9 Ways People Used Radium Before We Understood the Risks

Getty Images
Getty Images

Radium was discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898. In 1903, the Royal Academy of Sciences awarded Marie and Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, making Marie the first woman to win the prize. Later, in 1911, she would win her second Nobel for isolating radium, discovering another element (polonium), and for her research into the new phenomenon of radioactivity, a word she coined herself.

By 1910, radium was manufactured synthetically in the U.S. But before the effects of radiation exposure were well understood, radium ended up in a lot of crazy places for its purported magical healing properties and its glow-in-the-dark novelty.

1. In Chocolate

Food products containing radium, like the Radium Schokolade chocolate bar manufactured by Burk & Braun and Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread, made with radium water, were popular overseas until they were discontinued in 1936.

2. In Water

Radium water crocks like the Revigator stored a gallon of water inside a radium-laced bucket; drinking the water would cure any number of ailments, from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles.

3. In Toys and Nightlights

The Radiumscope, a toy sold as late as 1942, offered a glimpse of radium in action. Noting radium’s famed luminescence, the ad also mentions that the radiumscope could double as a “wonderful” nightlight, since it “glows with a weird light in a dark room.”

4. In Toothpaste

Toothpaste containing both radium and thorium was sold by a man named Dr. Alfred Curie, who was not related to Marie or Pierre but didn’t miss an opportunity to capitalize on their name.

5. In Cosmetics

Alfred Curie’s product line didn’t end with dental care, though. He also manufactured the extremely popular Tho-Radia brand of cosmetics, which included powders and creams that promised to rejuvenate and brighten the skin.

6. In Heating Pads and Suppositories

Early 20th-century doctors also jumped onto the radioactive bandwagon with both feet, producing suppositories, heating pads and radioactive coins (used to “charge” small amounts of water), all intended to treat rheumatism, weakness, malaise and just about any health complaint for which a fast and magical cure was needed.

7. In the Treatment of Impotence

Before the days of Viagra and Cialis, treatment for impotence took the form of radioactive “bougies” – wax rods inserted into the urethra – and even athletic supporters containing a layer of radium-impregnated fabric. A popular alternate treatment called the Radioendocrinator was a booklet that contained a number of cards coated in radium, which were worn inside the undergarments at night. (The Radioendocrinator’s inventor died of bladder cancer in 1949.)

8. In Health Spas

Radium and radon health spas took off in the 20s and 30s, where women and men alike could stop in for a long relaxing soak in radium mud, rinse with radium water and leave soft and glowing, thanks to a thorough application of radium cream. Radium mines and caves also doubled as “healing rooms,” if patrons were willing to travel. At least one radium spa is still in operation in the United States, as are a few in Japan in Europe.

9. In Clocks and Watches

Between 1917 and 1926, during the height of radium's heyday, the U.S. Radium Corporation employed more than a hundred workers (mostly women) to paint watch and clock faces with their patented Undark luminous paint. As many as 70 women were hired to mix the Undark paint, comprised of glue, water and radium powder. Workers were taught to shape paintbrushes with their mouths to maintain a fine point, and some used the material to paint their nails and teeth. While U.S. Radium's labor force were all but encouraged to ingest the dangerous mixture, management and research scientists who were aware of the danger carefully avoided any exposure themselves.

Five Radium Girls sued U.S. Radium in a case that initiated labor safety standards and workers' rights. There are no records of how many of U.S. Radium's employees suffered from anemia, inexplicable bone fractures, bleeding gums and eventually, necrosis of the jaw. Though many of the factory's workers became sick, cases of death by radiation sickness were initially attributed to syphilis. (It's believed that this was an attempt to smear the girls' reputations, and that medical investigators hired by U.S. Radium were paid to withhold their findings.)

The Radium Girls' case was settled in 1928, putting a swift end to shaping paintbrushes with the mouth and open containers of radium paint. Though radium was still used in clocks until the 1960s, new cases of acute radiation syndrome in dial painters came to a screeching halt, and soon after, so did the popularity of radium-containing products and toys. The former U.S. Radium manufacturing plant is now a Superfund site.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.