Early in the 20th century, Bromo-Seltzer contained ingredients known to be poisonous, yet the product experienced widespread popularity and made its inventor very wealthy, due to his aggressive advertising campaigns.
According to the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Isaac Edward Emerson was born in Chatham County, N.C., in 1859. His family moved to Chapel Hill in 1868. Emerson was graduated from the University of North Carolina as a chemist in 1879. He worked out and patented the formula for Bromo-Seltzer, a headache remedy, upon which Emerson’s immense wealth was based.”
Wikipedia described the Bromo-Seltzer product as “(acetaminophen, sodium bicarbonate, and citric acid), an antacid used to relieve pain occurring together with heartburn, upset stomach, or acid indigestion. Bromo-Seltzer is sold in the United States in the form of effervescent granules which must be mixed with water before ingestion. The product took its name from a component of the original formula, sodium bromide; it contained 3.2 mEq/teaspoon of this active ingredient. Bromides are a class of tranquilizers that were withdrawn from the American market in 1975 due to their toxicity. Their sedative effect probably accounted for Bromo-Seltzer’s popularity as a hangover remedy. Early formulas also used acetanilide as the analgesic, a known poisonous substance.”
According to Joseph A. Schwarcz, author of The Fly in the Ointment: 70 Fascinating Commentaries on the Science of Everyday Life, there was another ingredient that was the key to the success of Bromo-Seltzer.
Suspicions about acetanilide goes back at least as far as 1905, when Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote The Great American Fraud and published this warning.