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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Revealing the dark side of Curie’s ‘beautiful radium’

Row upon row of women sat in a musty factory hand-painting watch dials. Each woman brought her camel-hair paintbrush to her lips, drew it into a point and carefully drew on numbers with a radiolumiescent paint. One by one these dial painters mysteriously became ill. They suffered from anemia, bone fractures and jaw necrosis, and some even died.

These women would later become known as the Radium Girls. Each time these women brought the brushes to their lips they were slowly poisoning themselves by accidentally ingesting radium , a highly toxic substance, from the paint.

Radium sits at the bottom of the periodic table, in position 88. It is a highly radioactive element, meaning that it is unstable and spontaneously emits high-energy particles as it decays into radon gas. These high-energy particles can damage living cells, making it a serious health-hazard to humans. Radium is so radioactive that its metal form maintains itself at a slightly higher temperature than its surroundings.

The element is the product of the radioactive decay of uranium, meaning it is found in all uranium ores. Radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, earning them the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. Marie Curie’s life is portrayed in this year’s University of Wisconsin-Madison Go Big Read book, “Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss.

Initially, the adverse health effects of radium were not known. Radium was touted as a miracle element with healing properties. It was incorporated into beauty products like hair creams and toothpaste and even food. Marie Curie even referred to it as “my beautiful radium” and toured the globe with her discovery.

Radium also played a key role in understanding the construction of the atom. Ernest Rutherford used radium as a source of alpha particles in his famous gold foil experiment. In this experiment, Rutherford discovered that a dense positive charge is located at the nucleus of an atom.

The dial-painters subjected their bodies to intense radiation by ingesting radium. The human body handles radium similarly to how it treats calcium. The radium became concentrated in bones and was able to destroy them from the inside, causing the anemia, decay and cancer the women experienced.

Eventually stories like the Radium Girls surfaced, drawing attention to the dangers of radium. French physicist Antoine Becquerel and Marie Curie both reported receiving burns to the skin after carrying samples against their body for a few hours. Curie later died of aplastic anemia, which was attributed to her extended exposure to radium.

Radium has no major uses today due to its dangerous health effects. It has been removed from consumer products and widely replaced by less dangerous analogs. It is, however, being tested as a possible treatment for cancer by delivering radiation to the cancer cell.

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