December 20, 2006

Bad toys. Really bad toys.

The worst! (Via John Hawks.) For example, there's the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab:
For a mere $49.50, the kit came complete with three "very low-level" radioactive sources, a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson Cloud Chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a Spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an Electroscope to measure radioactivity....

The toy was only sold for one year. It's unclear what effects the Uranium-bearing ores might have had on those few lucky children who received the set, but exposure to the same isotope—U-238—has been linked to Gulf War syndrome, cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma, among other serious ailments. Even more uncertain is the longterm impact of being raised by the kind of nerds who would give their kid an Atomic Energy Lab.
Hmmm.... yeah: What strange toys affected your young, impressionable mind, and how do you know the difference between the effect of the toy and the effect of growing up with the sort of parents who let you have it?

Strangest toy I was given and allowed to play with: a small paper cup full of mercury.

60 comments:

Paddy O. said...

a small paper cup full of mercury.
Thus explaining why you are apparently a half penny short of wacky.

Though, I do feel like sending donations, a mere penny would do I guess, and see what this site would be like if you were to become full tilt wacky.

Even less politics and more art is my guess.

Paddy O. said...

oops, I forgot the difference between an 'i' and an 'a'.

'a' is the rounder one, without the dot. I meant to use the other one.

jaed said...

"Bad" toys?

Must be a typo. That is the coolest toy I have ever heard of in all my life.

Anonymous said...

The mercury is far more of an issue than the uranium would be. As long as the kid doesn't eat the uranium, no problem. Even if he did, likely no problem.

Did you spill the mercury? Your old room could be a Hazmat site.

Pogo said...

I wonder why parents bid me play with that Ginsu Knife Set.

Now that I think of it, I was only four years old, so maybe I should ask them.

The "Lil' William Tell Archery Set" is suspect in my mind now, too.

Ann Althouse said...

Spill it?! We poured it on the floor to make it shatter into tiny bouncing balls and then we pushed the balls around until they reassembled into a shimmery blob that you could push around and eventually nudge back into the cup and start all over again. Don't you know how to play with mercury? The room is somewhere in Delaware.

Mike said...

I think it's a pretty cool toy, too. Although, in this day of scientific illiteracy and irrational fears, I'm surprised that it lasted even one year.

Now the mercury, that is dangerous.

Seneca the Younger said...

Oh good god.

It's unclear what effects the Uranium-bearing ores might have had on those few lucky children who received the set, but exposure to the same isotope—U-238—has been linked to Gulf War syndrome, cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma, among other serious ailments.

Uranium-bearing ore. It's a rock. One you can pick up off the ground all through Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The biggest risk is that you might break a window with it, if it's big enough.

Better stay away from your granite counter tops, folks; they contain uranium too.

MadisonMan said...

How did I live this long! We had two of the items on that list -- the Jarts (I loved those things!) that my parents got rid of long ago, or I could introduce my kids to Jart Joy. We had the Creepy Crawler thingmaker too -- and you better believe it got very hot. This is something a 6-yo learns very quickly. But I still remember pestering my Mom to buy more of the goop so I could make more critters -- I fondly recall a black and pink spider I made, it looked very scary and it's probably still lurking somewhere in my parents' house. I also used a very similar hammock as a Boy Scout, but somehow managed to elude strangulation.

The problem I see with all the toys on this list: Parents let their kids use them unsupervised. Well, duh, of course something bad might happen. And then the killjoys come.

Anonymous said...

Well, I dropped a mercury thermometer--a big one--on my last day of chem lab. The grad student instructor was not a happy man. They had to get a special mercury vacuum, etc. for cleanup. And the old observatory on campus, when it was restored, had a bunch of mercury all over one room. It had been used as a zenith mirror (a mirror that looks straight up, since mercury is liquid and reflective, it forms a perfectly level mirror). "Remediation" took a while, I hear.

S, the answer is no, I don't know how to play with mercury, Ann. I'll bet if kids did that now, the parents would be arrested for child endangerment!

