Vince Holahan, Ph.D.
Senior Level Advisor for Health Physics
You may have heard about colorful silicone wristbands and athletic tape infused with minerals that are supposed to release “negative ions.” You might even be wearing one. They are touted as improving balance and strength, enhancing flexibility and motion, and improving mental focus and alertness. They’ve been sold on the Internet or in retail stores across the U.S.
The minerals these products contain can vary from volcanic ash and titanium to less familiar ones such as tourmaline, zeolite, germanium and monazite sand. They may also contain naturally occurring radioactive elements, including uranium and thorium. In trace amounts, these materials do not warrant much attention. But the radioactive emissions—that is to say gamma rays—from several of these products were detected on entry to the country by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials using radiation monitoring equipment.
While they may be radioactive, these products are not expected to have health impacts. Based on one experiment, wearing a wristband constantly for one year would result in a dose of one millirem—a fraction of what people are exposed to from radon, granite, the sun and other natural sources. The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, chartered by Congress to make radiation protection recommendations, considers this dose “negligible.”
But NRC licensing requirements for uranium and thorium depend on the amount of radioactive material present. We commissioned the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to do an analysis that found enough radioactive thorium in several ion technology products that they require an NRC license for manufacture, distribution and possession in the U.S.
NRC staff experts on radiation worked with federal agencies and state regulators to determine the most appropriate path forward. 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.
Anyone wishing to dispose of a negative ion product may simply put it in their trash. This is OK because, although the amount of radioactive material requires licenses for manufacture and sale, it does not require any special handling or disposal.
We cannot say whether these products work as advertised. If you have them or know someone who does, our best advice is to throw them away. Anyone with health concerns should talk to their doctor. In the meantime, we’ll continue to do all we can to make sure they are being regulated properly.