What’s the best way to protect against the non-existent risks of harmless non-ionizing radiation? With harmful ionizing radiation, of course.

The Dutch authority for nuclear safety and radiation protection (ANVS) had to issue a warning to consumers about ten products they found contain low levels of radioactive material. These products include the Energy Armor sleeping mask, the “Quantum Pendant”, and the Magnetix Smiley Kids Bracelet with negative ions.

What I find most puzzling is this – if you are going to market useless products to the scientifically illiterate through baseless fears, why make them do anything? Take a page from the Power Balance scam and just make your magic devices out of harmless rubber or plastic. If you want to get blingy then copper is always popular, and if you want to juice your sales by having the product actually do something, just use harmless refrigerator magnets.

But why would a company use actual radioactive material? Do they think their customers carry around Geiger counters and that dangerous radioactivity will impress them? Selling radioactive products is actually illegal. In most countries, selling worthless medical scams is surprisingly not. There is a level of sociopathic con-artist in scams involving ionizing radiation – especially if you market it as a “Smiley Kids Bracelet”.

The level of radioactivity in these products is quite low. They don’t contain plutonium. But they do contain radioactive materials in sufficient amounts that they are significantly above the background level of radiation (the threshold often used to determine safety). The AVNS calculates that these products could cause harm if they are worn continuously over a long period of time, such as a year. Of course – that is exactly how these products are intended to be used. The claim is that they block out allegedly harmful 5G radiation (which is actually non-ionizing and harmless). In order to gain this protection you are meant to wear the bracelets or necklaces continuously and indefinitely. This is where low levels of ionizing radiation can become dangerous – with close proximity over long periods of time.

Radioactive elements are not completely banned from consumer products. That would not be practical, as many substances contain traces of radioactivity. Even bananas, which are high in potassium and a small percentage of potassium exists in radioactive isotopes, are radioactive. According to the EPA: “Each banana can emit .01 millirem (0.1 microsieverts) of radiation”. You would have to eat 100 bananas in order to get the background level of exposure to radiation in one day.

Ceramics are another common source of radiocative isotopes, usually in the glaze, which can contain small amounts of uranium, thorium, or potassium. Usually this is below background levels, and therefore harmless. However, famously, one company created a Fiesta ware line of dishware that contained high levels of uranium oxide in the glaze, enough to potentially cause harm, especially from leaching of the uranium into food. These glazes were banned in 1972, but some of the vintage Fiesta ware is still around.

Other consumer products require small amounts of radioactive isotopes to work. Smoke detectors contain a small amount of americium, which is necessary to their function. However, they are contained and far enough away in normal use the increased exposure to consumers is essentially indistinguishable from zero. Still, you should not tamper with a smoke alarm in such a way that it risks breaching the casing around the americium.

There are also other radioactive snake oil scams. In 2019 I wrote about “energy cards” from Thailand that were found to contain dangerous levels of radioactive substances. The cards were claimed to “boost” the immune system and improve metabolism – typical vague alternative medicine claims. Even inert substances can be harmful when packaged with misleading or entirely fake medical claims, and encourage belief in pseudoscience and distrust of medical science. It’s a doubly whammy when the products are directly harmful, as in this case.

Prior to regulation, radioactivity was directly marketed as a healing elixir. Soon after radioactivity was discovered, it became the latest gee-whiz scientific phenomenon, which made it a ripe target for exploiting the public. This is similar to what happened with magnetism a century earlier, and radio waves later in the 20th century. Today the latest cutting edge science that con-artists exploit to sell their snake oil is anything “quantum”. The difference with radioactivity is that it is actively harmful. It took the FDA banning radioactive products to remove them from the marketplace (dying slowly of radiation poisoning was apparently not enough).

This latest crop of radioactive snake oil is also a scam because it is meant to protect against the alleged risks of 5G, which is a lower energy electromagnetic radiation. 5G is in the non-ionizing range, which means that it does not have enough power to break ionic bonds. It therefore cannot damage DNA, which is the primary mechanism by which low levels of ionizing radiation cause harm. Of course high levels of ionizing radiation can kill cells outright, causing more immediate death (not just an increased risk of cancer years later).

I already reviewed the evidence for the safety of 5G, and older 4G and 3G technology. But here is a recent review of the literature published in Nature. They concluded:

The epidemiological studies showed little evidence of health effects including cancer at different sites, effects on reproduction and other diseases. This review showed no confirmed evidence that low-level RF fields above 6 GHz such as those used by the 5 G network are hazardous to human health.

This has not stopped fearmongering about potential health effects. This is mostly based (when it is based on something) on pre-clinical studies looking at possible biological effects. However, potential biological effects generally cannot be replicated in the research, and also generally do not rule out non-specific effects from local heating. In other words, there is a lot of noise, but no detectable signal. But the noise is great fodder for those wishing to confuse and scare the public about 5G in order to promote conspiracy theories or sell bogus products.

In some cases those products may contain actual harmful radiation.

Author

  • Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.