What does birthmark removal have in common with John Wayne and shoe-fitting? How about glow-in-the-dark paint and treatment for ear infections?
The hazards of radiation have not always been acknowledged. Consider these five examples of what happens when we fail to practice precaution when it comes to ionizing radiation, lessons that may prove valuable when we consider the proliferation of non-ionizing radiation.
Historical Hazards of Radiation
1. Radiation for Shoe-Fitting
Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were invented in the 1920s as a way to ensure a proper shoe fit, especially for children. Two portholes enabled the parent and sales assistant to observe the child’s toes.
It was the perfect way to get perfect fitting shoes. However, you were getting a hefty dose of radiation with only a 1 mm aluminum filter between you and the x-ray tube. Concern for safety slowly grew over the next 20 years.
As early as 1950 researchers were urging caution:
“The principal potential danger is interference with bone growth in children as a result of careless use or uncontrolled dosage of x-ray. . . The growing probability of increasing use of ionizing radiations warrants vigorous governmental control or possible elimination of procedures of questionable merit which involve public risk.”
By 1970, these x-ray units were prohibited in 33 states.
2. Radiation for Ear Infections
For two decades after World War II, radiation applied deep inside the head was deemed to be safe for the treatment of ear infections. Two thin rods with radium tips were placed inside the nostrils of an individual suffering from acute otitis media. The rods were left in place for eight to 12 minutes, and the radiation would shrink the excess lymphoid tissue.
An estimated 500,000 to 2 million civilians were treated. This form of intervention faded as the use of antibiotics and ear tubes expanded.
However, many adults attribute their cancer to these radiation treatments. What’s more, many medical professionals are now validating this connection as addressed in a 2004 Chicago Tribute article:
“The incidence of not only thyroid cancer but thyroid nodules–benign and malignant–is definitely increased in individuals who had radiation as a child,” said Dr. Paul Jellinger, president of the American College of Endocrinology. “No question.”
3. Radiation in Paint
From 1917 to 1926, U.S. Radium Corporation produced luminous paints that were marketed under the brand name “Undark”. U.S. Radium was a defense contractor supplying radioluminescent watches to the military. Glue, water, and radium powder were mixed and applied to the watch dials. The workers, primarily women, were encouraged to keep the brushes sharp by licking the brushes.
Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw. Many became disabled or terminally ill. The company refused responsibility and subsequently five factory workers brought legal action against U.S. Radium. Two of the women were bedridden, and none of them could raise their arms to take the oath. The Radium Girl lawsuit paved the way for the first occupational disease labor law.
While protective measures were instituted after the trial, the use of radium in watchmaking was not phased out until the 1960s.
4. Radiation on a Movie Set
The 1954 film, The Conqueror, has been deemed one of the worst films of all time. With John Wayne miscast as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, the film appeared doomed from the beginning. Production delays and location troubles led to summer filming in 120-degree heat in the middle of the Utah desert.
The location turned out to be downwind of a U.S. government nuclear weapons testing site. Filmmaker Howard Hughes was assured the testing site posed no health threat, so he shipped 60 tons of the dirt back to Hollywood to complete filming. According to the 2015 Telegraph article, The Film That Killed John Wayne,
By 1980, 91 of the 220 cast and crew had been diagnosed with cancer. Forty-six then died of it, including John Wayne, Dick Powell, and every leading, supporting cast member. Pedro Armendáriz would also be diagnosed, but committed suicide after hearing the news . . . Numerous American Indians who served as Mongolian warriors contracted cancer in later years, and even John Wayne’s son Michael died in 2003 of cancer, after visiting his father on the set at age 22.
5. Radiation for Birthmarks
My Aunt Jevne was born in 1935, adopted by my grandparents and welcomed by her 10-year-old brother George. She had a dime-sized birthmark prominently located on her forehead. At the age of 5 Jevne underwent a series of radiation treatments to remove the red spot. The treatment was successful.
In 1998, at the age of 63, Jevne was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died six months later.
Is Jevne’s birthmark removal directly related to the brain tumor? We’ll never know for sure. However, consider the story offered in the article Blast From the Past: A Cautionary Tale,
“I was born in the United States in 1955 and by the age of 4 months had developed a strawberry naevus on my neck. I had a series of radiation treatments to my birthmark during the following year . . . When I was 41 I discovered that I had hyperparathyroidism and papillary carcinoma of the thyroid. Three years later I was treated for breast cancer. ”
Note that in all five cases mentioned above it took years for the cancers to manifest and even longer for the medical establishment to acknowledge the connection. Wouldn’t caution have been better than the presumption of safety?
The proliferation of wireless radiation is our biggest risk yet. In little more than a decade, we have doused our schools, homes, and offices with what is now classified by the World Health Organization as a class 2B carcinogen. Thanks to the BioIniative Report 2012 we now have a compilation of more than 1800 studies showing biological effects from non-ionizing radiation.
Shall we cross our fingers and hope for the best? Or shall we alter our course by educating ourselves and our decision-makers about the hazards of radiation in all forms?