Radium Cap

I'm guessing that if this actually worked to cure headaches it was because of the placebo effect. Although radium does, of course, produce heat, which might help a headache. But if there was enough radium in the cap to feel noticeably warm, it must have been incredibly dangerous.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - June 11, 1937

     Posted By: Alex - Sat Jan 21, 2017
     Category: Atomic Power and Other Nuclear Matters | Headgear | 1930s

I don't think radiation was really thought to be very dangerous at the time. I'm old enough to remember x-ray machines in shoe stores, so we could "see" how our feet looked when trying on different shoes. That was probably in the late 50's, maybe even the early 60's.
Posted by Fritz G on 01/21/17 at 08:23 AM
I too remember the x-ray machines in stores. Then in later years, as part of some training, I was shown an earthenware jug that was used to infuse water with a radioactive material prior to drinking. And then there was the uranium (?) mine one could pay a fee to sit inside for "health benefits". There were other items also but I cannot remember exactly what they were.
Posted by Steve E. on 01/21/17 at 11:39 AM
People do feel better when exposed to low levels of radiation (in addition to environmental radiation) for short periods of time. Why? No one knows. There were a few studies, but then some idiot drank so many bottles of radium elixir that his jaw dropped off, and radium became so demonized no reputable scientist would look into anything except its harmful effects. Even today, it's impossible to get a government grant to study the benefits of low doses of radiation.

Wearing a radium-infused cloth shouldn't hurt you -- afaik, no one ever died from exposure to radium. It's when it gets into your body (eating/drinking/inhaling it) that the fun begins.

Posted by Phideaux on 01/21/17 at 12:24 PM
Radium's decay path includes radon gas, which is itself radioactive and presents an inhalation hazard, in addition to the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma radiation (and probably the occasional neutron) emitted by the radium as it decays.

Pierre and Marie Curie, who discovered radium, both received radiation burns from carrying purified Radium next to their skin for extended periods, and of course they both died from complications brought on by radiation exposure-- though as they were pioneering the field, and were exposed to quite a lot of radiation, I'll admit they don't qualify for 'incidental' exposure.

Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, "because of their levels of radioactive contamination, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing."

With regard to "therapeutic" radiation, I posit that it isn't studied because there's no such thing, at least not outside of cancer treatment, where the goal is to kill the cancer cells with radiation. Wikipedia also says radiation therapy is used to treat Dupuytren's disease and Ledderhose disease, again (apparently) by killing certain cells.

Alpha, Beta, X-Ray, and Gamma radiation are all "ionizing," which means they're all capable of causing molecular damage-- the breaking of chemical bonds in molecules, for instance damaging DNA in cells. There's also Neutron radiation, an "indirect" ionizer, which causes further radioactive decay of atoms, resulting in one or more of the four ionizing types.

Alpha radiation is the emission of a Helium nucleus minus electrons. It interacts strongly with matter, but because of this it cannot travel far without interacting with (and being stopped by) something; it is unable to penetrate the outer, dead layers of skin. So long as it stays outside the body, it is harmless. An Alpha emitter, if ingested, can kill you, such as Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned with polonium-210 in his tea. Even though it has low penetrative ability, it is the most strongly ionizing of the known ionizing types, causing massive damage. Because its only external interaction is with dead skin, and its internal interactions result in cell damage (up to and including DNA damage, which can result in the formation of cancer), it is not possible for it to have a therapeutic effect.

Beta radiation is the emission of an electron or positron. Beta radiation can penetrate further, including through the epidermis into the dermis, which can cause burns and lesions. This is the primary cause of the aforementioned burns suffered by the Curies when handling radium. Electrons and positrons impart energy into the molecules in cells as they pass through, even when they don't directly strike another atom, sometimes disrupting chemical processes. This disruption can include ejecting electrons from atoms, causing the affected molecules to become radicals which react strongly and usually in undesirably ways with other, nearby molecules. As with Alpha radiation, external exposure is far less dangerous than internal exposure. Because the likely result of interaction with living cells is some type of damage to the cell, there is no therapeutic effect.

X-Rays and Gamma rays are both high-energy photons, capable of penetrating dense matter to a substantial distance. Unlike Beta radiation, they must strike an electron or atomic nucleus directly to have an effect, but their higher energy causes correspondingly larger effects to occur: they can cause electrons to be ejected from atoms, for electron/positron pairs to be created, and for additional electrons to be created, often while allowing a new, slightly less energetic photon to be emitted and potentially cause additional interactions as it continues through the body.

