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We are always careful to point out that inactive does not equate to harmless when it comes to fake medicine. Even a product that is completely inert, like most homeopathic potions, causes harm in numerous ways. They divert attention and resources away from more effective treatment, may delay proper treatment, cause financial and psychological harm, may endanger species or the environment, and instill pseudoscientific beliefs which lead to further menace.

But it is true that fake treatments which are capable of causing direct harm are even worse. In this way doing nothing is a small virtue. I was reminded of this when reading about a new medical scam in Thailand – Energy Cards.

The cards are credit-card sized and are claimed to do all the usual things: “The distributors claim these cards can improve the immune system, strengthen the heart and energise the user’s metabolism. The (sic) also claim the card can purify water if it is briefly soaked in it.” The ability to purify water may seem a bit unusual, but remember clean water is a luxury in much of the world. The cards sell for either $35 or $50 equivalent.

That is bad enough, and puts the cards in the same category as the magical power wrist bands, or the plastic cards alleged to improve the taste of wine. But these energy cards are worse than worthless. They are actually radioactive. The Thailand Office of Atoms for Peace (OAP) recently put out a PSA on the danger of the cards. The OAP (I suspect something is lost in translation) is essentially their atomic energy regulatory agency. They research and regulate the peaceful use of nuclear science. They warn:

Tests on sample cards conducted by the state agency found radiation measuring at 40 microsieverts per hour, which is 350 times higher than the maximum exposure humans should get to radiation a year.

The agency also warned against drinking water in which an “energy card” has been dipped, as doing so raises the risk of cancer. It said OAP would take legal action against the distributors once it has gathered enough evidence from its tests on the cards.

So far, tests have revealed that the cards contain radioactive metallic elements of uranium and thorium, as well as their “radionuclide” or radioactive isotope.

Let’s put that amount of radiation into context. First, I think the “350 times higher” is a mistake. If someone is exposed to 40 microsieverts per hour for an entire year, that results in 350 millisieverts (mSv) total exposure. I think that’s where the “350” comes from. The recommended limit of radiation exposure is 100 mSv per 5 years. So that is 17.5 times the recommended maximum exposure. Another way to look at this is that you would reach your 5-year radiation exposure limit in 104 days of continuous exposure. 100 mSv is also the lowest annual dose that has been clearly shown to increase cancer risk. This means that long term exposure to these cards (from keeping it in your wallet, for example) could lead to unsafe levels of radiation exposure.

For further comparison, normal background radiation results in about 3.65 mSv of exposure per year, so the cards result in about 100 times greater than background exposure. A chest X-ray results in 0.1 mSv exposure. A full body CT scan – 10 mSv.

But it gets worse, because these cards may also be a source of radioactive contamination. Radioactive exposure simply means that radioactive particles passed through your body. Someone or some thing exposed to radiation, however, is not themselves radioactive. Radioactive contamination, however, results from exposure to particles that are themselves radioactive. The OAP is warning that these cards, which contain uranium and thorium, may result in contamination. This significantly increases the hazard they represent.

Radioactive contamination can get into one’s environment and then result in ongoing exposure to radioactivity. If it gets in the water (as recommended by the company selling the cards) or into food, then the contamination can be consumed and become internal, which is much more risky. Further, these cards can release radioactive contamination into the environment, causing further exposure and contamination of food and water supplies.

The OAP further reports that these cards are being sold through a pyramid scheme, which is not unusual for snake-oil distributors.

The obvious question is – why would the company bother to make their cards with actual uranium and thorium? And how did they source these radioactive elements? Other reports indicate that the cards also contain heavy metals.

The company selling the cards, Expert Pro Network, sells other supplements with dubious claims. They claim the cards work through “negative ions”. It is further reported that:

Surin, a former police officer, claims to have begun selling the cards after he acquired them from La Genius.

La Genius was a Malaysian MLM company that has since collapsed. The cards themselves are reportedly of Indonesian origin, but also contain the words “German Technology” on them.

So it may be difficult to track down their origin, but I suspect the OAP is working on it. Perhaps the creators of the cards thought that the radioactivity would be a selling point, because the cards are giving off actual “energy”. This was actual a common form of snake oil around the turn of the last century, soon after radioactivity was discovered. There were radon infused waters, radium containing pendants, and thorium and uranium containing medicines. People extolled the curative powers of these radioactive tonics, all the while slowly killing themselves with radioactivity. These products did not disappear from the shelves until the FDA banned them in 1938.

I guess the lesson here is that if you are going to scam people with worthless snake oil, you’re better off making it completely fake, rather than radioactive.

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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.