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Radiation Could Make Your Face Fall Off

Just ask Eben Byers.

Words: Will Saetren

The Trump administration isn’t well known for its policymaking abilities. Far too often, the rules and regulations stemming from the executive branch are self-defeating, make little sense, and fail to hold up in a court of law. Last week, however, the Associated Press reported on a potential rollback of EPA regulations that is particularly worthy of mention in the category of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ideas.

According to the AP: “the EPA is pursuing rule changes that experts say would weaken the way radiation exposure is regulated, turning to scientific outliers who argue that a bit of radiation damage is actually good for you — like a little bit of sunlight.”

Unfortunately, radiation is not, in fact, akin to your daily dose of vitamin D. For decades, the US government has stated that any exposure to harmful radiation is a cancer risk that should be avoided at all costs. The vast majority of scientists agree. But the current president of the United States has a tendency to disregard science and facts in favor of the advice of those he deems successful — the rich and powerful.

Fortunately, the tragic tale of Eben Byers should be right up his alley.

During the early 20th century, Eben Byers was a successful steel magnate. Young, white and rich, Byers was an amateur golf champion, a horse racing enthusiast, and a ladies man. A Wall Street Journal Article described him as “the personification of the Roaring ‘20s’ … he was into everything.”

Among those things, Byers was obsessed with RadiThor, distilled water laced with radioactivity that was marketed as a cure-all health drink and an especially potent aphrodisiac. After a fall in 1927, Byers complained of muscular aches and a “run down feeling” that undermined his performance athletically and sexually. Shortly after, a physiotherapist recommended he try RadiThor.

In 1930, Byers stopped taking RadIthor, telling his doctors that he “had lost that toned-up feeling.”

Byers became convinced that RadiThor was the miracle drink it claimed to be. Over the next two years, he is reported to have consumed 2-3 bottles a day and ordered cases for his business partners and girlfriends. He even fed RadiThor to his racehorses. Unlike many of the counterfeit energy drinks circulating at the time, RadiThor was guaranteed to contain 100% of the radioactivity that the label claimed. As it turns out, it did.

In 1930, Byers stopped taking Radithor, telling his doctors that he “had lost that toned-up feeling.” He began losing weight, falling frequently ill, and his teeth started falling out. By 1931, the Federal Trade Commission had begun to suspect that radium water drinks weren’t as harmless as they claimed to be, and requested that Byers testify at one of their hearings. Too sick to travel, an attorney was dispatched to Byers’ Long Island mansion who described Byers’ condition in the following terms:

“Mr. Byers’ whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was disintegrating. And holes were actually forming in his skull.”

Shortly thereafter Eben Byers passed away from radium poisoning, a process that the Wall Street Journal described as, “a gruesome death.”

The tragic fate of Eben Byers is a lesson that should be well remembered. It prompted the FDA to ban radioactive health products and brought about the collapse of the radioactive patent medicine industry. The very guidelines that the EPA is now considering rolling back can be traced back to Eben Byers’ death.

To be fair, the EPA isn’t suggesting we turn back the clock and flood the market with radioactive energy drinks, toothpaste, condoms (yes really, that was a thing), and chocolate. In reality, the proposed rule changes would allow companies to pocket billions from easing safety standards, causing higher levels of exposure for workers at nuclear facilities and medical workers who handle radioactive materials.

But the fact of the matter is that any exposure to radiation is dangerous. Full Stop. As recently as March the EPA’s own guidelines clearly stated that “current science suggests there is some cancer risk from any exposure to radiation.” Knowingly putting workers in harm’s way based on the finding of “scientific outliers” (ahem, hacks) for financial gain is immoral at best. At worst, it’s criminal.

Some rich, white jerk died a horrible death because of people who argued that a bit of radiation is actually good for you. Let’s not undo his legacy by rolling back the regulations prompted by his grisly demise.

Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies where he specializes in nuclear weapons policy.

Will Saetren

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