They have greater energy than Beta radiation, along with no mass, which allows them to penetrate much further than Beta radiation, such that several inches or feet of lead are necessary to provide sufficient shielding (depending on the strength of the emissions).

With photons, there is no "ingestion" of the photons themselves, though ingesting a X-Ray or Gamma emitter would be worse than keeping it outside one's body-- if it's inside the body, you can't get away from it, and every photon emitted will pass through some part of the body, rather than half or more of the photons emitting away from the body while external. Again, because the likely result of an interaction inside a cell is damage, and to the best of my knowledge nobody has gained super-powers as a result of Gamma exposure, there is no therapeutic effect.
Posted by Justin S. on 01/22/17 at 03:53 AM
Neutron radiation is the emission of the neutron sub-atomic particle. It is an "indirect" ionizer, in that it does not directly affect electrons in atoms. Instead, it interacts with the nucleus of atoms, which can cause them to emit Gamma rays and/or decay into other elements and releasing Alpha, Beta, Gamma, or Neutron radiation in the process. Indeed, it is neutron absorption (capture) that makes nuclear fission possible. Because it can cause otherwise stable atoms to become unstable and decay, resulting in the previously listed types of radiation, there is no therapeutic effect.

These are all naturally occurring sources of ionizing radiation. Other, man-made sources exist, like single-proton radiation and ions of atoms like carbon, neon, and boron.

As you mentioned, we are naturally exposed to many sources of ionizing radiation in the environment. In most cases, these sources are unavoidable. For example, a 70 kg person has enough naturally occurring Potassium-40 in their body to cause around 4,900 decay events per second, with around 525 of those events producing Gamma rays. Because every decay event results in ionizing radiation, each event potentially causes cell damage. And that's just for Potassium-40.

Fortunately, we have many trillions of cells in our bodies, and nature (or God) has worked out methods for moderating and repairing cell damage, such that it almost always requires considerably more than normal environmental exposure to cause catastrophic damage to the body as a whole-- but this is all probability based, and I'm sure there's been some unlikely soul who developed terminal cancer because of one or more extremely unlucky, naturally occurring, ionizing events.

Finally, as for the studies, I'm suspicious of them, both for the above reasons, that ionizing radiation can have no therapeutic effect, and because of the earliest possible date of publication: 1932, the year of the Radithor poisoning death you referred to. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people played fast and loose with the scientific process, publishing results that could not be replicated or that, because of the more lax laws and primitive communications infrastructure, were unlikely to be noticed or challenged and thus few would bother to attempt to replicate them.

Feel free to link the studies if you'd like, but I believe we have not revisited therapeutic radiation because, in learning how dangerous/damaging ionizing radiation is, we've determined that it isn't possible to have a safe interaction with any part of the body than can also produce a positive physiologic response.
Posted by Justin S. on 01/22/17 at 03:56 AM
Snake venom is deadly. It's used in surgery to prevent clotting.

Hemlock is deadly. It's used as a sedative and for its antispasmodic properties.

Electricity can be deadly. After the fad of it as a cure-all, scientists dismissed all uses for it as quack medicine. Today, TENS units relieve pain.

It's quite possible that incidental use of low-level radiation is beneficial. We don't know, and we won't know as long as scientists have the knee-jerk reaction that it shouldn't even be studied because they 'know' it's deadly, and they know everything worth knowing.
Posted by Phideaux on 01/23/17 at 12:46 AM
Yeah, Phideaux. And they also hide from you that vaccines cause autism. And the petrol industry is keeping the car that runs on water from being manufactured. *rolls eyes*
Posted by Richard Bos on 01/23/17 at 09:42 AM
The Radium Girls might have had something to say about long term exposure to "minor" levels of radiation. I'm sure that any effects they suffered from painting numbers that glow in the dark on watch dials are purely coincidental. The only real benefit to result was the government taking an interest in workplace safety. Of course, in today's alternate facts world, none of that history happened, and we are going to get rid of all those costly safety regulations, starting right here in the good old U.S.A.
Posted by Fritz G on 01/23/17 at 10:21 AM
Let me rephrase and summarize my previous post for you, Phideaux: increasing a person's risk of cancer to research the incredibly-improbable-verging-on-the-impossible possibility that radiation will make them feel a little better is bad. No medical doctor who values his/her license would touch the subject, and rightly so.
Posted by Justin S. on 01/23/17 at 11:16 AM
@Phideaux - That's how study groups determine what is bad for you - Give you megadoses that you would not ordinarily take. Of course, forget the fact that you can die from too much water intake.

