Medical Blast From Past: Radium ‘Time Capsules’ Found

Feb 2, 2012 1:12pm

Environmental officials in Norristown, Pa., have found a blast from the medical past — an antique medical kit containing four capsules of radium — dug up at a local waste station.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Thursday that a heap of construction debris set off radiation alarms, which sparked the investigation.

State officials estimated the kit is more than 80 years old, and dates from a time when radium was commonly used in medical treatment.

According to Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, one of the most common medical uses for radium was to treat cancer, especially ovarian and cervical cancer.

Dr. Howard Kelly, a gynecologist, was among the first physicians in the 1890s to use radium capsules to treat his cancer patients.

The capsules were either swallowed or inserted intravaginally, Markel told ABCNews.com.

“The half life of a radium capsule is long,” said Markel. “In this case, generally the medical kit is something only a physician would have.”

The four capsules found in a lead-lined kit weighed 1 gram, the Inquirer reported. But touching the capsules could burn the skin, David Allard, director of the Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Radiation Protection told the Inquirer.

If someone were to open the box for an hour without touching the capsules, the resulting radiation exposure would be equivalent to having 100 CT scans, Allard told the Inquirer.

“I would imagine if placed in the body it would dissolve at some point,” Markel said.

The practice was later abandoned  when patients began to endure burns or contract subsequent cancers.

But the use of radium didn’t stop at capsules. When first discovered in 1898, radium became the latest medical craze, Markel told ABCNews.com. Before realizing its danger, radium was placed in water and facial creams, touting its anti-aging capabilities. It was even sold on paper sheets to be placed near the male genitals as a way to enhance sexual virility.

“Everything under the sun,” said Markel. “Because it’s thought there was a lot of value in it.”

But don’t shake your head at the folks of the past, said Markel.

Think about it. We now inject agents like botulinum toxin – commonly known as Botox – to fight wrinkles, headaches  and profuse sweating. Some folks today even take human growth hormone to fight aging, improve their sex life  and enhance their athletic performance.

“You have to be careful judging people in the past,” said Markel. “You can only imagine what will be said about us when others look back.”

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