These days we all know that radium is not something you should be ingesting, but a hundred years ago that wasn’t the case at all. There was a plethora of radium products on the market, many of them specifically intended to be ingested. Visitors to our new special exhibit Death by Natural Causes will get to see a number of these products, including a health tonic that was advertised as “perpetual sunshine”. a ceramic water cooler with a small amount of radium incorporated into it’s clay mix and a few glow-in-the-dark watch faces from the early twentieth century.
All of these products were inspired by real science going on at the time, but their inventors misunderstood the significance of that science, with dangerous results. Marie Curie’s work with radioactivity in the early 20th century had partly revolved around the search for possible medical applications for the new discovery. Radium was successfully used to treat cancer and x-radiography helped doctors treat injured soldiers during World War I. The seemingly miraculous qualities of radium were getting a lot of press.
Inspired by news of the medical benefits of this amazing element, inventors in Europe and the U.S. began to market radium products that supposedly gave people more energy while improving their health and curing a variety of illnesses to boot. Luckily, considering that radium was incredibly expensive at the time ($2.2 million a gram in today’s money) most of these elixirs and quack medical insturments did not actually contain any uranium and if they did, it was only in very small amounts. But even so a few a these products managed to cause a lot of harm. The most famous case is that of the radium girls, women hired by companies to paint the dials of watches with luminous paint made from radium.
Luminous dials were first produced during World War I and became popular with the public thereafter. Companies producing these dials hired young women to paint the numerals and hands with the luminescent paint. The women were instructed to keep the tip of their paintbrushes fine by sliding it between their lips or curling it with their tongue. By doing this, the women ingested copious amounts of radioactive paint every day. Over time, this resulted in bone death and cancer for many of these women.
A horrific condition know as “radium jaw” occurred in many of the workers. Radium jaw is basically damage around the mouth due to exposure to the radium paint. The side effects are tooth loss, abscesses, bone decay and intense pain. Some of the girls simply lost a few teeth, one girl had such extensive damage that she had to have her entire lower jaw removed. The reason the radium paint caused so much damage is because radium is chemically similar to calcium. The body mistakes the radioactive metal for calcium an incorporates into incorporates it into the bone. Alpha particles emitted by the radium can cause bone necrosis and bone cancer.
Workers employed in painting luminous watch dials began to suffer from a menagerie of ailments including bone cancer, severe arthritis, anemia, bone decay and muscle decay. In 1927, 5 women filed a case against the American Radium Corporation. In the initial hearing, the women were bedridden and too weak even to raise their arms and take the vow. The press went wild and christened them the “radium girls“. The case was settled outside of court in 1928. None of the Radium girls lived passed the mid-1930’s.
It is hard to say exactly how many women died from exposure to the luminescent paint, and even harder to say how many deaths were caused by the numerous cure-all’s using the radioactive element. We know that the death of Eben Byers, a famous athlete and playboy during the 1920’s was directly caused by an infamous concoction called Radithor. He consumed approximately 1,400 bottles over a two year period, and consequently his jaw practically disintegrated, holes formed in his skull, and he suffered bone decay and infections throughout his body. Because relatively little was known about the effects of radiation on the human body at the time, it is possible that many others were effected by these products but their symptoms were misdiagnosed. The death certificate of Mollie Maggia, the girl who had her lower jaw removed, lists the cause of her death as syphilis.
The case of the Radium girls brought national attention to the dangers of ingesting radioactive materials and gradually radium disappeared from household medicine cabinets around the world. Radium continued to be used on watch faces until around 1969, but workers operated under much safer conditions.