I hate how the comments here at WU have become so snarky. It used to be fun to read the sometimes twisted comments. Political forum anyone?
Posted by GFinKS on 01/23/17 at 01:12 PM
@Fritz G -- Consider chest x-rays -- perfectly safe for you, but the technician has to wear a lead apron or stand behind a screen because repeated exposure is dangerous.

@Justin S. -- No qualified researcher _ever_ starts with humans. That's one of the most fundamental basics of research. Any scientist should know that. Even I know that, and my degree is in physics and would never be involved in living-tissue experiments.
Posted by Phideaux on 01/23/17 at 09:23 PM
Phideaux, it doesn't matter whether you start or end with humans: we already know the negative effects of radiation on biologic tissue, including humans, and that is enough to prevent sane medical professionals--of their own free will-- from engaging in the kind of research you seem to regret no longer occurs.

Besides which, how are you going to get an animal to tell you it feels better? They can't just tell you, "yeah, man, it hurt like getting your tail caught in a door, but that radium cap made it feel so much better."

If you're starting with an animal in a neutral state, you're unlikely to get a meaningful result by looking at the animal's behavior or vital statistics-- unless the improvement to well-being is so pronounced it compares with narcotics-- which means starting in some kind of discomfort state.

Run that by some animal rights groups and see what they have to say, and maybe past a couple lawyers-- plenty of places have laws about intentionally inflicting pain on animals, even for research purposes.

While you're at it, do a little research-- a quick google search will do-- into "pain in animals" and how difficult it is to measure pain in animals in the first place.
Posted by Justin S. on 01/24/17 at 12:48 AM
Chest x-rays are low risk, but definitely not perfectly safe. When x-rays pass through the body, they cause electrons to be ejected from atoms, leaving behind positive ions. These positive ions are what can cause damage to your DNA. Your DNA can also be damaged directly by exposure to the radiation.

Posted by Fritz G on 01/24/17 at 07:48 AM
@Fritz G -- A chest x-ray is as safe as living about six days (background radiation averages 0.017mSv per day; a common chest x-ray is 0.1mSv). A one-hour airplane flight, eating bananas every day for a year, and many other things expose a person to about the same amount. DNA usually self-repairs. If it didn't, life would never have developed.

@Justin S -- My apologies. I didn't realize my comments would be read by someone who hasn't the slightest idea how scientific/medical research is done. Oh, and I'd advise you to never take Tylenol, it's a deadly poison. And never touch an electrical device, electricity kills. And you might as well stop breathing, oxygen is a CNS toxin.

Posted by Phideaux on 01/24/17 at 01:59 PM
Phideaux, you made a statement lamenting the lack of research for an extremely improbable concept, which I refuted-- with supporting facts-- and your response is to suggest testing on non-humans. I assume you refer to animals, otherwise... do you mean to ask a cell culture in a petri dish how it feels?

I suggested you link to the old studies you referred to, but you have not.

Instead, you've responded with a list of things that are, or can be, lethal and how they are not lethal or are beneficial. That is not the same thing as supporting the idea that "incidental use of low-level radiation is beneficial." You claim to have a degree in physics and issue insults about my research knowledge, yet this is your response?

Finally, after utterly failing to address any of my points, you resort to that immature, condescending insult.

You've said nothing worth my time, I've seen no evidence that will change, so I am through.
Posted by Justin S. on 01/24/17 at 04:02 PM
I think I have the hang of Phideaux's argument. Being hit by speeding trains is lethal, but cars weigh dramatically less, therefore being hit by speeding cars should be totally safe. But the government won't fund the research.

As with anti-vaxxers and creation scientists, a presentation of facts is not going to deter a thinker of that ilk.
Posted by Keith Elliott on 02/07/17 at 02:42 PM
@Keith Elliott -- The range I have in mind is more akin to: getting a tree limb shoved down your throat is harmful, but chewing on a piece of bark can relieve headaches. Or: Sunlight harmfully causes skin cancer, but sunlight beneficially causes the production of Vitamin D. Many, many things exhibit such different effects depending on their concentration.

