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Radium: Breaking the Gloom with an Unending Eerie Glow

Published on 25th July

In 1898, studying pitchblende, * a variety of the uranium ore uraninite (mainly uranium dioxide, UO2) obtained from North Bohemia (an area around Jáchymov, in today’s Czech Republic), Marie Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre, Polish and French chemists, discovered radium. **  Curie published her research paper describing her discovery the day after Christmas, her second paper that year, *** an unique and unusual step for a woman living in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Image 1.0: 1921 magazine advertisement for Undark, a product of the Radium Luminous Material Corporation which was involved in The Radium Girls scandal.

‘…The fine yellow powder contained only a minuscule amount of radium; it was mixed with zinc sulfide, with which radium reacted to give a brilliant glow. The effect was breathtaking…’ ( from: ‘The Radium Girls – The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women’ by Kate More, page 5)

Following the removal of uranium from the ore, the Curies found that the remaining material was still radioactive. Separating out these radioactive remains they discovered that the left-over mixture primarily consisted of barium, a soft silvery chemical element classified as an alkaline earth metal (chemical symbol Ba, atomic number 56), which gave a brilliant red flame color and spectral lines that had never been documented before.

The unknown element they discovered in their ‘laboratory’ in the rue l’Homond, a street in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, France, was radium. [1][2]

In 1902, using a process involving electrolysis of a solution of pure radium chloride, using a mercury cathode, and distillation of the product in an atmosphere of hydrogen gas, Marie Curie and Andre Debierne, a French chemist, isolated radium in its pure metallic form. [3]

Intensely radioactive
Radium, the heaviest of all alkaline earth metals, is intensely radioactive, about 3 million times greater than uranium, emitting alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. Luminescent, giving a faint blue color, radium most closely resembles the chemical properties of barium. And mixed with beryllium, it produces neutrons. Like other alkaline earth metals, radium reacts with water to form the hydroxide.

Photo 1.0: Cover – The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.

An untold story
In the early twentieth century, before falling out of vogue and prohibited after it was discovered they could have serious adverse health effects, radium-containing products were popular. But in these early days, without a true understanding of the real effects of radiation poisoning, radium became a fashionable – a ‘cure-all’ and an industrial wonder.

Magazines and newspapers championed the fact that doctors used radium to cure cancer forever.  In turn doctors recommended the unique element for the treatment of a range of unrelated diseases – everything from arthritis to impotence to senility. At The Radium Institute in New York, J. Evertt Field, MD, administrated thousand of radium injections to wealthy patients. [4]

Even Marie Curie hailed radium and its unique characteristics as major medical breakthrough. In her 1904 book Recherches sur les Substances Radioactives (Investigations on radioactive substances), she wrote that radium [offered great] promise… Radium’s curious ability to destroy tissue — diseased skin exposed to it later regrew in a healthy state — was now being used by physicians to kill cancer. Physicians also started sewing capsules of radium into the surgical wounds to better treat cancer patients. [5]

Truly versatile
Considered a wonder product, radium was used as additive in products from toothpaste to soap, hair and face creams and even food items such as butter and milk were advertised as containing the element. Restaurants served glow-in-the-dark radium cocktails and candy, radium fertilizer was considered to improve the output of farms.

Radium was also fashionable. Called ‘liquid sunshine‘ radium penetrated America and American life and pop-culture. In theaters, music halls and grocery stores – radium became a craze – featured in cartoons, songs and books and used in jewelry and watches.

Sabin Arnold von Sochocky, MD (1883 – 1928) and George S. Willis, MD (1876) founded the Radium Luminous Material Corporation in 1914. The company, with facilities in Newark, Jersey City and Orange, and mining operations in Paradox Valley, Colorado and in Utah, produced uranium from carnotite ore and eventually started production and the application of radio-luminescent paint, marketed as Undark, a mixture of radium and zinc sulfide in which radiation causing radium let the sulfide to fluoresce. [6]

World War I
During the WW I, the demand for dials, watches, and (aircraft) instrument pannels painted with the radio-luminescent Undark surged, and eventually became wildly popular among the public. As a result, and Radium Luminous Material Corporation expanded operations. [7] #

The delicate task of painting dials for watches an (aircraft) instruments was done mostly by young women, who were instructed to maintain a fine tip on their twirled, camel-hair, paintbrushes by licking them – a technique called lip-pointing. Companies like Radium Luminous Material Corporation (later renamed as United States Radium Corporation) and others, including the Waterbury Clock Company (now Timex) in Waterbury, Connecticut, offered their workers above average wages – some of them earning three times the average factory-floor worker.  They found themselves in the top 5 of female wage earners, some taking home more money than their fathers.[8]

With such coveted jobs, these ‘shining radium girls‘ –  who lit up the night like industrious fireflies –  were considered the luckiest alive ― until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.