Susan said...

Mercury was great fun wasn't it? Did you ever coat a coin with it? We played with it quite a bit in my mid 1960's 11th grade chemistry class.

Too Many Jims said...

"Strangest toy I was given and allowed to play with"

Did you receive a stranger toy that you were not allowed to play with?

JorgXMcKie said...

Be careful not to let your kids come into contact with dihydrogen oxide. It's one of the most corrosive chemicals in the known universe.

Oh, and never, ever tell anyone about the amount of radioactivity released by the bricks in a brick home. You'd be safer living n a wooden shack next to a nuclear plant's reactor containment vesssel.

k said...

I remember "soaking" spilt mercury up with a piece of tin foil. Not aluminum .. tin (Sn) foil. Really cool.

Ron said...

Have people forgotten how common whole chemistry sets for kids were back in the day? Can you say black powder? You'd be like Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn with all the different things in a decent chemistry set!

When you used to buy Craftsman tools, the kids could get miniature working versions of same, i.e. circular saws, drills, etc.! Imagine that nowadays!

Anonymous said...

Mercury was great fun to play with. Chemistry was my hobby way back when so the Atomic Energy LAb would have been cool.

Dave said...

Dihydrogen monoxide, not dihydrogen oxide.

Anonymous said...

Of course, you can make your own toys at home that are actually so radioactive they're dangerous, as this fellow did.

SteveR said...

Very Funny

" If they happened to land in your skull, well, then you should have moved."

Mercury use it is fillings and mercurachrome. great stuff

Henry said...

Is dry ice dangerous? Frost-bite potential? The adults used to give it out to us kids at my Dad's company picnics. Dry ice in a paper cup is tons of fun.

Anonymous said...

That is the coolest toy I have ever heard of in all my life.

My thoughts exactly.

I had a chemistry set, but that must have been post safety conciousness. It obviously wasn't dangerous because I mixed all of the chemicals together and nothing happened.

Anonymous said...

That is the coolest toy I have ever heard of in all my life.

My thoughts exactly.

I had a chemistry set, but that must have been post safety conciousness. It obviously wasn't dangerous because I mixed all of the chemicals together and nothing happened.

Mike said...

"...I mixed all of the chemicals together..."

You'd have been fun to play with!

Anonymous said...

Mercury use it is fillings and mercurachrome.

Mercury in fillings (as amalgam) I wouldn't worry about at all. Certain forms of mercury are safe. Elemental mercury isn't as bad as some other forms, but it isn't a good idea to be swallowing it or (especially) breathing in its vapors. Heating it is a really bad idea without proper ventilation.

Sigivald said...

Yeah, I'll join in the "best toy ever" chorus.

And all that pants-wetting about a tiny piece of U-238? Linked to "Gulf war syndrome"? Instant junk-filter material, there.

Daryl Herbert said...

Well, I dropped a mercury thermometer--a big one--on my last day of chem lab.

I saw a small one break in high school. So I understand what you mean about the pieces rolling around. And how fun it is.

The grad student instructor was not a happy man. They had to get a special mercury vacuum, etc. for cleanup.

Err, I don't recall our high school doing any of this. Is that bad?

Superdestroyer said...

Radiation Trivia for things that would contain as much radiaoctive material as the science kit:

1. Coleman gas lantern mantels used to be coated with radioactive thorium. There are actually better for cloud chambers than uranium ore. Supposedly some of the foreign made generic ones still contain thorium. The thorium used in the mantels was payment to the US from Belgium for the WWII Lend-Lease program.

2. Koapectate used to contain radioactive thorium since it was made from throrium contain Kaolin clay.

3. Glassy magazines and glossy paperbooks also contain radioactive material due to the use of Kaolin clay to get the shiney white paper.

4. Radium was used in watch faces until the late 1060's. In the movie " Dr. No" James Bond uses his Rolex as a check source for his Geiger(-Mueller) counter.

