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Killer Green Dye, X-ray Shoe-fitting and Sunscreens

X-ray pedoscope/fluoroscope from "The Pedoscope Company," London for shoe merchants, 1920.
X-ray pedoscope/fluoroscope
from "The Pedoscope Company,"
London for shoe merchants, 1920.

Have you ever heard about something in the past that seemed so crazy, you wondered what people were thinking? Here are three twisted tales—two from the past and one happening today.

Twisted Tale #1: Victorian Green Dye

A brighter green pigment was invented in 1814. It was more vibrant than any green before and was quickly incorporated into products that filled a Victorian house. There was green wallpaper, green carpets, green-dyed books and green clothing. All the most fashionable people were surrounded by it.

There was just one little problem. This new vibrant green dye had to be synthesized in arsenic.

Women who put green-dyed gloves on sweaty hands started developing blisters. Babies playing on green carpets would die if they inhaled too much. Brushing against green-dyed wallpaper released arsenic dust that filled the air and poisoned homeowners.

Physicians, journalists, and manufacturers were aware of the problem, but consumers were largely kept in the dark. Companies continued to sell it for more than 50 years until a safer dye was invented.

Twisted Tale #2: X-ray Shoe-fitting

Imagine walking into a shoe store and getting an X-ray. But not just one X-ray, potentially several of them, all on your feet.

In the late 1920s and continuing into the 1960s, shoe salespeople used something called the shoe-fitting fluoroscope. The device was housed in a wooden cabinet, about the size of a small dresser. On the top were two or three viewing “scopes” you could look through.

When children came in, they would put a new pair of shoes on and stick their feet in the box. Then the machine would bathe their foot in radiation so a salesperson could verify the shoe fit properly. Looking through the scopes, you could see the bones of the child’s foot glowing green.

The radiation didn’t stay inside the machine. Every time a fluoroscope was used, it gave a burst of radiation to everyone nearby. There were no protective lead shields or barriers to hide behind.

Repeated exposure on customers burned skin and stunted bone and cartilage. Employees working the machines risked symptoms mild as dermatitis to severe as cancer. For all their cost and dangers, fluoroscopes didn’t even do what they promised, help salespeople choose shoes with a better fit.

By 1970, over half the states had banned the shoe-fitting fluoroscope. Restrictions became so severe in the remaining states that people finally stopped using them. Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were nothing more than a dangerous promotion tool that harmed the feet they were designed to protect.

Twisted Tale #3: Sunscreens with Oxybenzone

Sunscreen is supposed to protect us from the sun. We slather it on to repel UVA and UVB rays that damage our skin. One of the chemicals that seemed to work well was oxybenzone. It absorbs the sun’s UV rays, converts those rays to heat and releases them from the skin.

There are just a couple of problems. The first is that studies over the last few years indicate that oxybenzone is a “potential hormone disruptor.” It might interfere with growth and development, metabolism, sexual function, thyroid function and more. Oxybenzone is also absorbed through the skin, so if it’s in your sunscreen, you’re giving yourself a nice hefty dose of a “potential” endocrine disruptor every time you apply.

The second problem is what it does to coral reefs. Researchers exposed anemones - which are closely related to corals - to oxybenzone. Then they tracked progress in the lab. All the anemones survived the exposure. However, when scientists did the same experiment but exposed the anemones to sunlight, all the anemones died within 17 days.

Sunlight was the trigger. The anemones modify the oxybenzone by attaching glucose to it, which turns it into a toxin. That’s just one of many studies that show problems. There’s evidence going back more than 20 years that sunscreens with oxybenzone may be harming both the people who use them and the environment they’re used in.

Now you know, unlike the Victorians who loved the color green and shoe shoppers who wanted an X-ray fit. If you’re looking for a safer sunscreen, we recommend you avoid any with oxybenzone and choose one using tips provided by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org).

Environmental Working Group Tips
(Information provided by the Environmental Working Group.)


The Arsenic Fashion That Killed Victorians


Science and Technology: Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes

Reference Links:

Conversion of oxybenzone sunscreen to phototoxic glucoside conjugates by sea anemones and corals

Science, 5 May 2022 Vol 376, Issue 6593 pp.644 - 648 DOI: 10.1126/science.abn2600

Click Here for the Study

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