5 Wonder Materials That Ended Up Being Ridiculously Hazardous
Cheap TVs, diet plans, messages on Instagram from someone who claims to be famous supermodel Emily Ratajkowski — something seeming “too good to be true” can apply to just about anything. Although everyone is familiar with the idea, even those of us with the highest levels of intelligence can’t help falling for it once in a while. Nothing proves that more straightforwardly and tragically than the amount of scientific discoveries that have been made and applauded, only to turn out to be something we might have been better off not knowing about.
Especially when some brand spankin’ new technique or material appears to solve a whole litany of problems, it can lead to that new thing being crammed into every single corner of modern life before adequate testing has been done to make sure, you know, that it’s not a cancer-causing nightmare. People want to read their watch in the dark, and then a couple years later, everybody who worked near the room in the factory that produced the watch is rocking goiters.
Here are five wonder materials that were massively useful in daily life until we found out they make that same life a whole lot shorter…
Lead is a dream metal for a huge variety of uses, since it’s easily malleable and naturally resistant to corrosion. Which is probably why it was a popular choice as something to run a whole city’s water supply through — even the Romans thought so.
As time went on, lead kept presenting itself as a miracle additive for all sorts of day-to-day problems. Tossing it into paint made it water- and crack-resistant, and mixing it into gasoline helped with low-quality fuel to avoid “knocking,” or premature detonation of small amounts of gasoline within the engine. Unfortunately, it took a little too long to find out that this all came together to fill a child’s day with breathing lead-infused air from gas, perhaps having a quick gnaw on a lead-painted toy and washing it all down with lead-poisoned water. Scientists estimate the prevalence of lead literally lowered the IQ of half of the U.S. population.
The radioactive element radium was both one of the greatest achievements in Marie Curie’s life, as well as the cause of her early death. Somehow, society managed to pick up on all the cool parts of radium without thinking too much about how everybody who studied it got extremely sick. You’d think the fact that something glows in the dark would give people an idea that you shouldn’t eat it, but these were simpler, stupider times.
Some applications of radium came from its actual, useful properties, especially the aforementioned luminescence. It was a great solution for things like watch faces and dashboards, allowing users to read them even in the dark. But this paint job also resulted in the famous tragic tale of the Radium Girls, women who worked applying the radium paint in question, and often licking the tips of their radioactive brushes for more precise strokes. They were even called “ghost girls” because they would literally glow after leaving work, covered in radium dust. Again, people thought this was fine. They eventually all died pretty horrific, toothless deaths, and radium-dialed watches are still something watch collectors have to keep in mind.
As bad as that was, though, it wasn’t the stupidest application of radium at the time: Radium also made its way into all sorts of cosmetics and hygiene products like toothpaste. But the crown jewel of absolute idiocy has to go to the energy drink Radithor, which was just radium dissolved in water that you could throw back for a quick pick-me-up. Its most famous fan was a man named Eben Byers, who would drink multiple bottles a day. No word on his energy levels, but I doubt it was worth losing his jaw and having bits of his skull disintegrate, ending up with him buried in a lead-lined coffin because his bones had such a high degree of radiation.
If you’ve ever seen a late-night law-firm commercial uttering those famous words, “If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma,” you’ve seen the results of widespread asbestos use. Asbestos was used for many things, most commonly insulation, until we realized that it was a deadly carcinogen. Most notable is asbestos’ role in causing mesothelioma, a lung cancer with a pretty unforgiving prognosis of death within less than a year from diagnosis.
If you thought packing schoolhouse walls with the stuff was a bad idea, just know that it was still a better idea than using it as fake decorative snow. Yes, the stuff that’s basically powdered lung cancer was at one point considered a great thing to roll around in and spray all over the fucking place come Christmas time. Along those lines, remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the cast is blanketed in snow in a field of poppies? They’re getting sprinkled with pure, uncut asbestos.
Ah, the beautiful joy of color! The way bursts of reds, greens, yellows and blues can raise the spirits of the human soul. Whether it’s a bit of pop-colored paint in a wall mural, the tones of a classic work of art, or the tones of a statement fashion piece, it makes our whole world brighter. One shade of green, though, might make our time in that world a whole lot shorter.
For a long time, the problem with a lot of green paints and colors was that they weren’t lightfast, meaning they’d fade over time to a decidedly icky brown. Enter a man named Carl William Scheele in the year 1775, who invented a lightfast, bright green color he named after himself: Scheele’s Green. His special ingredient? Arsenic. Yes, that arsenic, of the “and Old Lace” variety. Even though people did know arsenic was toxic if ingested, they, in their ancient wisdom, figured making wallpaper, paint and all sorts of clothes using the color was fine. It wasn’t. The wallpaper, specifically, was often used in children’s bedrooms, where moisture would release the arsenic, killing many little kids in the process.
The last entry is recent enough that it probably doesn’t demand as much coverage for the modern mind: freon, one of the most common sources of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which decimated the ozone layer. A man named Thomas Midgley invented freon when he was looking for a nonflammable, nontoxic refrigerant. Freon fit the bill, as it wasn’t technically flammable or toxic, though it would ironically end up causing the whole world to become hotter and threaten the health of the entire population. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 thankfully curbed the use of CFCs, and the ozone layer has been healing ever since. Midgley’s invention, however, still did a world of hurt.
This wasn’t Midgley’s first invention, either. Turns out he was also the guy who came up with putting lead in gasoline. Are we sure he wasn’t just a vindictive time traveler?