5. Fiesta Red dishes in the 1950's used uranium to get the burnt orange color. You can still find them in almost any antique consignment store.

Susan said...

Yeah that Atomic Energy Lab does sound like a great toy. I could have played with it right after I got home from having my feet fluoroscoped at the shoe store.

Mike said...

The shoe fluoroscopes could deliver a worrisome dose, particularily if you used them repetitively (as some people were wont to do).

Christy said...

I loved playing with mercury as a kid!

And the best picture ever taken of me was as I caressed a nuclear fuel rod - the white gloves were to protect the fuel from my oils.

So I guess you can say I've always had dangerous toys.

I just spent a frustrating morning looking for a baby doll for a 10-month-old. There are none. The dolls I would have handed to a baby just out of the womb were all labeled 2+ years. Apparently dolls are now dangerous for little bitty girls. I guess it is easier to label dolls for older girls than to deal with the liability issues.

reader_iam said...

Even I find this hard to believe, but I was going to target practice with my dad by 3rd grade. Had air rifles a couple of years before. Pictures exist of me whacking caps with rocks and waving sparklers around at 4, circa 1965.

My husband and I found ourselves laughing at ourselves just last week, when we found ourselves in a serious conversation about whether we should give our 6-1/2-year-old a potato gun for Christmas this year (he's been asking for toy guns) and what message that would send.

Times changes faster than time flies.

reader_iam said...

However, nothing--no toy, no chemistry set, no since-banned game; not using those old bike racks as balance beams over blacktop; nor trying to shinny up the rope in the belltower of an abandoned nearby church, through whose broken windows we climbed; nor climbing up trellises to get on the roof of our Victorian house--nothing was as dangerous as the stuff we got up to when visiting my grandmother's farm.

Talk about "I shouldn't be alive."

Cedarford said...

I echo the posters that say the uranium kit sounds like an incredibly cool toy and wish that the fear of litigation that has ended sale of such valuable educational toys as chemistry sets, electric circuit kits, VandeGraff generators - could be completely reversed.
Relative danger to a kit from a rock and a cloud generator vs. a mountain bike in terms of risk of lethality or injury? You have to be kidding!
You can bet that the Asians let their kids have the stuff that can lead to future great scientists and engineers.
Several top Miscrosoft and Apple people started as model rocketeers that found they loved the math and physics and telemetry involved.
The inventor of the integrated circuit, Nobel Prize winner Gordon Moore, was busy as a kid creating supersonic ramjets including one that narrowly missed a house and synthesizing dynamite from scratch. With the full knowledge and approval of his Dad - who warned Gordon he could get killed - so be careful and not screw up. And to talk to his Dad before building any radio-controlled remote detonators because his Dad knew stray EM signals made that tricky. Nowadays, the liberal Nanny lawyers would have arrested Moores father for assuming his kid was capable of such work, and the fascist police "heroes" of Bush' America would have arrested young Gordon as a terrorist. **************
Superdestroyer did a good rundown on radioactivity and it's ubiquity in common products. Add that the potassium you need to live and what all the food nazis want us to eat more "good sources of" is pretty radioactive. Bad, evil banana! Bad! From naturally occurring K-40. Wave a geiger counter at a shaker of potassium chloride substitute salt for those on low sodium diets compared to a piece of uranium ore or a piece of depleted uranium and the supermarket salt has a higher rad level.
***************
BTW, metallic mercury is pretty harmless. Except the inhaled vapor, as another poster said because unlike handling it, vapor has a million times the surface area of a ball or beads rolling in your hand - and some metallic vapor, given that million+ surface area for chemical reaction - is sure to oxidize or bind with organics. Even then, as we learned with the hatter industry, it took over a decade of workers inhaling the stuff 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week - to show symptoms.
Other than that - it is if it gets into the environment and forms inorganic or organic salts that are bioabsorbable that it becomes a problem and even then, the dangers are greatly exaggerated. In fact, public health people have tied decaying teeth to cardiovascular inflammation and disease - and believe use of mercury amalgams added months or years onto human average lifespan once they became common.
*************
The environmentalists with little scientific education have made "evil mercury" one of their great ignorant bugaboos, significantly overhyping and exaggerating it's dangers. With chemistry set bans and such, America has capitulated to cocooning mothers and tort lawyers - taken the Nanny State approach that all kids must be as safe as the stupidest inner city kid or suburban idiot that needs help just avoiding harming themselves getting dressed in the morning - and assured that we don't produce future Gordon Moores as well as we used to..Not the Asians, fortunately for them. Jarts are a favorite game for kids in S Korea, China. Japanese HS kids work with radioactive materials in projects and do organic synthesis. (Helps. When I visited a US drug synthesis lab, most the workers were Asian, Indian, European...US kids are no longer educated to global standards or get the chem sets allowed in other countries as toys to stimulate early interest in the sciences.)

