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Thursday
Feb022012

Medical Blast From Past: Radium ‘Time Capsules’ Found

Hemera/Thinkstock(NORRISTOWN, Pa.) -- 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 ABC News.

“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 ABC News. 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.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio