Death And Decay.

Radiation is an insidious thing. Take a massive dose and it’s very immediately lethal, and dangerous, and should be avoided. Take a series of smaller doses, however, and the consequences are less obvious. You might come out of it unscathed. Your cells might be able to repair the damage done by radiation particles slicing off bits of your genetic structure. Even if you get hit by an electron in just the wrong place the cancer this will cause won’t become apparent for a decade or two. This meant that it was quite a while before anyone twigged that radiation was actually dangerous, and this led to people doing some really, really stupid things with radioactive substances.

For example, back before anyone knew what radiation even was – much less that it could kill you – uranium was mixed with glass in small quantities to make pretty pretty fluorescent statues and crockery. This was relatively harmless (although I wouldn’t want to eat off of a uranium plate) and the practice died out after the atomic bomb was developed and governments realised it’d probably be a good idea to keep an eye on what people were doing with uranium. Marie Curie was probably the first known casualty of radiation; this is (morbidly) to be expected since she did much of the pioneering work with the stuff and had no idea what it could do, carrying out much of her research in a glorified shed with no safety measures whatsoever. She was exposed to so much radiation that her papers from that period (and, possibly apocryphally, her cookbook) are considered unsafe to handle directly and are kept in lead-lined containers.

Marie Curie didn’t die until 1934, thirty years after she carried out the bulk of her radiation research, and the anplastic anaemia that killed her wasn’t linked to radiation in any way at the time. In this large time gap between radiation being discovered and the first radiation-induced fatalities being noticed a curious belief arose that radiation was actually good for you, having inherently rejuvenating and restorative properties. This led to products like radium pills, which were advertised as causing “the “pep” energy, endurance and nerve force of the average man past 40 [to] often be increased by 100 per cent by getting into his system the marvelous restorative radium power of Arium”. You could buy radium-laced chocolates and a radioactive health drink to consume as part of an alternative, healthier lifestyle. There was also a curious obsession with sticking radioactive materials onto/up your private parts; witness the radi-endocrinator, a small sheaf of radium-soaked paper that you were supposed to strap to your scrotum overnight to whip your sperm into a state of frenzied liveliness, or the Vita radium suppository for rectal use by men to rev up their sex drive (women not actually being recognized to possess any kind of sex drive at this point in history).

This stuff all had exactly the sort of effect you’d expect; the guy who invented the radi-endocrinator died of bladder cancer (he also made and sold radium health drink), while those women unlucky enough to apply radioactive face cream showed a greater tendency to have their facial bone structure disintegrate than those who didn’t. This tendency wasn’t noticed until years – decades – after the fact, though. The nasty thing about small doses of radiation is that they are cumulative. For example, when you have an X-ray the operator will go and stand behind a protective screen. This isn’t because the X-ray dose you are about to receive is in any way hazardous on its own; rather, it’s because taking several of those doses every day, five days a week would add up to dangerous levels of exposure over time. People who took just one radium pill would be highly unlikely to suffer any adverse effects; only those who took multiple pills every day for a year would show up in the statistics as a radiation-induced death. Add in the large time lag between the period of exposure and these people actually carking it and it makes for a very long period where radiation was seen by the public as nothing more mysterious curio; it was only after the atomic bomb and atomic power was developed that it became embedded in people’s psyches as something that could be potentially lethal and most radioactive products were regulated and/or withdrawn from use.

Nowadays, therefore, we point and laugh at all those silly people who decided it would be a good idea to irradiate their testicles or whatever. However, those people were not significantly dumber than you, and human nature doesn’t change; the same kind of person who sold radium suppositories and health drinks in the 1920s is selling homeopathic remedies today. The only reason radium products aren’t available to buy today is because of the vast amount of scientific evidence demonstrating that they are actually physically harmful to their users and those around them. As we’ve seen, it can take a very long time to gather the quantity of statistical information required to prove that. In the interim, you may wish to keep the radi-endocrinator in mind when you next see an advert for platinum face cream

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4 thoughts on “Death And Decay.

  1. innokenti says:

    Yay for Warcraft 2 illustration!

    Although we may not have shed any ignorance we do, I think, have a little more collective sensibility about such things. Nevertheless, do you think there is any danger of something similar happening in this day and age?

    • hentzau says:

      We don’t. We really, really don’t. I get a horrible twitch in my right eye every time I walk past the alternative medicine clinic on the way to the train station. I flung the local newsletter across the room when I noticed they’d given an entire page over to an “accredited homeopathist”. The state of science education in this country is appalling; because of the emphasis on learning by rote over encouraging deductive reasoning skills, we’ve fostered a kind of cargo cult view of science where anything that *looks* vaguely scientific is automatically accepted as such. Read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science for a really in-depth look at how much abuse this allows on the medicine side of things.

      Still, I doubt anything quite this stupid would happen these days, if only because snake oil salesmen have learned it’s better to sell a product that does absolutely nothing rather than something that might potentially get them sued.

      EDIT: I should mention that the vast majority of science teachers I’ve met have been dedicated individuals who were doing their best with a shitty, shitty syllabus. There may be a bit of confirmation bias at work there (only a good teacher would ask the Outreach team to come and give them a talk) but on the whole it isn’t their fault.

      • innokenti says:

        Yeah, I’ve done Bad Science and am aware of that. And that’s all pretty bad stuff, but I don’t think there is anything quite on the level of consuming radioactive materials (although e.g. the stuff about Aids in Africa and the ‘alternative’ medicine involvement there is perhaps a slightly different issues).

      • innokenti says:

        Thinking about it further, I think it’s not really just Science education, but the broader tenets that we try to (or actually, maybe not so much) to teach people. I think a lot of my critical reaction and faculties are more born out of what I learnt from History and Literature than Science. Rather, Science taught me some specifics and facts and methods, but History and Philosophy taught me a critical, evidence-based approach.

        It’s one of the aspects which annoys me in Bad Science because Ben does go out of his way to keep on telling us about awful Arts students who are rubbish at this. I imagine that they might be, proportionally, but the same critical and evidence-based values are no less a part of historical research or philosophical discussion – the broader community may place less overt value on them than the scientific one… but still.

        So yeah, it’s a broader approach as well that’s partially failing where there is still perhaps more emphasis on accepting truths handed down rather than learning to understand those things and react critically to them.

        Or something.

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