Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time: 4 Bonkers Ways We Used Radiation
In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays entirely by accident. Within seven years, Marie Curie had figured out how and why radiation worked, and the world's relationship with radioactive materials has been a mixed bag ever since. X-rays and radiation cancer treatments have saved countless lives when this power is used properly; meanwhile, accidents like Chornobyl and pollution from waste sites show how dangerous it is when used improperly. The invention of atomic weapons brought a world war to a screeching halt, but nuclear weapons have been a constant threat to life as we know it ever since.
You'd think by now we as a species would know enough about radiation to know better, but we have been bafflingly blasé about its use over the years. We've essentially treated radioactive materials like it was cilantro; we'd just throw it in whenever we felt something needed a little extra zing, without any regard that it could sicken up to 14% of the population.
Shoe Store X-Rays
It's hard to believe that there was ever a time when selling shoes was considered a hazardous profession. Sure, working in a shoe store (or just retail in general) doesn't exactly work any wonders for your mental health, but at least the sales staff is no longer being exposed to 200 times the typical amount of daily radiation everyone else does. Why were these workers being bombarded with gamma radiation like the world's worst superhero origin story? Because of this freaking thing:
That is a shoe-fitting fluoroscope, which was invented in 1919 and started showing up in shoe stores the following year. The machine’s use was pretty simple: a customer would try on a new pair of shoes, stand on the machine, and place their feet in the holes on the base. Once the machine was turned on, the customer and salesperson could then peer into the view panels and see an X-ray of the customer’s feet to determine how cramped the customer’s toes were inside the shoes.
Well, calling it an X-ray is not exactly accurate. An X-ray is a still image developed on a sheet of film, done in a short period of time in order to minimize the radiation exposure to the user. A fluoroscope like this is more of a live feed, meaning the user would be exposed to more radiation for way longer than an X-ray. How much more are we talking about? It’s difficult to say. It depends on the make and model of the machine, and over 15,000 of them were sold worldwide in the eleven years before governmental agencies started regulating their use.
Look at it this way: A typical CT scan administered by trained professionals under the controlled conditions of a hospital’s radiology lab would give a patient a dose of 1-10 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation. These fluoroscopes, operated by an untrained shoe store employee, might give a customer a dose of anywhere from 100-1,160 mSv. To put that into greater perspective, exposure of 200 mSv might start to irreparably damage your chromosomes, 300 mSv could stunt a child’s growth, and 350 mSv would’ve gotten you evacuated from Chornobyl.
Oh, and then there’s the shoddy construction of these machines. First of all, many models of this machine, particularly the cheaper ones, were not adequately shielded to prevent the radiation from leaking out in all directions. And an unsettling number of them were only minimally shielded on the front and sides, causing most of that radiation to leak out the back of the machine instead … not to mention the hole where the feet went in. So yeah, a bit of an issue there, especially for the employees putting in full shifts around that stuff.
Another thing to consider here is that most people weren’t just using these machines once. Hell, not even once per store visit. They were likely trying on multiple pairs of shoes and nuking their feet with each pair. Then, they would take home the irradiated shoes they did like and wear them, prolonging the exposure. The other pairs of shoes they tried on would go back on the shelf, spreading the radiation further around the store.
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When it comes to energy drinks, we’ve never really cared about what goes into them. As long as the ingredients will increase our heart rate and Congress hasn’t criminalized it (yet), we don’t give a damn. Chemical compounds we can’t pronounce correctly on the first try, exotic herbs that sound like an ancient curse, artificial flavors that taste like a fruity battery… Just pour it in a metal can, slap a lightning bolt or a charging bull on the label, and we will chug it down.
A hundred years ago, there was an energy drink on the market that was marketed as a “Cure for the Living Dead.” It claimed to be a cure for impotence, mental illness, and retardation (their word, not ours). It was advertised as “Sunshine in a bottle.” Its name even sounded powerful: RadiThor.
RadiThor only contained two ingredients: Water and radium. Radium is considered the most toxic radioactive element in existence. If you were to ingest it, the good news is that 80% of it would pass right through your intestines and exit your body. The bad news is the remaining 20% would enter your bloodstream, accumulate in your bones, and remain there. Radium was actually used in a lot of products in the 1910s-1920s that promised to give you energy (on a molecular level, sure), a healthier glow (that’s one way of putting it), and to cure what ails you (not a chance).
One of the strangest stories about RadiThor was that of Eben Byers, a wealthy socialite, industrialist, and amateur golf champion who, in 1927, started taking RadiThor after an arm injury. He was doing so at the suggestion of his doctor, and fun fact: William J. A. Bailey, the manufacturer of RadiThor and notorious snake oil salesman, had a reputation for giving doctors a 17%
kickback rebate on each dose they prescribed.
