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Before the negative side effects of a little something called radium were fully understood, it was the kind of ingredient that got tossed into just about every type of product you could imagine. Of course, this was in the early 1900s, and radium had really only been around since 1898 when Marie and Pierre Currie discovered it and later turned that discovery into a Nobel prize five years later. How could something with an intoxicating glow to it be bad for you, right?
Starting in 1910, if your product didn’t have radium in it, it got lost in an ever-expanding pack of those that did. And those products that claimed to have the radioactive edge but really didn’t? Thankfully the U.S. government would step in and put an end to the misleading advertising.
The number of products seen in the marketplace was astounding. Everything from radium-impregnated fabrics used to wrap babies and help with arthritis to a radioactive heating pad, to a radium tonic to prevent grey hair to radium bath salts to Dengen’s Radio-Active Eye Applicators, a pair of eye-glasses that instead of lenses placed pods filled with radioactive materials right next to the eyes and claimed to restore perfect vision and cure headaches.
For two decades radium was something that was willfully worn, ingested, or shoved up the nether bits with complete disregard for the growing number of suspicious deaths surrounding those that manufactured the goods consumers were clamoring for. Yes, radium isn’t always bad and does exist naturally in the wild (brazil nut, anyone?), but only in extremely small and harmless doses.
As for the the Curries who discovered radium way back when? Their laboratory notebooks from that era are still too radioactive to handle, more than 100 years after the fact.
We can partially blame Marie Curie personally for the radium craze. Right up until her untimely death (due to radiation poisoning) she continued to look for ways her discovery could benefit humanity. Right before she died, with hands burned by radioactivity, she wrote about “medical therapeutics” involving radiation.
She suggested there could be a powerful medicinal benefit to drinking water suffused with radon — a radioactive gas created by the breakdown of thorium and uranium — injecting irradiated saline into veins, muscles or joints, inhaling radon-laced air, or taking a nice bath in radioactive water. Mind you, she was a scientist, so she does note that “the scientific basis is here still little developed and the empirical character prevails.”
The medical profession runs with it anyway, and doctors begin writing radium prescriptions for arthritis, gout, hypertension, sciatica, lumbago and a host of other ailments. In 1916 the medical journal Radium — yes, there was an actual journal of medicine called Radium — declares that “Radium has absolutely no toxic effect, being harmoniously accepted by the human body, as solar light for plants.”
It takes a little time for the empirical characters of dosing yourself with radiation every day make themselves apparent, but by then it’s a bit too late for some.
For the record, the health effects from radium exposure include cancer, anemia, cataracts, and death. Granted, it is used therapeutically in cancer radiation treatments, but only because it is so effective at killing cells; one just hopes it manages to kill all the cancer cells before it has the chance to kill the ones you need. You know, to live.
Radioactive Chocolate Bar
With radium mania taking a firm grip on the consciousness of the shopping decision-makers of the world, producers began shoving the stuff in anything they could. Food was an easy choice. And everybody loves chocolate, right?
The Radium Schokolade chocolate bar was manufactured by Burk & Braun in Germany, and sold as a way to make you look and feel younger. Rejuvenating, they called it.
Europeans could also choose Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread, made with that amazing radium water.
These were sold from 1931 to 1936, when they were discontinued. Any connection between sweet-loving Germans chowing down on radioactive candy and the rise of Nazism are surely coincidental.
We don’t mean to pick on the poor Germans, but in addition to glowing chocolate and Hitler they also gave us toothpaste laced with a bit of thorium. Honestly, the radiation levels were really low, but it still made claim to some pretty amazing properties:
“Its radioactive radiation increases the defenses of the teeth and gums. The cells are loaded with a new energy of life, the destructive effect of bacteria is hampered. That explains the excellent prophylaxis and the healing process of gum disease … ”
This product flew off the shelves between 1940 and 1945, which of course is smack dab in the height of World War II. So we can probably be glad that German scientists were more interested in putting radioactive stuff into dental hygiene products than they were into, say, bombs.
Batschari Radium Cigarettes
Ok. What is it with the Germans and their radioactive gimmicks? Putting a whole new spin on the concept of the death stick, the Batschari tobacco company in Baden-Baden, Germany made radium cigarettes between 1910 and 1915.
Wait…wasn’t that during World War I? Could there be an unexplored connection between Prussian aggression and the amount of radiation coursing through their blood?