This is the second of a three-part “series” on the Radium Girls, the young workers who painted luminous watch faces during the 1920s – and unknowingly became some of the first human test subjects on the dangers of radiation exposure. I told my version of their story in my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, but it’s worth revisiting here. It remains a cautionary tale of radioactive elements, the slow recognition of their danger, and the risks of scientific over-confidence – that rings remarkably true today.
How long does any scientific discovery remain completely untarnished? Radium raised that question and in a very specific way. How long does it take for a miracle cure – a trace element, a white-silver gleam in the rocks – to be viewed not as a savior but a killer?
Marie Curie, one of the Nobel Prize winning discoverers of radium, tended to defend the element as if it was a child under attack. She toured the United States, seeking money for radium research in 1921.As Curie told the crowds that gathered to see her, she did not fear her own discovery. She kept vials of radioactive isotopes in her skirt pockets, bringing them out to show off during her lectures. She liked to see them in the dark, she’d say, to sit back and watch their pretty blue-green light.
But in other quarters, a certain scientific wariness was starting to surface regarding radium. There were rumors that Curie’s husband, Pierre, killed in 1906 by a horse-drawn carriage, had stumbled in the street due to radiation-induced weakness. Several scientists from the European radium laboratories had developed disturbing leukemias. And when Curie finished her tour, American dignitaries presented her with a gram of radium as a gift from the U.S. – but carefully contained in a 110-pound lead box.
The occasional deaths of scientists across the Atlantic stirred little reaction in the United States, caused no easiness in the blue-collar factories of Orange, New Jersey. The worries about the element grew slowly, almost entirely driven by the health problems among the dial workers, the young women painting watch faces with luminous paint. The paint, called “Undark” by their employers at the U.S. Radium Corporation, gained its glow from the element radium. The workers had almost coincidentally began falling ill shortly after Curie’s triumphant American tour. By 1924, as workers continued to die, managers at the U.S. Radium Company hired a team of scientists from Harvard University to investigate the accelerating reach of inexplicable death.
The Harvard scientists discovered that the plant was thick with radium dust, the employees coated with it. In the dark, one researcher said, the dial-painters glowed like ghosts. The investigation concluded that the deaths were connected to the factory work. Still the scientists noted that radium had such a safe reputation, they were reluctant to blame it completely. Even this cautious assessment did not go over well with factory management. The U.S. Radium Corporation refused to allow the study to be published, saying the information was too sensitive to be released.
The same year, though, a team of less cooperative scientists also started pursuing the problem at U.S. Radium, running tests on many of the ailing workers, some still employed, others who had moved on to other jobs. The doctors from the Consumers League of New Jersey, already well known for its uncompromising positions on worker safety, did publish their findings, summing up with a declaration that the factory in Orange was incubating a new, strange and terrible occupational disease.
At this point, the chief medical examiner in Essex County, Harrison S. Martland decided to conduct his own investigation, one that would be uncolored by claims of pro-management or pro-worker bias on either. It didn’t take him long to agree with both sides on one point: radium exposure was the problem. In his examination of the dial painters, he’d discovered a fact that made that impossible to dismiss:
The women were exhaling radon gas.
That finding provided the first real clue as to what was happening to the dial painters. It was also a testament to the way radium worked, especially its naturally self-destructive nature.The element essentially existed in a state of perpetual breakdown, discarding excess parts as it decayed, subatomic particles fizzing away in all directions, leaving behind an even more crazily unbalanced chemical arrangement, prone to immediate further decay. As it fizzed apart, the resulting own breakdown products included the hyper-charged element polonium (sometimes called radium A) and radon gas.
Radium, then, was “radioactive” because it was constantly turning into something else, discarding unwanted parts as it did so in the form of energetic subatomic particles. The primary emissions from radium were called alpha particles; these were basically tight little bundles of protons and neutrons.
As alpha particles sped away, they took with them some of the energy-charged life
of the element. Thus thee flight of charged particles was often simply called alpha radiation. Radium emitted other forms of radiation but Martland calculated that more than 90 percent of the particles shooting out of radium came from alpha radiation. This wasn’t all that bad: alpha particles were in their way rather wishy-washy bits of atomic energy. They could be stopped by a sheet of paper, a layer of clothing, even the upper layer of dead cells that overlay the skin. The other forms of radiation were actually more formidable. Beta radiation easily sliced through paper but could be stopped by a sheet of aluminum; the hurtle of gamma radiation could only be blocked by a dense material like lead.
But inside the body, as Martland would soon realize, alpha radiation created a precisely engineered internal poisoning. The radium dust noted by the Harvard team posed a definite hazard because it could be inhaled. But the reason that the hard-working dial painters were so much sicker than others in that dusty factory was their practice of lip-pointing the brushes. Every time a painter put a brush in her mouth to bring the bristles to a sharper point she ended up swallowing radium.
That would turn out to be the worst way to absorb the poison. Structurally, the element radium could be considered a close if crazed cousin of the element calcium. Both were alkaline earth metals, silvery white in color. Both were built by cubic crystalline structures. When a person swallowed radium, the body channeled it in a way similar to calcium – some was metabolized away, some went toward nerve and muscle function, most was deposited into the bones.
But where calcium, of course, strengthened and added to the mineral content of the
skeleton, radium did the opposite – it bombarded skeletal material with alpha radiation, blasting it full of tiny holes, and then larger ones, and then larger. It irradiated the blood-forming marrow in the bone’s center. No wonder that the dial painters’ jaws literally rotted away, hips broke, ankles crumbled away, anemias and leukemias bubbled in the bone marrow. No wonder that, gradually, people were beginning to realize that radium – far from offering a radioactive sparkle of renewed health – glowed like a warning light, hinting at death.
In 1925, Martland had detailed these principles of radiation poisoning in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He’d learned many of those facts by studying the bodies of dial painters who had died; among those still living, he’d learned to derive a formula calculating the amount of radium in their bodies. That was based on the gas they exhaled. Radon gas was produced in the skeleton as the radium there decayed; the gas diffused into the bloodstream, was carried to the lungs, exhaled to drift away.
Until the next breath. Make that the next poisoned breath.
This series on The Radium Girls will conclude tomorrow.
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