Byers became addicted to the bursts of energy RadiThor gave him, and quickly found himself taking multiple doses each day. Three years and 1,400 doses later, he just wasn’t getting the same boost. He started getting headaches, losing weight, and feeling weaker by the day … and it was pretty clear it was all thanks to the RadiThor.
Around this time, the Federal Trade Commission was starting to realize they needed to crack down on the commercial use of radium, and they wanted Byers’s testimony for their case. Byers was too sick to travel, so the FTC came to his house to take a statement from him. When they arrived, the lawyers found that Byers had already lost his entire lower jaw, most of his upper jaw, holes were forming in his skull, and the rest of his body appeared to be disintegrating.
On March 31, 1932, Eben Byers passed away. The official cause of death was listed as “radiation poisoning”, but a more modern diagnosis would probably be more in the ballpark of “complications due to every form of cancer you could possibly imagine.” He had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin because his remains contained over fifty times the amount of radiation that’s typically present in the human body. And seeing as Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, it’s safe to say his body will not be exhumed anytime soon.
Making Really Shiny Things
Radioactive material wasn’t just used for footwear quality control and nuclear energy drinks. It also found its way into a ton of other consumer products. Not long after German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered uranium in 1789, a glassmaker in London started using the newly discovered element as an additive in their glassware, for no other reason than OOOOOH, PRETTY!
Adding uranium to glass gives it a yellowish or greenish hue depending on how much they put into it. Most of it ranged from trace amounts to about 2% uranium, but some samples have been found to go as far as 25%. But what people really liked about the glass was its very distinctive fluorescent glow, especially when under ultraviolet light. It took a little over a century for science to provide a pretty alarming explanation for that glow, and even that wasn’t enough to get them to stop making all sorts of uranium glassware: Vases, pitchers, cups, plates, decanters, necklace beads, you name it!
Manufacturing of uranium glass sharply declined in the early 1940s, not because everyone came to their senses, but because of the Manhattan Project. The U.S. government needed all of the radioactive material it could get its hands on in order to develop the atomic bomb, so they imposed tight restrictions on all commercial use of uranium. Since then, uranium glass has become a niche collector’s item.
Now, is it safe to collect uranium glass and keep it on display? Yes, it’s not gonna irradiate your entire house. It’s even safe to handle but maybe resist the urge to cuddle it every night when you go to sleep. But is it safe to eat and drink from it? Well, if you’re even asking that question, you should probably err on the side of caution and instead use any glassware that you know isn’t radio-freaking-active!
Also, did you know they irradiate gemstones to make them appear more brilliant? You know, in the jewelry you wear… in direct contact with your skin? It’s true! This isn’t something they used to do, it’s still a common practice. They purposely expose the gems to gamma rays or place them in a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator to enhance their appearance. Don’t be alarmed, though. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that the levels of radiation are within safety limits, and no gems are allowed to go onto the market until the radiation is allowed to cool off for a couple of months. Just don’t be too alarmed if your jewelry arouses a few ticks from a Geiger counter.
Another commercial source of radiation was self-illuminating paint, which was used on watches, gun sights, compasses, flight instruments, etc. to allow them to be seen in the dark. The deadly element at play here? That would be our old friend radium again. However, there wasn’t much danger for the consumers, but rather the roughly 4,000 female factory workers who had to apply the paint.
The paint was typically only applied to the fine details of the instruments like numbers, clock hands, and instrument points. In order to paint these fine details, the factory workers would always need to keep a fine point on their paint brushes. Management thought that dipping the brushes in water or using a rag would waste too much of the paint, so they instructed the workers to use their lips and/or tongues to point the brushes, all while insisting the paint was harmless. Yeah, this one’s not gonna have a happy ending, either.
Once these factory workers started falling ill and dying from the radium, the factory owners tried sending them to doctors that would pin the blame on other causes… like syphilis. That’s right, the owners were not above trying to slut-shame these women to avoid responsibility for these deaths. But once the inventor of the radium paint himself died of radium poisoning, the “Radium Girls,” as they came to be known, had all the proof they needed to take the owners to court.
Even though their case with the factory owners was settled, the Radium Girls’ story inspired a litany of labor laws and regulations aimed at giving workers greater protections on the job as well as more legal rights to sue their employers when those protective measures are not met. Having many of these women testify from their literal deathbeds certainly helped sway courts and lawmakers in their favor.
