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.
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.