Today's dumbest quackery

The Oak Ridge Associated Universities' Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum has a marvellous online collection of Radioactive Quack Cures.

I was already familiar with radioactive water jugs, the most famous line of which was the "Revigator", from Theodore Gray's Periodic Table Table site. He's got a Revigator, which he was alarmed to note is still quite hot even now, about eighty years after it was made and lined with the uranium ore whose decay contributed "healthful" radon to the water inside.

There were plenty of other allegedly radioactive medicines and devices on the market not long after the discovery of radium. "Radium" was used as a pretty generic term for anything radioactive in the quack market, and it took over the "science magic" medical role previously occupied by electricity. But this definitely wasn't a change for the better. Most of the electrical quack devices, then and now, were at least harmless. The radioactive ones often very definitely weren't.

If you were lucky, there was no real "radium" in the tablets, water jug or pillow you bought. If you weren't, there was.

The thing that blew my mind about the Oak Ridge Universities site, though, is the revelation that radioactive quack devices are still being made!

We're not talking about brachytherapy devices here. Those are genuine and useful, though hardly a mass market product.

No, these are good old fashioned allegedly-radioactive things that you're meant to affix to your person, or apply to food or drink (or cigarettes!), to charge yourself up with those friendly little cartoon atoms from the '50s educational films.

It boggles my mind that anybody today would think that exposing yourself to significant ionising radiation could possibly be the sort of "general tonic" that's the hallmark of so much quackery ("general tonic" has been replaced by "strengthens the immune system", but the principle remains the same).

But here the darn things are.

Hot pottery, limb-soothing fabric, water treatment doodads... oh, and naturally a thing to make your car run better.

Almost all of the modern quack products, even more bizarrely, come from Japan. If you asked me to name the one place in the world where radiation wouldn't be believed to be healthful, I think I'd probably go for the Ukraine before Japan, but it's a close-run bloody thing.

I mean... what?

The other distinguishing feature of modern ionising radiation quackery, fortunately, is that these devices are definitely much less harmful than the worst of the old ones, and probably barely radioactive at all. The days of radon bulbs for your soda syphon are well past.

The modern products all just seem to be allegedly doped with a bit of thorium, a weak alpha-emitter that does indeed have radium and radon as decay products, but is really only worth worrying about if you're eating or breathing it.

Thorium-doped gas mantles for camping lanterns are still on sale in most countries, and they're about a zillion times less dangerous than whatever mode of transport you use to get to your camp site.

Still and all, though, the very existence of these products depresses me. Yes, I know about all of those surveys where 80% of respondents think the sun orbits the earth, and the popularity of Creationism, homeopathy and "detoxification" has also not escaped my notice.

I even know that some of the customers of these quacks may have formed a genuine, informed opinion against the linear no-threshold model, and thus believe for at least somewhat rational reasons that a slightly above-background radiation dose may be good for them.

But still.

Ionising radiation?


(See also: Can you make a nuclear explosion with your bare hands?)

9 Responses to “Today's dumbest quackery”

  1. Tim Says:

    The Japanese are kind of nuts for "therapeutic" (theoretically) low-dose stuff. Radium hot springs, for instance, are quite popular. On my last trip, I took a photo of an apartment building in Misasa (a fair-to-middling famous hot spring town in western Japan) bearing the charming name "Radium Heights".

  2. Stark Says:

    You really would think the Japanese would know better - and not just because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all, a supercriticality event occured back in 99 in a re-processing plant in Japan. It resulted in the death of two workers - carelesness with critical masses of self warming metals kills!

    I went to Uni with a fellow who majored in nuclear physics... in his spare time he developed a simple design for a device using a large industrial press that, he figured, would have been able to achieve about half the output of Fat-Man. It was basically the same as clapping together two subcritical pieces but instead of using his hands he wanted to use a 50-60 ton press with a tungsten ram and sleeve to hold the half-spheres. The whole thing would be surrounded by a water jacket (the desigen actually called for a number of fish tanks - the presence of fish in them was an optional item) to act as a poor mans neutron reflector. Luckily he didn't have ready access to any large indutsrial presses. This same fellow later gave himself a rather nasty radiation burn on his hand... but would never own up to how it happened.

  3. shimavak Says:

    I suppose I can't blame you, Dan, as wikipedia makes no mention of it in any of the radiobiological articles; but, it has been a long time since medical physics has accepted the linear no-threshhold model as the universal model for all tissues.

    I'm most of the way through my Ph.D. in the subject, and I can tell you that my first rad. bio. class focused on the Linear Quadratic model for tissue damage due to ionizing radiation. The weights on the linear and quadratic part of the equation are different for each type of tissue, but it is also accepted that there are tissues which have a threshold for damage due to ionizing radiation. One such example would be the lens which will not suffer any risk of developing cataracts until a fairly high dose.

    Additionally, strong evidence for the LQ model as the standard model for cell kill due to ionizing radiation is the effect of using fractionated and hyperfractionated prescriptions in Radiation Oncology. If the damage done were truly linear with dose delivered, we could kill all of the tumor all at once with one big dose and no greater ill effects than fractionating it; however, we know this not to be true!

    The hormesis effect has not been clearly demonstrated for radiation, but there is a good chance that it may exist; however, it is much safer to avoid any of the no-threshold negative stochastic effects of radiation of which were are certain.

    Just my thoughts...

  4. fnaah Says:

    As someone who occasionally indulges in the odd nitrous bulb or two when the mood strikes, the idea of "Radon Bulbs" is possibly the most horrendous thing I have ever contemplated.

    It's like swapping your Dalwhinnie for ebola-infested cold tea. :(

  5. corinoco Says:

    I work near a major Sydney hospital, and the local cafe is the favorite gathering place for a lot of their nurses. It's pretty funny to hear them compare their latest detox-diet fads each morning - while they all chain-smoke. A balanced diet, I guess.

    I'm an architect, so I often deal with councils, and I love making a mockery of certain inner-western Sydney yuppified councils with 'Nuclear-Free-Zone' signs everywhere. I always ask for written permission from the council to not use smoke detector in our buildings, then have fun watching council droids go cross-eyed and squirm when you tell them SDs have got Americium in them. I have one in a packet I bring to meetings, as they almost never believe you until they see the trefoil on the packaging. The reactions you get sometimes are hilarious - people jumping out of chairs and backing away, sometimes running out of the room. A building inspector usually turns up to calm things down.

    I've also had the same councils reject a pre-school (where one was badly needed, btw) because of high-tension powerlines a few hundred metres away. Ever tried to explain the Inverse-Square rule to a council droid?

  6. Daniel Rutter Says:

    it has been a long time since medical physics has accepted the linear no-threshhold model as the universal model for all tissues.

    I know. I bet the radio-quackery people don't, though :-).

  7. James Kew Says:

    Radium Suppositories. For "properly functioning glands".

  8. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Complete nonsense, of course. Far better to get new glands from a monkey!

  9. zurkog Says:

    In your "nuclear explosion with your bare hands" article, you make reference to David "Radioactive Boy Scout" Hahn. You might be interested to know he may be at it again:

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