Radium was discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, and by the 1920s it was considered a miracle material. Radium’s ability to treat previously untreatable cancers caused many to believe it had use as a vitamin of sorts that could extend life and ensure health. Radium could be found as an additive in toothpaste, skin creams, and even mineral water; it spiced tonics that were prescribed by doctors for everything from arthritis, to hypertension, to diabetes. The belief that radium had curative benefits was only bolstered by the discovery that the water in various European hot springs – famed for their curative powers – contained radon, itself a radioactive gas that is a byproduct of the natural decay of radium.
One of the most novel uses of radium was as a primary ingredient in glowing paint. Prior to the start of World War I, scientist William J Hammer developed a paint composed primarily of radium and zinc. Radium is an alpha particle emitter, spitting off a helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons bound together) as it undergoes radioactive decay. The alpha particles impact the zinc atoms, exciting them. The easiest way for the zinc atoms to calm down is to emit light, which in this case is a stereotypical “radioactive” green glow. Unfortunately for him, Hammer never patented the concept, and a number of American companies began manufacturing radium paint and hand applying it to various products. The start of World War I increased demand for radium painted products, making it a very lucrative industry. For one, soldiers in the trenches found their pocket watches to be entirely inadequate. They would fall from their pockets and were impossible to read in the dim light. Manufacturers began removing the watch chains and replacing them with leather wrist straps to prevent the first problem. As for the second problem, well a light coating of radium paint on the hands and numbers of the face provided enough glow to be seen in pitch black while still being dim enough that the enemy couldn’t see.
As you might imagine, the call for miracle watches that could be read in the dark didn’t diminish at the end of the war. Production ramped up on painted clock faces suitable for the well adorned grandfather clock in the living room. One such company painting clock faces was The U.S. Radium Corporation, which had a plant in Orange, New Jersey. The painting work was delicate but not highly skilled work, and given the societal norms of the time was mostly done by young women – those dainty and steady hands, you know. Painters at the factory were taught to sharpen their brush tips by using their lips, a fairly common practice among painters at the time. The young women had no problem with this, and in fact welcomed ingesting radium as a work benefit. After all, radium was a tonic used by the rich, why wouldn’t they want a little free radium? Some of the girls went so far as to sprinkle the paint in their hair to make it sparkle, or even paint their teeth for a magical smile. It is said that one could always identify a radium painter walking down the street at night because of the faint glow they would pick up from airborne radium particles deposited on their clothing and hair. A typical worker was expected to paint two hundred and fifty clock faces a day for twenty dollars a week.
By the early 1920s it appeared a public health crisis was looming. At U.S. Radium Corporation’s New Jersey plant, nine clock painters were dead by 1924. The way these previously healthy young women died was horrific. It would start with a feeling of fatigue. Sometimes their hair would fall out. Most often it was their teeth that fell out. A pained trip to the dentist revealed that not just their teeth but their jaws were deteriorating inside their heads. More than one woman lived for some time after having her jaw removed because it was crumbling. One woman wore a brace that stretched from her tailbone to her head to compensate for her deteriorating spine. Another bed ridden woman ended up with one leg four inches shorter than the other due to bone decay. The Radium Girls, as they came to be known, were dying of a disease never before seen on a large scale. Many – including Harrison Martland, the chief medical examiner for Essex County where U.S. Radium Corporation’s plant was located – suspected radium poisoning.
What was happening to these girls?
Many poisons work by supplanting a normal chemical in the body, with death or disease following as a result of the body’s altered response to the wrong chemical being present. Here’s an example. Hemoglobin in the blood attaches to oxygen, carrying it through the body from the lungs – where the oxygen is picked up – to the muscles where it is needed. Hemoglobin has a molecular structure like a puzzle piece, and oxygen has a corresponding structure that fits into that groove. Carbon monoxide, a gaseous poison and major component of car exhaust, is structurally similar to oxygen and can also attach to hemoglobin, but much more effectively. Carbon monoxide bonds to hemoglobin two hundred times more strongly than oxygen does, meaning it can muscle oxygen out of the way. The result is suffocation on a cellular level; if there is enough carbon monoxide in the lungs it doesn’t matter how much oxygen is present, it’s losing it’s place on the respiration train to carbon monoxide.
Radium, when ingested, does something chemically similar but far more sinister. Carbon monoxide poisoning happens quickly, radium poisoning kills slowly over years. Radium is structurally similar to calcium, meaning radium is taken up by the bones at the expense of calcium. By itself this can leave the bones more brittle, but add in the effect of radioactive decay and the bones become a shooting gallery. Alpha particles are big and heavy from an atomic standpoint. They don’t have much penetrating power (outside the body a sheet of paper will stop alpha particles) but when ingested alpha emitters can do serious damage. Those big billiard balls that are alpha particles pass through many cells before they are stopped internally. If radium is incorporated into the bone itself, all those alpha particles fly like shotgun pellets, slowly but persistently drilling tiny holes in the bone until it crumbles. The jaws were affected first because they were closest to the source of the poison (those licked paint brushes), but once in the bloodstream (by way of the digestive system) radium is incorporated everywhere there is calcium, hence damage to the load bearing bones of the body like the spine and legs.
Harrison Martland suspected radium was the cause of the girl’s illness, forming the basic outline of the above theory. He had to prove it though; enough that it could stand up in a court of law. Running tests on the surviving Radium Girls he discovered a compelling, and disturbing, piece of evidence that gave his theory credibility. All of the living Radium Girls exhaled radon gas.
Radium, which has 88 protons in its nucleus, decays into an alpha particle (two protons) and a radon atom (86 protons). Radium’s half life, or the time it takes half of its original volume to go through radioactive decay, is 1,600 years. While radium is a solid at room temperature, radon is a colorless and odorless gas. It is in fact the heaviest of the “noble gases,” and as a noble gas it is not very reactive, meaning it doesn’t bond to other elements like radium does. The alpha particles from radium decay damage the bones, while the radon gas is absorbed into the bloodstream where it is carried to the lungs and exhaled as waste.
Martland and his colleagues needed to prove that radium could exist in the bodies of the girls for years, which they did by demonstrating that the bones of one of the Radium Girls that had died three years earlier were highly radioactive. To do this they placed the bones on photographic film and demonstrated that they left bright spots on the negatives, the telltale sign of radioactive particle impacts. With the mass production of the Geiger counter in 1928 they were able to perform a simpler test by pointing the Guiger counter at the bones and hearing a rapid tick-tick-tick. Either way, the evidence was strong and before the trial U.S. Radium Corporation settled with the Radium Girls for a rare 1920s workers compensation victory.
We are always eager to seize on the promise and potential of any new scientific discovery. At the dawn of atomic physics the discovery of radioactivity was magic turned science. When new technologies are rapidly adopted with the promise of improving lives sometimes the exact opposite can happen. It was eventually discovered that radium’s magical curative properties were to good to be true, in part due to the Radium Girls and Martland’s research. After the 1930s radium treatment for cancer was discontinued because it was found that the long term side effects included – comically – cancer. Today, when technological advancements come faster than we can keep track, it is important to welcome any new miracle with cautious optimism. Sometimes science needs to catch up with itself, and you don’t want to be the girl painting clock faces while it lags behind.
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