Radium, Tobacco, Trans Fats, & Other Things That Won’t Hurt You
As you probably know, my girlfriend and I have spent the last 11 months traveling the US. Over the course of about 40,000 miles, we’ve listened to a lot of podcasts. Recently, I listened to an episode of Stuff You Missed In History Class (I know, I know…geeky) called The Radium Girls. That podcast got the gears clicking in my brain; this post is the result of those gears grinding.
So today, I want to talk about some foods and other chemicals that humans have put into their bodies over the last couple of centuries. Not just any foods though. I want to talk about the foods and chemicals that we were promised were either benign or downright good for us! Trust me, there’s a reason that I bring this up and I’ll get to it at the end of the post.
Since I already mentioned the podcast that got made me think of this, let’s start there. After Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactivity and the element radium, salesmen jumped on the Radioactive Bandwagon and started hawking all kinds of radioactive products, from glow-in-the-dark clocks to health tonics to radioactive crocks.
As Tales From The Nuclear Age tells it:
Soon products with names like Tho-Radia, Undark, and Radithor began to move off the shelves. Radiation is good for you, helps your complexion, gives you a healthy glow. Use Uranium blankets for arthritis, wear a radiation pendant for Rheumatism, take Thorium laced medicine to aid digestion.
The Radiendocrinator was a 3 inch gold case containing 250 microcuries of Radium (a serious quantity). One took it to bed and placed it over the endocrine glands! Alternatively, the maker advised men to “Wear the adaptor like an athletic supporter…putting the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed…”
The Revigator, a crock pot lined with radioactive ore, produced radioactive water overnight.
So let’s talk about Radithor:
It consisted of triple distilled water containing at a minimum 1 microcurie (37 kBq) each of the radium 226 and 228 isotopes.
It was advertised as “A Cure for the Living Dead” as well as “Perpetual Sunshine”.
And let’s not forget the disclaimer for Radithor: “Radithor is harmless in every respect.” How about that? It’s not only good for you; there’s also no downside!
Of course, that proved false when people like Eben Byers started having issues with it. For instance, Mr. Byers’ teeth fell out and his jaw basically disintegrated before he died an extremely painful death from radiation-induced cancers (yes, multiple cancers) at age 51.
There were also the girls featured in Stuff You Missed In History’s “Radium Girls” episode. They were tasked with painting a radium-laced paint onto watch faces. Having been told that the radium was harmless, they would use their lips and tongues to point their brushes. Some painted their teeth to surprise their significant others. Of course, the owners and scientists in the company avoided exposure to the substance, knowing (or at least suspecting) the dangers.
You see, the problem here is that radium is absorbed into the bone marrow where it sits awaiting breakdown over its 1,601 year half-life. In that time, it continues to bombard your body with radiation. Of course, none of this prevented the sellers of radioactive products from denying they had anything to do with these peoples’ health issues. William Bailey, the creator of Radithor, even continued selling other radium-laced products after the FDA made him stop selling Radithor.
Moving along, let’s look at another thing that people once thought wasn’t so bad for your health: tobacco. While it’s not a food, I think it fits the theme here. Being from Louisville, KY, I remember the hub-bub about the tobacco lawsuits in the 90s when I was in middle school and high school. (The movie The Insider is about Brown & Williamson, which was headquartered in Louisville.)
Seeing celebrities hawking products and the extensive use of sex is no big surprise. But there was a time when even doctors were used in advertisements like the one to the right. (For more vintage cigarette advertisements, see Well Medicated.)
Today, we know better. We know the harmful effects of smoking on the body. But until the 1990s, tobacco companies were able to successfully fend off lawsuits with a “deny that smoking directly causes lung cancer” defense (along with a “deplete the plaintiff’s funds” strategy).
In the 1980s and 90s, we finally started getting a look at over 35 million pages of documents from 9 tobacco industry firms, from which:
We learnt that industry scientists knew or strongly suspected as early as the 1950s that tobacco smoke caused disease. More important, we learnt from the documents how the industry tried to destroy the evidence of these findings: by shipping incriminating documents to company offices overseas, where they might not be found by US plaintiffs and courts (see below, item 7), and by closing down company laboratories that did this kind of research and firing the scientists. Tobacco research by outside scientists supported by the industry more often than not tended to excuse tobacco as a direct cause of ill-health. We also learned how the tobacco companies, through their law firms and the industry’s propaganda arm, the Tobacco Institute, hired scientific consultants and journalists (who often did not reveal their links to the industry) to write articles and to testify before government committees, denying that cigarette smoking was a cause of disease in smokers, or that tobacco smoke harmed non-smokers exposed to the fumes.