Harry Eagar said...

Are cherry bombs toys? We used to do a lot of damage with those.

Worst toy injury I ever got was being cracked in the head with a baseball bat.

Art said...

Saddam's parents gave him one of those atomic energy kits...and look what happened to him.

Me, I had an Atomic Energy Commission logo HO train set with a real radioactive waste canister car. Really!

Harsh Pencil said...

Any kind of explosive was the coolest toy ever. I would get all sorts of firecrackers, M-80's whatever from out of state and just love to blow things up. Did you know you can make pretty good rocket out of a paper frozen orange juice can, a firecracker, and a puddle of water?

Kirk Parker said...

reader_iam,

"whether we should give our 6-1/2-year-old a potato gun for Christmas this year... and what message that would send."

Uhh, that's there's better things to do with potatoes than eat them? You should definitely give him one, this is a very, very important message. :-)

SteveR said...

Cedarford: You are exactly right.

Roger Sweeny said...

Ann,

I wouldn't worry about the mercury. The plain element mercury isn't much of a problem. From http://www.calpoison.org/public/mercury.html


"Of all the forms of mercury, elemental mercury is the most commonly swallowed form of mercury, usually from a broken thermometer. Fortunately, elemental mercury ... is not absorbed from the stomach and will not cause any poisoning in a healthy person. In a healthy person, the slippery swallowed mercury will roll into the stomach, out in to the bowels and will be quickly eliminated without causing any symptoms. ... Handling liquid mercury for a very short period of time usually does not result in any problems. ... Mercury is not well absorbed across the skin so skin contact is not likely to cause mercury poisoning, especially with a brief one-time exposure. Even if a person has cuts in their skin, mercury is too heavy to be contained by a cut. Merely washing the wound well will wash the mercury out of the wound.

"Inhalation of elemental mercury vapors is the main cause of toxicity, as mercury is well absorbed by the lungs. To develop problems by inhalation you need either a large one-time exposure or a long-term exposure. A small, one-time exposure is not likely to cause problems."

As long as you weren't cooking the mercury, you should be fine. It's mercury compounds (like demethyl mercury) that are a problem.

reader_iam said...

We were laughing at ourselves because unintentionally we had managed to get so reflexively PC even though we don't actually buy into a lot of the PC stuff regarding kids. Of course, most of our kid's friends are very anti-gun, anti-fantasy toys that seem to imply any sort of battle or fighting, etc. So it is a little easier for the issue not to come up when he shares toys with friends.

Life as it is.

reader_iam said...

"kids' friends' parents"

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Strangest toy I was given and allowed to play with

Easy-bake Oven. It's tame, I admit. But's it's also darn strange to cook with a light bulb.

Pogo said...

No unusual toys, but I was encouraged to play in traffic.

Robert said...

The 1971 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia (which I still have) includes science fair project ideas. One of them is a cloud chamber, which includes, among the materials, a pin with a nugget of radioactive isotope at the blunt end. There's a laconic note to the effect that it can be obtained from a scientific equipment mail-order house.

Sending radioactive isotopes through the mail?! How the moderns would gape and stutter at the idea.

