Radioactive Gifts

"So, what did you get for Christmas, Johnny?" Johnny's aunt, Sarah, asked. "Golly, Aunt Sarah! I got a Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab! It has over 150 radioactive experiments that I can perform. It's great! Look! My hands are even starting to glow!"

Did you get a radioactive play lab for Christmas this year? Probably not- but a few children between 1951 and 1952 might have received a set as an educational Christmas present.

The Gilbert U-238 lab and other radioactive products is part of an interesting Scientific America article by Adam Hadhazy on their website: 7 Hot Products: Radioactive Gifts and Gadgets of Yesteryear. It is a sobering exhibit- primarily because most of us trust consumer products to be safe. But sometimes, as in the case of the early days of radiation, the manufacturer will assume something to be safe until it is proven to be otherwise. The articles about Radithor (Certified Radioactive Water) and also the radium laced paint (used on early watch hands to make them glow in the dark) illustrate the dangers of willfully not understanding the dangers of a product. In the case of Radithor, the article documents where a doctor had advised his patient to begin drinking Radithor as a tonic to help the patient with his broken arm. Later, because of the radiation poisoning from the "tonic", the patient suffered through losing most of his jaw as well as holes forming in his skull. The article indicates that the drink was marketed as "perpetual sunshine".

In the case of the radium laced paint for early 20th century watches- a supervisor of the women that were responsible for the painting of the watches- actually drank some of the paint to prove to her co-workers that the paint was safe. Many of the women would later suffer from various skin issues and ultimately cancer. (source)

The Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) website has a fascinating virtual museum of radioactive consumer products of the past AND present. For example, Brazil Nuts are listed on the ORAU website as having high levels of both barium and radium. Who knew?

Other current or past radioactive products listed on ORAU's Consumer Products list:
  • cat litter
  • low sodium salt
  • bathroom tile
  • porcelain dentures
And perhaps the oddest example of an irradiated product- a golf ball. Visit the site and look how misshapen it is after 40 years- presumably due to the effects of the radiation. I would hate to have been a golfer that carried a pocket full of those things around.

Photo of the Gilbert Atomic Lab is from the ORAU museum website