I’m more willing to cut the radium people some slack. At the time, science didn’t know much about radiation. However, the tobacco case tells us one really key thing: plenty of companies are more than willing to hide evidence that will hurt their bottom line, even if doing so harms the community they serve.
And back to food. Let’s talk about trans fats. It’s hard to believe in this day and age, with what we know about them, but at one point, trans fats were actually marketed as a healthy alternative to those “dangerous” saturated fats.
In fact, not only were trans fats supposedly healthier than natural saturated fats, but they were claimed to make food taste better too! Of course, those of us that love the delicious, healthy flavor of fats like pastured pork lard, butter, and coconut oil might dispute that, but this was the early 1900s.
Even after the release of studies in the early 1990s showing that trans fats were harmful, it took until 2002 for the US government to say “Yeaaaaah, so there’s really no safe level of trans fat consumption.” And, of course, in an excellent twist of marketing, companies just reformulated their foods to contain little enough trans fats to be labeled as “zero grams of trans fat per serving.” That doesn’t actually mean there’s none. It just means there’s less than half a gram per serving, an example of how labeling laws don’t always achieve their goals.
We’re still dealing with the fallout of this anti-lard, anti-butter crusade by Proctor & Gamble with their “healthier, more digestible, cleaner, more economical, more enlightened and more modern than lard” Crisco. Even today, health officials recommend reducing saturated fat intake and I regularly hear comments about how something is made with lard or butter and “tastes so good, but is a heart attack waiting to happen.” Propaganda can’t be easily fixed even with the truth that saturated fat from healthy sources like pastured animals, the tropical oils, and butter is not only not bad for you, but is downright good for you!
In P&G’s defense, much like the makers of radium products and cigarettes, at first they didn’t know the health effects of trans fats. But when the data started rolling in, the industry made every effort to fight back and bury it. There’s plenty more of that story to be found on The Weston A Price Foundation’s The Oiling Of America.
All of which brings me to an issue of current interest: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). It’s funny because I actually wasn’t thinking about GMOs when I started formulating this post, but it all kind of came together pointing me here.
Once again, we have a product with numerous studies showing it’s harmful:
- Rats fed GMO corn show early death and organ failure
- Bt toxin found in the blood of unborn babies
- GMOs cause gut flora alterations
- GMOs are a potential contributor to bee colony deaths in recent years
Meanwhile, the biotech industry spin machine is in full force, complete with FDA backing, keeping these products in the market, denouncing any study that doesn’t prove GMOs as the superior crop they’re claimed to be, and threatening lawsuits against any scientist that dare oppose the mighty industry. Unlike tobacco and trans fats though, this massive screw-up can’t just be taken off the market. Plants, once planted, become part of the environment and try to expand their range through competition with other plants.
There’s one massive difference here too. Consumers were more than willing to jump on the radium-laced products and the cigarettes. They excitedly and willfully replaced traditional fats with this new “miracle, good-for-you fat”. But with GMOs, we’ve grown a bit wary of someone with something to gain telling us about their new miracle. Instead GMOs are forced into the marketplace by force of government, PR spin, and obfuscation of where GMOs are found.
That’s Not All, Folks
Of course, we can’t say “Well, see, they marketed radium as healthy and it wasn’t and they market GMOs as healthy, so they aren’t.” It doesn’t work that way. But when you look at everything as a whole and you consider that all of the pro-GMO talk comes from people that directly benefit from the sale of these seeds, while looking at the data that’s coming out of the studies, it’s hard not to look at GMOs in the same light that people once looked at all of these other products.
These aren’t the only examples I can come up with of information detrimental to profits being buried for years while a company continues to reap millions in profits and consumers continue being harmed. The pharmaceutical industry alone provides numerous examples, with Fen-Phen and Vioxx likely being the tip of the iceberg.
Basically, anytime an industry is responsible for policing itself and reporting its findings to a government regulatory body that it’s in bed with, the public is going to be lied to until the evidence is too damning to ignore or spin away with fancy public relations.
We, as consumers, need to be very wary of the information we’re believing. Consider the source of the message. Consider the profit motive. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a profit, but there’s more than a little wrong (morally, ethically, and legally) with lying, burying data, and buying government influence to increase your profits at the expense of consumer health.
Thoughts, questions, or opinions? Let me hear it in the comments section below!