I also had the childhood chemistry sets full of potentially toxic, corrosive and explosive substances.

My older son (now nine) is mad for science, and we expose him to as much hands-on experimentation experience as we can. At the rate things are going, in about twenty years people with a good head for math and hands-on science experience will be VERY employable. . .

tiggeril said...

I'm glad I went to a high school where the chemistry teacher still let us blow stuff up.

We also had a study hall in the science room and looking through all the science equipment and supply catalogs was actually a lot of fun. We also got to help clean out the chemical closet of materials that were no longer allowed in classrooms due to new state regulations. Killjoys.

Rick Lee said...

I played with mercury on many occasions in the 60's. I had a friend (who I'll call Dave, because that was his name) whose dad had access to the stuff. As a matter of fact, Dave's dad had access to all sorts of fun toys. He worked in electronics. Dave had a very powerful hand-crank generator that we had fun shocking each other with. Dave had a huge pile of foam rubber that we used to land on after jumping off the roof. We got brave and starting doing flips and so forth into the foam rubber. Mostly we played "stuntman" and pretended to be shot and then fall off the roof. I have way too many stories like that to recount here.

Anonymous said...

A little story to echo many of the comments:

When I was a young teenager I went prospecting for uranium with my father and uncles. We found some promising ore on land the family owned. It was in the form of rocks lying around the desert, just as Seneca the Younger says above. Any one of them would set the Geiger counter zipping. A small chunk would have made a nice show in a cloud chamber.

It turned out the ore on our land was not commercially exploitable, despite the buzzing Geiger counter. Too bad no one thought of science toys. We had a lot of science toys lying around.

Speaking of science toys, I saw an atomic bomb test when I was four years old. My parents and I stayed in a motel on the edge of the test range near Las Vegas, about 70 miles from ground zero. There were people perched on the roof and on fence posts with binoculars at 4:00 AM. I remember a kind of blue-green double flash, followed by a white and red afterglow. It looked like the Biggest Spark You Ever Saw. I was really sleepy, and didn't stay awake for the musroom cloud.

Althouse's parents gave her a cup of mercury and mine took me to atomic bomb tests. Ah, childhood in the 50's....

Ann Althouse said...

My dentist gave me the mercury. My parents let me play with it... with no warnings or restrictions.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

That explains your diva-ish mercurial nature.

Ann Althouse said...

Roger: Thanks! I feel a lot better about it now.

Speaking of caps... yeah, we had a lot of fun with caps. We had cap guns, we would bang on caps with rocks to make them explode, and we would make a contraption with a screw, a nut, and a bunch of washers that we'd stick a lot of folded up caps into and throw on the ground as hard as we could. Just to make noise and a spark.

Anonymous said...

Never thought of it that way, but could the A-bomb test be the Biggest Cap Toy You Ever Saw?

We used to make cap-powered dart launchers. You took an ordainary playing dart, a piece of brass tube, a penny, a metal furniture glide, a 1" diameter piece of dowel....

Well, you get the idea: Transgressive cap-powered homemade toys from the 50's and 60's. Interesting report from Althouse that even girls were into such things.

Kids are much less handy these days. They may go from Thomas the Tank Engine to Grand Theft Auto in two years, but it's all on computers.

Damn! We're all on computers, aren't we?

Susan said...

We may have played with dangerous toys in the 50's but at least we knew to duck and cover if we saw the flash of an A-Bomb.

Anonymous said...

Susan: Atom bomb tests were a tourist attraction in Las Vegas in the 50's. No kidding! You were at least 70 miles away, so the flash was just over the horizon. I saw it and am still here. You just didn't want to be downwind. That decreased your chances of still being here by quite a bit.

The seismic rumble would jam slot machines and knock over piles of chips, so there was some point to atmospheric testing after all.

Palladian said...

