Now playing
01:11
Put down that energy drink!
empty plate
PHOTO: Banana Stock
empty plate
Now playing
01:01
Intermittent fasting may help you live longer
PHOTO: David McNew/Getty Images
Now playing
01:03
Get outside to improve your health
PHOTO: Photo Illustration/Thinkstock
Now playing
01:04
This string may help you live to be 100
Now playing
01:10
Is sitting the new smoking?
PHOTO: Shutterstock
Now playing
01:13
Cut this food and extend your life
Meditation has become increasingly popular in the West since the 1960s.
PHOTO: Courtesy Katrin Wuertemberger/Bongarts/Getty Images
Meditation has become increasingly popular in the West since the 1960s.
Now playing
01:19
How every person can benefit from meditation
wine glasses
PHOTO: Comstock
wine glasses
Now playing
01:17
Drink this daily and you may live longer
PHOTO: Shutterstock
Now playing
01:20
How listening to music helps your brain
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 01:  Race goes enjoy the atmosphere during The Melbourne Cup at Flemington Racecourse November 1, 2005 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Kristian Dowling/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 01: Race goes enjoy the atmosphere during The Melbourne Cup at Flemington Racecourse November 1, 2005 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:13
Saying this word can extend your life
MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 09:  FC Bayern Muenchen sporting manager Matthias Sammer laughs during a press conference at the Bayern Muenchen training ground on July 9, 2014 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Alexandra Beier/Bongarts/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Alexandra Beier/Bongarts/Getty Image
MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 09: FC Bayern Muenchen sporting manager Matthias Sammer laughs during a press conference at the Bayern Muenchen training ground on July 9, 2014 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alexandra Beier/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:20
Does laughing make you healthier?
A fruit plate is seen at the Buchinger-Wilhelmi Clinic in Ueberlingen, southern Germany, on March 24, 2014. High-end clinics specialising in deprivation rather than pampering are all the rage in Germany, one of the homes of the fasting movement, and in some cases it is even covered by health insurance plans. AFP PHOTO/CHRISTOF STACHE        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
A fruit plate is seen at the Buchinger-Wilhelmi Clinic in Ueberlingen, southern Germany, on March 24, 2014. High-end clinics specialising in deprivation rather than pampering are all the rage in Germany, one of the homes of the fasting movement, and in some cases it is even covered by health insurance plans. AFP PHOTO/CHRISTOF STACHE (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:21
The best diets have this in common
Now playing
01:23
How to stop mindless eating
Beautiful girl sleeps in the bedroom, lying on bed, isolated
PHOTO: shutterstock
Beautiful girl sleeps in the bedroom, lying on bed, isolated
Now playing
01:27
To get good sleep, set thermostat at this
Now playing
01:31
Do this at 50 and you could live to 100
PHOTO: Getty Images
Now playing
01:38
Trick your kids into eating healthy

Story highlights

In the 1920s, RadiThor -- radium dissolved in water -- promised many benefits

Radium's energy is incorporated into bone, with serious health consequences

Modern life have you feeling frazzled? Flagging a bit as you rush through your day? Maybe you’re one of the millions of consumers who lean on energy drinks to put a little extra pep in your step.

Though emblematic of our time, energy drinks aren’t an invention of the new millennium. People have relied on them to combat fatigue for at least a century. Today, their “energy” typically derives from some type of neurological stimulant that makes people feel more energetic, or sometimes just sugar.

But there was a time when energy drinks actually contained real energy. The active ingredient in these drinks was radium, a radioactive element that releases a packet of radiant energy with every atomic decay. While the connection between consuming a radioactive element and reaping a perceived energy boost is tenuous at best, it didn’t stop people in the early 1900s from ignoring the known downsides of ingesting radioactivity and risking the long-term health consequences.

The curious origin of the double-conk theory for curing amnesia

Yum yum radium?

One of these energy-containing products was RadiThor. This energy drink was simply radium dissolved in water. It was sold in the 1920s in one-ounce bottles costing about US$1 each ($15 in 2016 dollars). Its manufacturer claimed the drink not only provided energy but also cured a host of ailments, including impotence. Evidence for a sexual benefit to humans was lacking, but at least one scientific paper claimed that radium water could increase “the sexual passion of water newts.” For many men, in this pre-Viagra era, the water newt evidence was enough. RadiThor was a big seller.

