occasion to use the light a lot, but maybe this item worked  differently from the bracelet etc.? I did try to use the light regularly one winter.

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  9. sawatdeeka:
    Wow. So I have a happy light with a negative ion  generator  option. I had never heard of that, but the product brochure set it lifted the mood! I have not had occasion to use the light a lot, but maybe this item worked  differently from the bracelet etc.? I did try to use the light regularly one winter.

    If it has a genuine negative ion generator, you should see cruft being deposited all around it after it’s been running for a few days.  If you don’t see that grey-brown scum, it’s not working.  The usual test for a negative ion generator is to place it on a piece of paper for a hour.  If you can’t see a shadow of removed dust around it, it’s not the real thing.

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  10. John Walker:

    sawatdeeka:
    Wow. So I have a happy light with a negative ion  generator  option. I had never heard of that, but the product brochure set it lifted the mood! I have not had occasion to use the light a lot, but maybe this item worked  differently from the bracelet etc.? I did try to use the light regularly one winter.

    If it has a genuine negative ion generator, you should see cruft being deposited all around it after it’s been running for a few days.  If you don’t see that grey-brown scum, it’s not working.  The usual test for a negative ion generator is to place it on a piece of paper for a hour.  If you can’t see a shadow of removed dust around it, it’s not the real thing.

    Thanks.  But, I will no longer use that option if I get the thing out again.

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  11. 10 Cents:
    But it is still okay to wear the necklace you sent me John, right? It seems to be made of stringing these bracelets together.

    Yes, it’s perfectly fine.  Just wear that necklace and, before long, all power will be mine!  Bwah-ha-ha!

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