The most dangerous toy I was ever given? Well, that's difficult, since I spent my childhood playing with "dangerous" things. A strong contender for most dangerous was the centrifuge that my grandparents got at an auction and gave to me when I was about 11 or 12. It was probably from the 40s or 50s and looked a lot like this one. Basically, you put two test tubes into the metal sheaths on either side of the machine and turned it on- the metal sheaths with the tubes inside would begin to whirl around, splaying outward until they were horizontal; eventually they spun so fast that you couldn't really see them anymore. Of course, I was delighted with this. I had my own "lab" setup in the basement, where I learned more about science than I ever did in school. I even stabbed my arm with an Xacto knife blade to get blood to put in the centrifuge. Talk about scientific dedication! I also had a tube full of mercury but sadly no radioactive materials. My grandparents were always wary of radioactive things, since they lived in a very unlucky town in Utah that was near the site of one of the most dangerous atomic tests in US history. Of course the fear only came later, when people started dying of terrible cancers; at the time of the tests people used to go up on a nearby hill and cook out and watch the mushroom cloud. I grew up hearing about radiation so much that I naturally became obsessed with it. When I was in 6th or 7th grade, I wrote to the Department of Energy and asked them for all the information they could send me about nuclear power. They happily obliged and for several months I regularly received envelopes stuffed full of booklets, diagrams, pamphlets, glossy photographs of every kind of nuclear power plant going at the time! Try that one today.

Another dangerous "toy" I received was an old seltzer bottle. I hounded my mother for months to find the tiny CO2 canisters that powered it; she finally found some at a kitchen supply store. The bottle had a sort of wing opposite the nozzle where you were to insert the gas canister. You then twisted the wing to pierce the seal of the gas bottle and ready it for use. The first attempt at twisting the wing caused all the gas in the little canister to burst out at once, causing it to instantly freeze itself to the metal wing and to my finger. The second attempt seemed to be successful.. that is, until the pressure in the gas bottle overwhelmed the seltzer bottle's ability to hold it and it shot out on a stream of pressurized gas and hit the oven door across the kitchen, lodging itself halfway into the indentation it created in the metal. If it had hit me in the head, I probably wouldn't be here writing this.

I was also into model rocketry, but I'll leave those stories for another day.

Palladian said...

By the way, if you're going to be worried about a little bit of uranium ore in a science kit, forget about it. You probably already have a bit of radioactive material in your home right now- in your smoke detector. The majority of smoke detectors work using a tiny dot of radioactive material, Americium. Not only is it radioactive, but it's a synthetic element- it does not exist in nature and all of it in the world was created in a nuclear reactor and extracted from the spent fuel, a by-product of nuclear power.

Revenant said...

U-238—has been linked to Gulf War syndrome, cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma, among other serious ailments.

A lump of U-238 ore isn't dangerous unless someone clubs you over the head with it. You need to pulverize the uranium and inhale it in large quantites to get any noticable bad effects.

bill said...

Merry Christmas, everybody:

Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices (Paperback)

Harry Eagar said...

It wasn't exactly a toy and it wasn't given to us, but in 1963 at an amusement park in Atlantic Beach, N.C., we discovered that a 220-volt cable that powered one of the rides had a short in it that was energizing a metal pipe fence. There was another pipe fence just about an arm's span away, and if you grabbed both pipes at once, you got shocked.

The game was to see who could hold the pipes the longest.

Kev said...

MadisonMan--I survived Jarts as well. I've seen the all-plastic "safe" version of lawn darts, but it's just not the same.

Whem my sister and her family had some play equipment installed in their backyard, my parents and I looked at the sturdy, wooden, no-exposed-bolts, permanently-buried-in-the-ground swingset and wondered aloud how my sister and I ever survived childhood with our all-metal, sharp-cornered, shallowly-buried set....not to mention riding in cars without car seats and all that. Yet somehow, we got along just fine.

Christy said...

Rev, uranium is blamed in the Gulf War Syndrome because we made shells of depleted uranium --that is the uranium left after the fissionable stuff (U-235) was removed. I don't credit it with causing problems, but others do. I'm sure some of that rock did get pulverized in the war.