Photograph courtesy Michael Epstein
Published January 15, 2010
In the early 1900s, a radioactive ceramic water jar marketed to the U.S. public as a health boon turned out to be, well, a load of crock.
But according to a new study, radiation from the jug wasn't the biggest problem. Makers of the Radium Ore Revigator promised the jug would enrich drinking water left inside overnight with "the lost element of original freshness—radioactivity." The "treated" water was supposed to relieve everything from arthritis and senility to flatulence.
Such a seemingly wacky belief came from the fact that spring water naturally contains radioactive radon gas, said study leader Michael Epstein, an analytic chemist at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
It wasn't too big a leap to assume that radioactive water would be a healthy elixir, Epstein said. In the early 20th century, the Revigator sold by the hundreds of thousands in the U.S.
"Unfortunately for them, they were wrong," Epstein said. By the 1930s scientists had realized that exposure to radiation can cause cells in the body to go haywire, triggering cancer.
However, Epstein and colleagues were curious just how big a risk radiation played compared to the ore itself.
What they found is that the jar's uranium-ore lining released surprising amounts of toxic elements, such as arsenic and lead, into the drinking water.
Arsenic can also cause cancer, and lead can severely damage the nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems.
For their study, Epstein and colleagues bought four Revigators from antique stores or on eBay. The jars still exude the same amount of radiation as they did in the early 1900s.
Uranium ore contains some amounts of the highly radioactive metal radium, which decays into radon gas.
The team first used a Geiger counter to measure the amount of radon gas the jars emitted. Though radon levels were higher than an average person's exposure, the risk of death from the jars' radiation was relatively low.
Epstein's team also used a highly sensitive instrument called a mass spectrometer to analyze the concentration of toxic elements in the radon-infused water.
If a person had followed the Revigator company's advice to "drink freely when thirsty and upon arising and retiring," the toxic water would have drastically exceeded healthy exposure levels currently recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
For instance, the maximum level of exposure to uranium set by the EPA is 0.030 parts per million—one of the Revigators expelled up to 0.056 parts per mllion of the substance.
What's more, if people added a slightly acidic beverage such as wine or fruit juice to the jar, the resulting fluid contained 300 times more than the maximum arsenic intake recommended by the EPA.
There's no data on whether Revigator users were more sickly than non-users, mostly because people died from so many poorly understood ailments in the early 20th century, Epstein said.
But in a way, the Revigator is a forerunner to modern-day alternative medicines peddled on the Web, some of which could also be dangerous, Epstein said.
"The world doesn't change," he said. "We're always looking for something to make our lives better—and sometimes we make mistakes."
Research appeared in the December issue of the journal Applied Spectroscopy.
Feed the World
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
Latest From Nat Geo
Did you know the Atlantic puffin can growl like a chainsaw and honk like a goose?
Flip through nine pictures of these marine mammals in honor of sea otter awareness week.