Relearning radioactivity lesson
The shame of this was that the dangers of ingested radium were already known, even before Byers started taking RadiThor. As I describe in my book, “Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation,” the medical community had been studying the health effects of radium since its discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. British scientist Walter Lazarus-Barlow had published as early as 1913 that ingested radium goes into bone. And in 1914, Ernst Zueblin, a medical professor at the University of Maryland, published a review of 700 medical reports, many of which showed that bone necrosis and ulcerations were a frequent side effect from ingesting radium. Unfortunately, the early red flags went unnoticed, and RadiThor sales remained strong through the 1920s.
When Byers died, he was put to rest in a lead-lined coffin, to block the radiation being released from the bones in his body. Thirty-three years later, in 1965, an MIT scientist, Robley Evans, exhumed Byers’ skeleton to measure the amount of radium in his bones. Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, so Byers’ bones would have had virtually the same amount of radium in them as they did on the day he died.
Evans was an expert at measuring and mathematically modeling the human body’s uptake and excretion of radioactivity. Based on Byers’ self-reported RadiThor consumption, Evans’ model had predicted that Byers’ body would contain about 100,000 becquerel of radioactivity. (“Becquerel” is an international unit of radioactivity.) What he found was that Byers’ skeletal remains actually had a total of 225,000 becquerel, suggesting that either Evans’ model of radiation uptake was underestimating radium’s affinity for bone, or alternatively, that Byers had actually understated his personal RadiThor consumption by a factor of at least two. It was not possible to determine which alternative accounted for the discrepancy.
Once Evans had completed his radium measurements, he returned Byers’ bones to their lead coffin in Pittsburgh, where they remain to this very day, as radioactive as ever.
A contained catastrophe
Although Byers certainly suffered from the radium in RadiThor, consumption of these energy drinks never developed into a major public health crisis. This is primarily for two reasons. Firstly, unlike Radithor, most of the other “energy” drinks on the market were total frauds and had no radium (or any other type of radioactivity) in them at all. Secondly, RadiThor and other products that actually did contain radium were very expensive because radium was a relatively rare and precious element that was costly to mine and purify. So only the wealthy, like Byers, were able to drink it on a daily basis. Consequently, RadiThor ailments were confined largely to the few who could afford to pay for it.
Ultimately, in the interest of protecting public health, the federal government closed down the Bailey Radium Laboratories – the company that made RadiThor – and radium-containing energy drinks disappeared from the consumer market by 1932.
Today, the energy drink market is occupied by drink formulations that rely on the stimulant caffeine to invigorate their customers and provide them with the enhanced “energy” that they seek. Caffeine – the commonplace ingredient in coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – may not be as exotic as radium, but it actually is a stimulant, so customers do feel energized, and it isn’t very dangerous to health.
Today’s customers seem content with these newer alternatives to radium-containing RadiThor. It’s not clear, however, whether the water newts are satisfied.