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Radium and corporate greed that glows

Esme Morgan transcends back in time to when raising awareness of the dangers of radium was non-existent

Radium is a radioactive metal that can be commonly found (at very low levels) in almost all plants, animals, soils, and rocks. Radium was first discovered in the mineral pitchblende by Marie Curie. It has been used as an early form of cancer treatment as small doses implanted in tumours can kill cancerous cells. However, radium has since largely been replaced by the safer Cobalt-60. Purified radium and some radium-based compounds can glow in the dark. This property opened the doors for commercial use, a business opportunity that now has a body count.

Discovering radium was a breakthrough that inspired a surge of research into radioactivity and allowed for leaps in medicine which have saved countless lives. Unfortunately, instead of using this progress for good, the United States Radium Corporation went on to ignore the health of their workers for personal profit. The company primarily manufactured glowing watches using a mysterious paint they marketed as Undark, a mixture of zinc sulfide and radium. The watches were marketed to the United States army during World War I and II as they allowed personnel to work in low-light conditions, potentially saving aircraft crew who could now operate planes with less light alerting enemy planes. Lives saved in the air came with the ultimate cost for those on the ground as the products were hand painted by approximately 70 young women. Workers were given strict instructions to point their brushes using their lips, slowly poisoning themselves with every stroke of the brush.

At the time, the dangers of radiation poisoning were not well known. Unknowingly, the young workers were ingesting radium. Approximately 20% of ingested radium stays in the body after consumption, transported via the bloodstream, with a tendency to accumulate in the person’s bones. Radium emits alpha particles and gamma rays as it decays and over the years, this manifests as diseases such as leukaemia, raising the risk of cancer in every tissue in the body.

As word spread of radium’s harmful properties, United States Radium Corporation’s management and scientists wore masks and gloves, used tongs and hid behind screens to protect themselves from radiation poisoning. There was no attempt to give the factory workers ingesting radium daily any such preservation. Years of exposure to radioactivity had done its damage, but the real crime of the corporation was the insidious coverup. The dangers of radium were suddenly broadcast to the public following the deaths of five young women who painted the radium on watches. They were diagnosed with “radium necrosis” – this occurs when ingested radium creates tumours on the jaws till the jaws disintegrate. Instead of protecting the women, medical examiners were hired to claim they had syphilis. Between a lack of public knowledge and malicious coverups, the girls were uninformed to the extent that they would purposely cover their dresses, hair, and teeth in radioluminescent paint to allow them to “glow” as they hastened their own deaths.

Science communication provides a vital service to the public. Raising awareness of the latest scientific discoveries can prevent companies such as the United States Radium Corporation from endangering their workers through misinformation. Geiger counters still spike around the women’s graves where they lay, their corpses still radioactive.

From Issue 22: the Dark Side of Science

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