The Remarkable Radium "Liquid Sunshine" Fad And its Deadly Consequences

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August 28, 2004 | 30,866 views

By Paul J. Rosch, M.D.
President, The American Institute of Stress
Clinical Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry
New York Medical College
Originally published in the Health and Stress newsletter (August) of The American Institute of Stress

In the early 1900s, radium was considered to be much more valuable than either gold or platinum. Radium or radon laced water was called "liquid sunshine" because it was believed to be a magical elixir that could promote health and prolong life by rejuvenating effects that provided a host of widespread benefits. Radium was added to toothpaste, hair tonic and candy and incorporated as part of the brand name of numerous items whether they contained it or not.

Radioactive drinking water was readily available as an elixir and panacea and its presence was a selling point for spas and hot springs in Arkansas, New York and Massachusetts. Diverse types of radioactive products, appliances and medical devices were available for the relief of fatigue, arthritic and other pains or to increase vitality, potency and retard the ravages of the aging process.

From left to right above are the Cosmos Bag, a cloth bag containing cotton and low-grade radioactive ore to be applied to rheumatic and arthritic joints. Radioactive water and especially Radithor were popular with physicians and patients as a tonic and crocks lined with radioactive ore were used to produce radioactive water at home. Water left in the Revigator crock overnight was about five times as radioactive as the maximum recommended for well water today.

The Radiendocrinator, available from American Endocrine Laboratories for $150, was intended to be placed over the endocrine glands and could be worn in an athletic strap adapter under the scrotum. The top of the box in the last photo reads "The Best Radium Finest Seamless Male Pouches" (Male pouch was the term used for condom). There were also radioactive:

The first public inkling of any problem with radium came as a result of a 1927 lawsuit filed by Grace Fryer. Grace started working at the U.S. Radium Corporation"s factory in New Jersey in 1917, where she learned to paint a glow-in-the-dark compound on the numbers of watch, clock, altimeter and various instrument dials. She and 70 other women sat at long tables in a dusty room mixing up glue, water and radium powder into a glowing greenish-white concoction that was painstakingly applied with a camel hair brush. After several strokes the brushes would lose their shape and they were instructed to point them with their lips.

As she later stated, "I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn"t taste funny. It didn"t have any taste, and I didn"t know it was harmful."

She did think it was strange that when she blew her nose, her handkerchief glowed in the dark but everyone knew the stuff was harmless and many even painted their nails and their teeth to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out. She quit the factory in 1920 for a better job as a bank teller, but about two years later her teeth started falling out, she developed a painful abscess in her jaw, and X-rays showed severe bone decay. She was joined in the suit by four fellow workers with similar problems and the trial attracted international attention since all of them were pursuing such a rapid downhill course that death seemed likely before a verdict could be reached.

The company denied any wrongdoing despite evidence that their own documents indicated they were aware of this potential problem. The "Five Radium Girls," as they were known, all suffered horrible deaths in the next few years and although they won the suit, the company got off with paying a paltry pittance, even in those days.

Can Small Doses of Radium or X-Rays Promote Health by Radiation Hormesis?

An avalanche of similar horror stories subsequently revealed the hazards of other radioactive products considered to be beneficial. The most famous was the case of Eben Byers, a millionaire steel tycoon, strapping sportsman and U.S. amateur golf champion whose physician urged him to take Radithor. Byers was so convinced it gave him "zip" that he often drank a few of the 2.2-ounce bottles daily.

He consumed close to 1,400 bottles at $1.00 each between 1928 and 1930 before dying in 1932 of radium poisoning at the age of 51. By then he had not only lost his zip but most of his teeth from bone decay, his body was covered with abscesses and he weighed 92 pounds. The Wall Street Journal"s headline "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off" was essentially the death knell for such radium products.

However, bathing in radon water is still popular. Some 75,000 people a year seek treatment for arthritic and other complaints at a dozen radon spas in Germany and the government pays for therapy at one facility. There are several in Austria, the Czech Republic and Japan. There are also numerous mines around the world including the United States where people flock to inhale radon. Many are repeat patrons with countless testimonials of miraculous cures. It seems unlikely that these are all placebo effects based on arthritic pets that could hardly walk or had to be carried in but could be seen running and jumping weeks later.

Taking the Radon Cure at Abandoned Montana Mines

Such low-level radiation is now under intense investigation in Japan, where it has been successfully used to suppress cancer by strengthening immune system defenses and promoting DNA repair. There is good evidence that there is stimulation of super-oxide dismutase, a powerful antioxidant that blocks free radical damage, and ATP, the source of energy for all cells.

Scientists at several top medical centers reported increased levels of insulin, endorphin and enkephalins, which may explain "rejuvenating" effects, such as increased brain cell membrane permeability, improvement in hypertension and diabetes. Double-blind studies performed on patients at Japan"s Misasa Radon Springs have confirmed the ability of its radioactive water to relieve rheumatism, neuralgia and other complaints. Similar results were obtained in studies conducted in conjunction with Radon Therapy Hospital specialists at Austria"s Bad Gastein spa.

Atomic bomb researchers were very concerned about the possible dangers of generating large amounts of radioactive isotopes but found that mice exposed to modest amounts of uranium dust lived longer than controls. In 1963, the Atomic Energy Commission confirmed that morbidity rates were lower and longevity was greater in mice, rats, guinea pigs and hamsters that had received low-dose irradiation. The following year, cows that had been accidentally exposed to small amounts of radiation after an A-Bomb test 18 years previously had to be put to sleep because of extreme old age, but there was little mention of this in the press. The vast majority of dairy and beef cattle rarely live longer than 15 years.

No newspaper featured a 30-year follow-up of 1,155 low-dose radium dial painters showing that they had significantly fewer cancers than the general population and also lived much longer. Most people are also unaware of long-term studies showing that Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors with a low exposure to nuclear radiation are now healthier and living longer than controls who resided in unaffected Japanese cities. About a million patients are treated annually with low-dose radiation at Russian hospitals and this is now also officially endorsed in Japan, presumably because it is cost effective as well as safe. Radiation hormesis may have a tough road to hoe in the United States, but it has strong and growing scientific support.

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