RadiThor’s most famous customer was Eben Byers, a Pittsburgh industrialist and amateur golfer of some repute. Byers first became acquainted with RadiThor when he took it to help heal a broken arm. Although the product contained no narcotics at all, Byers became at least psychologically, if not physiologically, addicted to it. He continued to consume large amounts of RadiThor even after his arm had healed. He reportedly downed a bottle or two daily for over three years, and sang its praises to all his friends, some of whom also took up the RadiThor habit.

At Chernobyl and Fukushima, radioactivity has seriously harmed wildlife

In the end, Byers’ RadiThor addiction killed him. Unfortunately, ingested radium gets incorporated into bone and all of its radiation energy is, therefore, deposited in bone tissue. Over time, the radium delivered a whopping radiation dose to Byers’ skeleton. He developed holes in his skull, lost most of his jaw and suffered a variety of other bone-related illnesses. Ultimately, he died a gruesome death on March 31, 1932.

Relearning radioactivity lesson

The shame of this was that the dangers of ingested radium were already known, even before Byers started taking RadiThor. As I describe in my book, “Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation,” the medical community had been studying the health effects of radium since its discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. British scientist Walter Lazarus-Barlow had published as early as 1913 that ingested radium goes into bone. And in 1914, Ernst Zueblin, a medical professor at the University of Maryland, published a review of 700 medical reports, many of which showed that bone necrosis and ulcerations were a frequent side effect from ingesting radium. Unfortunately, the early red flags went unnoticed, and RadiThor sales remained strong through the 1920s.

When Byers died, he was put to rest in a lead-lined coffin, to block the radiation being released from the bones in his body. Thirty-three years later, in 1965, an MIT scientist, Robley Evans, exhumed Byers’ skeleton to measure the amount of radium in his bones. Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, so Byers’ bones would have had virtually the same amount of radium in them as they did on the day he died.

Evans was an expert at measuring and mathematically modeling the human body’s uptake and excretion of radioactivity. Based on Byers’ self-reported RadiThor consumption, Evans’ model had predicted that Byers’ body would contain about 100,000 becquerel of radioactivity. (“Becquerel” is an international unit of radioactivity.) What he found was that Byers’ skeletal remains actually had a total of 225,000 becquerel, suggesting that either Evans’ model of radiation uptake was underestimating radium’s affinity for bone, or alternatively, that Byers had actually understated his personal RadiThor consumption by a factor of at least two. It was not possible to determine which alternative accounted for the discrepancy.

Radiation in the postwar American mind: from wonder to worry

Once Evans had completed his radium measurements, he returned Byers’ bones to their lead coffin in Pittsburgh, where they remain to this very day, as radioactive as ever.

A contained catastrophe

Although Byers certainly suffered from the radium in RadiThor, consumption of these energy drinks never developed into a major public health crisis. This is primarily for two reasons. Firstly, unlike Radithor, most of the other “energy” drinks on the market were total frauds and had no radium (or any other type of radioactivity) in them at all. Secondly, RadiThor and other products that actually did contain radium were very expensive because radium was a relatively rare and precious element that was costly to mine and purify. So only the wealthy, like Byers, were able to drink it on a daily basis. Consequently, RadiThor ailments were confined largely to the few who could afford to pay for it.

Follow CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

Ultimately, in the interest of protecting public health, the federal government closed down the Bailey Radium Laboratories (PDF) – the company that made RadiThor – and radium-containing energy drinks disappeared from the consumer market by 1932.

Today, the energy drink market is occupied by drink formulations that rely on the stimulant caffeine to invigorate their customers and provide them with the enhanced “energy” that they seek. Caffeine – the commonplace ingredient in coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – may not be as exotic as radium, but it actually is a stimulant, so customers do feel energized, and it isn’t very dangerous to health.

Today’s customers seem content with these newer alternatives to radium-containing RadiThor. It’s not clear, however, whether the water newts are satisfied.

Timothy J. Jorgensen is director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program and associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University.