You've probably seen negative ion bracelets before: colorful loops of silicon promoting the ability to increase balance, reduce pain and restore energy. They promise you'll run faster and jump higher. Golfers love them. Your uncle who owns a boat probably has a few in the color navy.
But we have bad news: Folks who wear negative-ion bracelets are getting three times more radiation every day than the average American.
What are negative ions? Negative ions are atoms that have more electrons than protons. They're also negatively charged, so when they're nearby other negatively charged things, they magnetically attract to one another. When there are a lot of particles in the air, the negative ions grab the allergens (dust, pollen, etc.), making the combination too heavy to stay in the air. That makes negative ions good for cleaning allergens like dust from the air, and it's why they're found in products like air filters and dryer sheets.
How the bracelets purportedly work: In our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to boost serotonin levels and boost your energy. Negative ion bracelets allegedly use those ions to "adjust to the body's muscle function to create a better balance in the body," which, frankly, doesn't mean a damn thing.
A scary discovery: Amal Graafstra, founder of the biohacking supply company Dangerous Things, had just started working with a silicon wristband company that was interested in using his RFID chips to create a wristband that could hold medical information for patients. He had seen videos of people putting negative ion bands next to a negative ion air tester to see if they were doing their job, and so he did the same with some bands from his supplier.
After some testing, Graafstra discovered that the bands were producing ionizing radiation, the same type of radiation that was present after the Chernobyl disaster. As Graafstra put it to Mic, "That's the bad shit."
Graafstra made a video showing what happened when he placed the wristbands against a Geiger counter, the device used to measure ionizing radiation. He found the wristbands were emanating over 2 microsieverts of radiation an hour. It takes a 1-sievert dose of radiation to cause immediate radiation sickness. So 2 µSv, or 0.000002 Sv, isn't going to make a big impact on the human body.
Graafstra found low radiation levels in the ionic band he tested. Radiation in low doses isn't necessarily a problem — radiation comes from everywhere, including your computer. But in high amounts, radiation weakens, breaks up and kills DNA, making it mutate in a way that dramatically raises the risk of cancer.
That's why chemotherapy is so effective and so detrimental to your body: Radiation beats the living hell out of every organic thing it touches. And it explains why, after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986 and microwaved the Soviet Union, experts predicted around 40,000 cancer deaths from the radiation.
But we're not talking about a single shot of radiation. If you wore one of the tested wristbands for 24 hours, that's like getting five dental X-rays in one day. If you wore the band every hour of every day of the year, that's 21.9 millisieverts — roughly half of the maximum yearly radiation exposure permitted for U.S. radiation workers.
"If someone wears two of these [bands], they get double that [exposure]," Graafstra told Mic. And the problem is, if someone thinks ionic bands have health benefits, they'll wear them all day, every day.
Radiation is everywhere: Robert Emery, vice president for safety, health, environment & risk management at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told Mic plenty of household items — smoke detectors, exit signs, gun sights, some glow-in-the-dark watches — contain low levels of radiation, too. In fact, you're being exposed to 6,200 microsieverts every year, according to Emery.
Emery told Mic the radiation exposure in the negative ion bands "isn't that significant." But "I think the consumer should at least be aware," he said.
While the bands don't give off an outright dangerous level of radiation, anyone wearing them needs to know they dramatically increase your personal exposure to radioactivity — especially if you wear one all the time. "If someone wore that band for 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, the approximate dose ... equates to about 3.5 times the dose the average American receives [annually]," Emery told Mic.
Scientists are catching on to the risks: In fact, Israel banned these wristbands because it was concerned with irradiating citizens. In November 2015, a team of researchers from Nuclear Research Centre Negev in Israel published a study on rubber "balance bracelets" being a source of uranium and thorium, both radioactive isotopes.
Vince Holahan, a senior-level advisor for health sciences at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, published a post about the dangers of the colorful silicon wristbands allegedly able to release negative ions.
"NRC staff experts on radiation worked with federal agencies and state regulators to determine the most appropriate path forward," Holahan wrote in 2014. "Products containing negative ion technology — that is to say containing licensable amounts of radioactive material — should not be sold at the present time because they have not been licensed, as required, by the NRC. ... If you have them or know someone who does, our best advice is to throw them away."
A year and a half later, the wristbands are still on the market. In China, a product marketed as negative ion powder was being put in the negative ion wristbands, Graafstra told Mic. "It's basically crushed-up radioactive waste from things like mining. It's in things like A/C filters and laundry sheets. Which is fine because, if it's not on your skin, it's not a danger. But when it touches, [the radiation] is pretty intense."
The phenomenon he's talking about is called hormesis. It's a toxicology term that means, at low doses, something is good for you, and at high doses, it'll screw you up.
According to Graafstra, the color of the band could indicate how much of the shady materials are present in these wristbands, because the ion powder would discolor brighter silicon.
Despite the frantic nature of the Geiger counter's clicking when exposed to these bands, and the alarming reaction that might set off in your head, you aren't going to turn into a mutant or suffer radiation poisoning by wearing one of these ionic wristbands. But you would be setting your baseline of daily radiation much higher than most people — and in the name of therapeutic claims that are, at best, suspect.
So until clear evidence comes out to support the medicinal claims by manufacturers of ionic wristbands, maybe skip the opportunity to turn your body into a nuclear reactor.