A fatal poison
At the dawn of the nuclear age, and initially unrecognized  there were early signs that radiation had sinister powers. For example, in 1901, Henri Becquerel (1852 – 1908), French physicist and Nobel laureate, and the first person to observe radioactivity, reported strange burns he received from the vial of radium he carried in his waistcoat pocket while on his way to London, England, to deliver a lecture to an eager audience.  Exposed to the same elements, Marie Curie had notes similar burns on her hands. But nobody paid attention and disease as a result of the poisoning radiation would comes on gradually.


Photo 2.0: Radium Girls work in a factory of the United States Radium Corporation.

In the late 1920a and early 1930s, it was found that workers exposed to radium when handling radio-luminescent paints such as Undark, suffered serious health problems, including sores, anemia, and bone cancer. Many of these workers, included the watch dial painters referred to as ‘the radium girls,’ died from diseases cause by radiation.##

One reason why radium is poisonous, is that the body treats it as a calcium substitute. However, unlike calcium, which strengthens the bones, radium kills off the bone tissues. As a result, the radioactivity from the radium  degrades the marrow and damages bone cells, in effect poisoning someone for as long as he/she lives. Radioactive alpha and beta particles emitted attack DNA and the resulting mutations may lead to the development of cancer. [9]

It was estimated that the radium girls who worked at the factories had been exposed annually to thousands of times the maximum recommended exposure to radium.

World War II and beyond
The approach of World War II again resulted in a surge of aircraft instruments that could be seen in the dark – leading to an increase need for the continual use of radium dials.  And again, the dial painting industry flourished.  But this time, to prevent the tragedy of the early 1900s to the mid 1920s, the work was carried out with strict attention, designed to protection the dial painters. The protection paid off.  Dial painters who started work after 1925 developed radium induced malignancies.

In her new book Kate Moore, a Sunday Times bestselling author, book editor and ghostwriter remembers these ‘shining radium girls’ who toiled amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories, their bodies from head to toe with the dust that ultimately killed them.

An incredible legacy
The history of these dial painters represents a shocking story – with the dial painters at the epicenter.

In part due to the limited awareness of the harmful properties of radium, the plight of the radium girls took many years to be recognized. Their mysterious diseases were often blamed on syphilis – this to undermine the women’s reputations. And many doctors and dentists inexplicably cooperated with the powerful disinformation campaign by Radium Luminous Material Corporation/United States Radium Corporation.

The companies that once offered golden opportunities ignored all claims of the gruesome side effects of radium as well as the worker’s unrelenting cries of corruption.

The careless handling of a deadly substance, medical misdiagnosis, corporate fraud, greed and corruption delayed the cry for justice, but eventually, due to the tenacity of a celebrated group of inspirational women, the story  eventually is publicized, leading to developments of world-changing regulations, groundbreaking worker rights, compensation, and safety standards.[8]

Unfortunately, settling out of court, the financial support awarded came too late for most: legal maneuvering had delayed the trial outcomes until many of the radium girls had died. But their lawsuits had a significant impact on the labor rights movement in the United States. Their legal cases became precedents for workers, allowing them to sue corporations for labor abuses. It also improved industrial safety standards designed to protect workers more and was eventually used to help get a congressional bill, allowing for workers to be compensated for occupationally acquired diseases, passed. ###

Moore’s book, carefully researched and sublimely told, is a must read narrative of these young, very brave, women, exposed to a fashionable ‘cure-all’ and an industrial wonder.  It is a story about the crumbling of hopes and dreams as a result of one of America’s largest, twentieth century, industrial scandals, a struggle for justice – exposing a case of ethics and worker safety – in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the incredible legacy they left behind.


*  The name pitchblende is derived from pitch, because of its black color, and blende, a term used by German miners to denote minerals whose weight suggested metal content, but whose exploitation was, at the time they were named, either impossible or not economically feasible
** Chemical symbol Ra, atomic number 88
*** Curie’s first research paper, discussing polonium, was published in the summer of 1898.
# The Radium Luminous Material Corporation expanded operations also marketed the radio-luminous ‘Undark‘ pigment for non-military products, including, but not limited to, house numbers, pistol sights, light switch plates, and glowing eyes for toy dolls.
## Among 1,474 women employed in the United States radium dial-painting industry before 1930, there are 61 known cases of bone sarcoma and 21 cases of carcinoma of the paranasal sinuses or the mastoid air cells, also known as head carcinomas. – Rowland RE, Stehney AF, Lucas, Jr. HF. Dose-Response Relationships for Female Radium Dial Workers. Radiation Research: November 1978, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 368-383.
### Mae Keane, the last of The Radium Girls, employed by Waterbury Clock Company, died in March 2014. Altough she has cancer twice, and lost all her teeth within a decade of working as a dial painter, she lived to 107 years of age.

Featured Image: Illustration of nuclear radiation symbol. Courtesy: © 2017. Fotolia. Used with permission. Image 1.0: 1921 magazine advertisement for Undark, a product of the Radium Luminous Material Corporation which was involved in The Radium Girls scandal. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923. Photo 2:0 Radium Girls work in a factory of the United States Radium Corporation.Circa 1922.  Public Domain.

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