During the 1920s and 1930s, people put radium on their skin and in their cocktails. They put uranium in health tonics. And they drank water from The Revigorator, which was a pot lined with uranium. In 2009, scientists tested a Revigorator, to see what it actually did.
The Revigorator was a little ceramic pot that you kept on your bedside. It was lined with carnotite, an ore that included common ingredients, like potassium and vanadium, but also had just a touch of uranium. Every night you filled your Revigorator with water, and every morning you took a drink from your healthy irradiated water.
At the time, radiation was considered beneficial for health, killing off disease while giving people strength and vitality. Today, we realize that’s not true. When scientists got their hands on old Revigorators, they decided to test them. They sealed water in the Revigorators for a week, and tested it.
They also tested the air around the Revigorator, because the big draw for the product wasn’t uranium, it was radium. Radium got all the good press as a health product. Uranium-238 decays into radium-226. Radium-226 decays into radon-222 gas, which people should not be drinking, and definitely should not be breathing. Radon decays by spitting out an alpha particle, two protons and two neutrons, which damages the tissue in the body. Breathing it regularly massively elevates a person’s risk of getting cancer.
When scientists tested the exposure to radiation that people would get, they were pleasantly surprised. The Revigorator did give off radon gas, which got into both the air and the water. While the levels exceeded EPA restrictions, the amount of radiation a person would get from either would have been minor, especially if they lived in a house with just a bit of a draft.
The real problem was that the Revigorator leaked its materials into the water. Those materials included uranium and vanadium, of course, but also arsenic and lead. Some of the water contained 300 times the maximum safe level of arsenic. Some contained 20 times the maximum allowable level of lead. So, the people drinking it were actually poisoning themselves—just not in the way they paid for.