Monday, March 28, 2011

The Medicine Worked Fine, Until His Jaw Came Off

Eben Byers, a 49-year-old wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist, was looking to ease the chronic pain he was having in his arm. The year was 1927, and Eben was advised by his doctor to try a powerful new drug to cure his pain: Radithor. He became hooked. It appeared to not only heal his pain, but seemingly rekindled his sexual vitality.

It was two and a half years after regular use of Radithor, when Eben began complaining of chronic headaches and weight loss. Shortly thereafter, his teeth fell out, holes formed in his skull, and his mouth literally collapsed. Covering Eben's case, an article in the Wall Street Journal ran the headline: "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off."

Radithor, as its name implies, was radioactive; water containing Radium and Mesothorium. This 'miracle cure' was marketed by the notorious quack and confidence man William Bailey, whose very own Radium Laboratories sold half ounce bottles of "certified radioactive water." In two years of use, Eben had gone through 1,400 bottles, sometimes drinking as many as 3 bottles a day. Unfortunately for him, unlike many other quack treatments of the day, Radithor did actually contain considerable amounts of Radium, its active ingredient. Eben was slowly turning his body into a fleshy pile of radioactive waste.

Eben was not alone in partaking this poison. The radium craze broke out in the early 1900s, and was promoted as a miracle cure for everything from acne to impotence. It's value as a placebo was likely amplified by the fact that it was the only "medicine" that glowed in the dark; a special pizazz that no doubt captivated people and made it easy to believe the miraculous claims. For three decades, doctors and the public alike heralded the seemingly endless health benefits of consuming radioactive water.

Of course, we now know that radioactive materials are quite harmful to human health. That ominous glow-in-the-dark quality means a slow and painful destruction of the cells in your body, not a miracle cure.

Radithor was on the market for over a decade, making William Bailey very rich, before it was removed from the market in 1931. By then, more than half a million bottles had made their way into the hands of consumers around the world. How is it that something so utterly wrong can gain such widespread acceptance?

A century later, there are still plenty of lessons we can learn from this debacle, and Eben's tale provides a cautionary warning that is every bit as pertinent today. We may have figured out the health risks of radioactive water, yet in modern times, our science journals continue to be filled with warnings about how our tendency to leap before looking could be jeopardizing our health, as well as our planet. As a society, we're still just as prone towards quick fixes for what ails us; which usually turn out to be rash judgments that haven't been thought through. We're just as prone to being misled in the name of profit, as recent economic events should make clear. We still have a tendency for sacrificing the welfare of tomorrow for the exploits of today, with little regard for how it may come back to haunt us.

The lesson in all this is one of sensible precaution. With drug companies rushing out new "cures" as fast as they can get approval for them, and studies raising serious questions about the effectiveness of these drugs or even revealing many of them to be deadly after-the-fact, consumers need to understand that not all that glitters in the dark is gold. Especially when it comes to medicating our children, a sense of healthy skepticism is well in order.

The other lesson: just because a practice doesn't seem to seriously harm us in the moment (pollution, greenhouse gases, deforestation, etc.), that doesn't mean its harmless. Most importantly, never take at face value what the man selling radioactive waste has to tell you.

What is today's radium water? What are we doing today that future generations will consider utterly insane? Only time will tell. The important thing is that we stay vigilant in continually asking this question. Because there's little optimism to believe that we aren't capable of repeating similar mistakes.

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