Monday, March 3, 2014

The Spa Treatment Mystery

I am currently reading a book, Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains To Fukushima by James Mahaffey, which I will do a book report on eventually.

In the meantime, I'm fascinated by descriptions of mineral water treatments and spa baths. Mineral water and hot spring spa baths typically are considered invigorating and healthful, but why so?

Water percolating though rocks almost invariably has some quantity of radioactive particles in it, or at the very least, is bubbling with radon gas, and so you would think it would not be good for you. And yet, the waters and spas are considered curative by all cultures. The world still has many curative radium spring resorts, from Hot Springs, AK to Misasa, Japan which hosts an annual Marie Curie festival to honor the discoverer of radium.

It is a known fact that people's reactions to radioactivity varies widely, with some being highly susceptible to even the slightest exposures, while others seem to have an advanced immunity. One would have to assume, given the extent of life on Earth, with exposure to all kinds of ionizing radiations and actinides in our environment, that there are molecular coping strategies, but could some forms of metabolism temporarily thrive on increased radioactivity? Could it be that there are some individuals who would benefit from a little bit of exposure?

The prevailing attitude has been that there is no good amount of exposure, and yet, a rather dubious flirtation with all things radioactive going back at least one hundred years suggests that this is not so.

Consider the insane ignorance expressed by the early pioneers, such as the Curies, Roentgen, and even Nikola Tesla. Tesla routinely stuck his head into his 4 million volt x-ray, finally only stopping after experiencing shooting pains towards the top of his head, and recommending that kids not try this at home. For the longest time, x-ray technicians would waved their hands in the beams to check for operational efficacy. After many incidents, the practice was quickly abandoned.

And then there is the ingestion of curative radium waters. Much information is now available about the Radium Girls, but the practice actually didn't gain much press until doctors killed Eben Byers, a wealthy heir to a ironmonger's fortune. The lesson here? If you must kill people for profit, make sure they are poor. A more succinct lesson: Don't kill rich people for profit.

Radium is chemically identical to calcium, is readily incorporated into bone, and no metabolic mechanism exists to remove it from the body. Interestingly, Dr. William Bailey, the entrepreneur who marketed Radithor, the radium water ingested by Byers, protested an FTC false advertising complaint, stating "I have drunk more radium water than any man alive, and I have never suffered any ill effect".

He wasn't kidding. The emanations from his disinterred remains swamped a geiger counter:
"William Bailey, the entrepreneur who killed Eben Byers, had ripened to the age of 64 when he died of bladder cancer unrelated to radium in 1949. Twenty years later, his remains were disinterred for study by Professor Robley D. Evans, Director Emeritus of the Radioactivity Center at MIT. A count of radioactivity lingering in his bones proved that that Bailey wasn't lying when he claimed to have ingested more Radithor than anyone else. Yet, he had never complained of a toothache, much less died from it. Decades of study suggested that the effects of large radiation loads vary from individual to individual. Can some people tolerate chronic high radiation better than others? Are certain people better at producing protective hormones such as granulocyte colony-stimulating factor and the interleukins, stimulating the growth of blood cells under radioactive stress?"
And if some people can, well, not thrive and improve, at least tolerate higher levels of radiation, should they be studied or recruited for - if and when the time ever comes - "hazard duty" of one form or another?


  1. I wonder if that holds for cosmic radiation as well?

    1. Astronauts and cosmonauts have been pretty well-studied, and although there are reports of radiation cataracts, those in space have fared surprisingly well, all things considered. Aside from DNA effects, the damage from ionizing radiation is basically oxidation and superoxidation of tissues that normally would not experience it. One billion years of oxygen exposure have resulted in many damage control mechanisms.