Radiation in the modern world is something that sounds scary and dangerous – although it’s often misrepresented. Nonetheless, it can cause serious health issues in high doses.
This was something that wasn’t really known about a century ago. Newly discovered, people didn’t know much about what radiation could do to the body.
As a result, we ended up with things like radioactive cosmetics, toys, and even water. Today, it’s quite easy to look back in shock at some of those things. Back then, it probably seemed quite normal.
So here are some of the craziest everyday things that we once laced with radiation. In case you somehow have the means to, don’t try these at home.
In the early 20th century, people began adding things like radium to water in order to give the drink supposed health benefits.
One of these was the drink Radithor, a medicine in which radium was mixed with water. It was purported to provide energy to the drinker, like a modern energy drink, and even cure impotence.
Of course, it had the somewhat unknown side-effect of delivering radium directly into human bones. These, over time, could lead to holes in the skull and other rather ghastly ailments.
A steel tycoon called Eben Byers was a particular fan of Radithor, recommending it to his friends. He later became so ill that his mouth and jaw were surgically removed, leading to a 1932 headline in The Wall Street Journal: “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.”
The company Gilbert produced a weird array of radioactive toys in the 20th century. One of these was the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which contained four types of uranium ore that could be studied. It also had a Geiger counter and an electroscope.
The high price of $50 for the product meant that it was only on shelves from 1950 to 1951, allowing kids to see radioactive processes taking place. And if you were (un)lucky enough to get one, you could also take part in a $10,000 hunt to find uranium ore.
“That’s what the United States Government will pay to anyone who discovers substantial deposits of Uranium Ore!” the box excitingly proclaimed.
“Warning: Hunting for uranium may result in your premature death,” it forgets to add.
Produced in Germany during the Second World War, Doramad Radioactive Toothpaste contained small amounts of thorium, claimed to help “defences of teeth and gums”.
The back of the tube said the toothpaste loaded cells “with new life energy”, while “bacteria are hindered in their destroying effect.” It also supposedly “gently polishes the dental enamel so it turns white and shiny.”
Although its radioactivity levels were low, revealed by gamma spectroscopy analysis, it probably wasn’t a brilliant idea to brush your teeth with thorium.
In the 1930s, if you so desired you could eat your dinner off radioactive crockery called Fiestaware, which had a radioactive glaze.
Yes, these red items contained notable traces of uranium oxide in them, for reasons that aren’t all that clear. Although there’s no evidence that people who made or ate from these dishes suffered ill effects, it probably wasn’t super safe.
“The uranium emits alpha particles and neutrons,” notes ThoughtCo. “Although the alpha particles don’t have much penetrating power, the uranium oxide could leach from the dinnerware, particularly if a dish was cracked (which also would release toxic lead) or the food was highly acidic (like spaghetti sauce).”
The line of red crockery was discontinued in 1944, when the US government seized uranium for use in the development of the atomic bomb.
In late 2011, following the Fukushima disaster, scientists found a radiation hotspot in a house that suggested the disaster was spreading further than thought.
They were surprised to find, however, that the house wasn’t being bathed in Fukushima radiation. It actually had its own source – radioactive paint that had been stored under the house, unbeknownst to the elderly lady who owned the house.
Radioactive paint became popular in the 1920s and 1930s due to its luminous properties. It was used in everything from watches to compasses, enabling them to glow in the dark for several years.
Some female factory workers who were using this paint to decorate objects became known as the Radium Girls. Many suffered severe health effects or even died as a result.
If an irradiated golf ball sounds odd, well, it is. There have been a number over the years, including one by Oak Ridge Atom Industries from 1964 to 1968, infused with Cobalt-60.
The purpose of this was supposedly for “longer drives” and “longer lives”. There are some suggestions this also enabled you to find the ball with a Geiger counter if you lost it, although it’s not clear if that’s true.
Amazingly, as late as 1992, radiation was being applied to golf balls by the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) in order to increase the distance of your drive. Was there any scientific basis behind this? Well, not as such.
“We make no claims it will work,” a spokesperson for AECL told the LA Times. “That would take study, and we don’t intend to study it.”
In the 1930s, a product called Tho-Radia hit the market in France, using thorium and radium to remove wrinkles, firm up facial tissue, and more.
It was developed in part with a physician called Dr Alfred Curie, who had no relation to Marie and Pierre Curie but used the famous name for promotional purposes.
Radium and thorium were removed from the product in 1937, after French authorities placed new restrictions on them. But not before people smeared radioactive material on their faces.
Yes, even this beloved delicacy wasn’t entirely safe, as a German company called Burk & Braun sold a radioactive chocolate bar from 1931 to 1936.
Called Radium Schokolade, it was touted as having “rejuvenation power” thanks to its radium water, helping you enjoy travel and sports regularly. Probably.
In an advert for the product, the company said that the radium “passes without delay into the bloodstream and thus into all organs, central nervous system, into the glands, into the nerves down to the last branches and cells.”
That might be true, yes – but probably not with the positive effects they intended. Just like the rest of the products on this list.