It’s Surprisingly Easy to Obtain Radioactive Material
You know how in Back to the Future, where Doc Brown double-crossed a group of Lybian terrorists to procure the plutonium he needed to power his time machine? Yeah, it turns out if he needed radioactive material that badly, he didn’t need to do that. He may have just needed a different teenage sidekick: David Hahn of Commerce Township, Michigan.
Growing up, David Hahn was a shy, quiet kid with divorced parents and not a lot of friends. He did play team sports and was involved in the Boy Scouts, but his main hobby was chemistry. He read everything he could on the subject and set up a makeshift laboratory in his bedroom. After several experiments with explosives nearly destroyed said bedroom, his dad forced him to move his lab down to the basement. Solid logic, really. If your kid is messing around with explosives, might as well move him to the one room that could take out the whole house from below.
One of David’s subsequent basement experiments, intended to determine the effect of hitting a petri dish full of red phosphorus with a screwdriver, literally blew up in his face. After this, his parents felt it prudent to relegate all further amateur scientific research to a potting shed in the backyard at his mother’s house. There, David could minimize property damage while also affording his work all the privacy he could ever want.
In 1991, when 14-year-old David was working to earn enough merit badges to make Eagle Scout, one that he enthusiastically sought to add to his sash was the Atomic Energy badge. To get this badge, he had to visit a radiology lab to learn about radioactive isotopes, draw a diagram of how fission works, and build a model reactor out of household items. David got really interested in nuclear power as a result, and decided he wasn’t content with his fake model reactor. He wanted to make an actual, working nuclear reactor. Specifically, a breeder reactor.
A breeder reactor works like this: A plutonium-239 core is surrounded by uranium-238, which absorbs the neutrons given off by the plutonium to become uranium-239, which eventually decays into plutonium-239, thereby replenishing the core. In essence, it’s meant to breed more fuel than it consumes. It’s a tricky process to get right even under fully financed, supervised, government-regulated conditions… but David was confident he could MacGuyver this shit in his shed funded by a part-time retail job.
So, David set out to scrounge up all of the radioactive material he could to conduct his experiments. He procured trace amounts of americium from commercially available smoke detectors, thorium from camping lanterns, tritium from gunsights, and he found every clock he could that used the same radium paint that poisoned all those factory workers we just told you about. He even somehow managed to get samples of uranium ore mail-ordered to him from Czechoslovakia.
How did he know where to find these materials? He just asked! He corresponded with the Department of Energy, American Nuclear Society, the Atomic Industrial Forum, etc. while pretending to be a physics professor wanting to educate his students on the subject. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission not only gave him a list of vendors and price guides for nuclear materials, but also provided advice on how to improve the efficiency of David’s neutron emitter. And no one he ever spoke to ever thought to make a phone call to confirm his credentials, and his parents had absolutely no knowledge of what he was up to.
David ended up pulling the plug on his project when he realized that his Geiger counter was picking up radiation from up to five houses away. He started dismantling the reactor and put some of the equipment, along with samples of the thorium and uranium in a toolbox, in the trunk of his Pontiac 6000.
On August 31, 1994, at around 2:30 a.m., police responded to a call about a young man trying to steal tires from a car and found David. They asked to search his car, and what happened next is best imagined from the cop’s point of view: You’ve got a teenager acting suspiciously in the middle of the night, so you go to search his vehicle. You open the trunk to find a bunch of lab equipment, assorted chemicals, clock parts, some fireworks, and a metal toolbox secured with a padlock and sealed with duct tape. And just as your brain formulates the mere thought of calling in the bomb squad, this kid says, “Careful with that… it’s radioactive.”
After he was taken into custody and federal authorities were brought in to investigate, David made sure to keep his mouth shut about the radioactive shed/laboratory on his mother’s property. His mother took this time to clean out the shed and throw everything she thought David had used out to the curb to be taken away with the regular garbage. Not because she intended to destroy evidence per se, but mostly out of fear that it would cause her property to be seized. David avoiding serious charges due to lack of evidence was just a side benefit.
But authorities did find the lab, and thankfully most of the radioactive materials did not leak outside the shed. The EPA dismantled the shed and disposed of the remains in 39 lead-lined barrels that are now buried in a nuclear waste facility in the Great Salt Lake Desert.
David’s life took some weird turns after this incident. He went into the Navy and, interestingly enough, got to serve on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, but thankfully not operating that part of the ship. After he got out, he struggled with mental illness and drug issues. In 2007, he was arrested on larceny charges for stealing smoke detectors in his apartment complex, so that shot up a few red flags. Unfortunately, David passed away in 2016 from an accidental overdose.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
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