Historically, there's anecdotal evidence of people feeling better when visiting places later found to have higher than normal background radiation (hot springs, holy sites, etc.), and it stands to reason that ancient people were drawn to these sites by positive effects, especially when they were in otherwise inhospitable areas.

The radium-as-panacea craze was jumpstarted by people's experiences, and not all of the patent medicines' reported effects can be reliably attributed to the placebo effect or the alcohol/opium they contained.

The government has established maximum levels of radiation considered safe. There is a dearth of research on the effects when doses are an infinitesimal percentage of these levels.

Conspiracy? No. Just the effect of having insular scientists sitting on the panels which decide approvals and funding.
Posted by Phideaux on 02/07/17 at 04:30 PM
There is utterly no logical reason to say that a little bit of something bad can be good just because *sometimes* that can be true. My point proved the fallacy of that claim. The fact that it may sometimes be true is purely coincidence, and there is no causative relationship. People choosing to make that error are to blame for nearly all of the phony science around today.

By the way, even your latest example is flawed-on one hand is the kinetic energy and potential damage of a tree, on the other is a claimed benefit for an ingredient of that tree. Those are utterly different things. Since you are doing it to prove your claim that a lot of something may be bad while a little bit of that *same* thing is good, I am not sure why you brought that up, since it's not related to your point.

There is a dearth of this research because there is a dearth of research applications for impossible things. It was explained very clearly why there is no potential for non-damaging effects of ionizing radiation. It was also pointed out that there was indeed a LOT of science done on the matter long ago, and it was proven quite conclusively that the effects you describe are not possible. Ionizing radiation is bad for you, period. At any level. Period.

If you are choosing to overlook those simple facts, you're choosing to look like a foolish person in public. Hey, you do you; I have no idea if you are foolish or not; I can only go by your choice of what you said here. But blaming scientists for it? Shame on you. You and you alone are to blame for your decision to ignore facts and to close your mind to clear and logical descriptions of reality. There is no scientific conspiracy holding back your pet idea, and if your mind were open, you'd be excited at the idea of looking into the matter further instead of telling intelligent people that their time explaining things to you was wasted.

Posted by Keith Elliott on 02/07/17 at 06:25 PM
@Keith Elliot -- There is a plethora of anecdotal evidence that infrequent, small doses of radiation has a positive effect. To my mind, pure science investigates anecdotal claims to determine the facts. That investigation stopped nearly a century ago.

"Ionizing radiation is bad for you" is inane. The point at which ionizing radiation becomes statistically harmful is well documented. If it was harmful at all levels, Earth would be sterile.

"It was explained very clearly why there is no potential for non-damaging effects of ionizing radiation." Not true -- the damaging effects were rattled off, but there is no evidence, either in this thread, or anywhere in the world, there aren't potential positive effects.

Need money to study microbe activity in the presence of high gravity? Government money is available. Need money to study microbe activity in the presence of electrical fields? Government money is available. Need money to study microbe activity in the presence of a constant 0.02 mSv source (1/5 what a person receives during a chest x-ray)? No money, and they send a letter to your university saying your proposed research is dangerous. (Not me, a close friend.)

I am most definitely not anti-scientist. I am most definitely against those who make sweeping scientific claims as if they're the last word. (In science, there is no last word!)

Posted by Phideaux on 02/07/17 at 09:21 PM
Well, if making false assertions repeatedly makes a point, you have me beat up and down the block. Your claim that Earth would be sterile is grossly wrong-it was even explained previously that we deal with the damage through several means, mostly relying on having trillions of cells, not to mention dying of cancer. As Justin S. said, there are no non-negative effects of ionizing radiation exposure (at least not for the individual exposed...it is possible that life on Earth has evolved a certain degree of susceptibility to damage from it, as a means of providing the necessary mutations to cope with changing environments.) I'm sorry, but you're relying on so much false logic that it doesn't make any difference to me that your arguments sound reasonable to you.

"Sounding reasonable to Phideaux" is not a metric of validity.

Posted by Keith Elliott on 02/07/17 at 09:47 PM
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