250 BCE Lead, Lead Wine
Ancient Romans use lead in everything from paint to dishware to plumbing, despite warnings from Caesar's engineers.
Actually, Romans love the stuff so much that they add lead acetate to wine as a sweetener.
Lead poisoning runs rampant, leading future historians to speculate that lead-induced insanity caused the fall of Rome. (Image: Dionysus as baby by Guido Reni)
50 CE Listen To Your Elder
Roman historian Pliny the Elder notes that asbestos in clothing "affords protection against all spells, especially those of the Magi." If that's not handy enough, the Romans also discover that asbestos is a strong building material, and that it can make tablecloths flame retardant. (Simply burn off the food to clean them!)
Curiously, Pliny also warns against purchasing slaves who've worked in asbestos quarries. He writes, "They die young."
1527 CE Opium for the Masses
Physician and toxicologist Philippus Paracelsus prescribes opium as a painkiller throughout Europe. Using his marketing genius, he also re-brands the drug under the more wholesome name "laudanum."
During the next 300 years, the drug becomes as commonplace as Advil, and it's prescribed for everything from colds to diarrhea to insomnia.
Poets and novelists, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens, even take laudanum to cure writer's block. Mary Todd Lincoln combines the drug with camphor in an effort to commit suicide, but she's foiled by a suspicious pharmacist who plies her with sugar pills instead. (Photo: NLM Visible Proofs)
1850 CE And Speaking of Camphor ...
In the mid-1800s, swallowing camphor is thought to cure hysteria, cholera, and gout. Later, however, medics wise up to the toxic nature of the gummy compound, and it's relegated to things like fireworks and embalming fluid.
But camphor hasn't totally retired from its career in medicine. It's an active ingredient in Vicks VapoRub, anti-itch creams, and several other products with warning labels that read, "If swallowed, contact a Poison Control Center immediately."
1898 CE Heroin for Everyone!
Got a nagging cough? Some heroin will fix you right up. At least, that's what mothers believe in 1898, when they start buying Bayer Heroin for their sick kids.
Soon approved by the American Medical Association, the drug is marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute - which is wrong on many levels. Not only is heroin extremely addictive, but the body also metabolizes it into morphine.
When reports of extreme addiction become known, Bayer acknowledges its blunder and stops making the medicine in 1913. But for the next decade, heroin lozenges, heroin elixirs, and heroin tablets continue to dominate the market.
1920 CE Video Killed the Radium Star
Is there anything radium can't do? In the 1920s and early 1930s, companies tout it as a cure-all and put the radioactive element in toothpaste, ear plugs, soap, suppositories, and even contraceptives.
One of the biggest sellers is a radium-laced water called Radithor. Steel magnate Eben Byers drink approximately 1,400 bottles of the stuff over the course of several years, believing that it is the key to longevity.
After undergoing operations to remove parts of his mouth and jaw, he dies in 1932 as the rest of his bones disintegrate. The drink's popularity plummets after it's implicated in his death. (Photo: Oak Ridge Associated Universities)
1971 CE Breakfast of Champions
Executive Robert Loibl decides to prove that his company's pesticide, DDT, is completely harmless.
For three months, he and his wife take a concentrated dose of the poison every morning before breakfast. The Loibls report no negative side effects and claim to feel more energized after their "treatments."
Studies later confirm that DDT is not acutely toxic, but rather, that it induces certain cancers and neurological disorders that take years to develop. (Photo: Roadjunky.com)
The article above, written by Stacy Conradt and Hank Green, appeared in Scatterbrained section of the Mar - Apr 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine (the excellent "The Future of Sex" issue!). It is reprinted here with permission.