The Epic Story of Radium

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The Epic Story of Radium


We were totally focused on one thing. It was as if we were in a dream. We would sometimes go to our workroom after dinner to have another look at things. Our precious products were set out on the tables and shelves. All around us we could see their slightly luminous silhouettes. And the glowing forms in the dark always gave us a new sense of excitement and delight.


It was 1898. Marie Curie had started working on her thesis about radiation emitted by uranium, discovered two years earlier by Henri Becquerel. With the help of her husband, Pierre Curie, she discovered that other previously unknown substances were also capable of spontaneously emitting radiation. Firstly, polonium, named after Marie's Polish homeland. And then, more importantly, radium, which emits a million times more radiation than uranium. They gave this phenomenon a name: radioactivity.


Faced with this glowing flash, which was warm to the touch and had a seemingly inexhaustible heat source, Pierre Curie wondered where the radium was deriving its energy from. Perhaps, from undetectable radiation in the surrounding environment. He was doubtless thinking about experiments in spiritualism, which fascinated him, and which he would try to explain together with other scientists.


It was in 1902, in Montreal, that Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy finally demonstrated that the energy comes from the radium itself. Radioactivity is the spontaneous transformation of one chemical element into another by the emission of radiation.


Radium Miraculous


Pierre and Marie Curie, even using food containers to make their instruments, continued working tirelessly in the midst of the general skepticism to discover what was possible one of the most important keys to modern science: radium


In fact, radium was to lead to numerous applications in physics and in chemistry, but, as with X-rays, it was medicine that was to make the first use of it. In 1901, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel jointly published the physiological action of radium rays, which began with the sentence: "Radium rays act energetically on the skin. The effect produced is similar to that resulting from the action of Rontgen rays, or in other words, X-rays". This would mark the starting point for medical applications.


At the initiative of Pierre Curie, the doctors at the St. Louis Hospital in Paris started to treat skin tumors by placing small radium needles in contact with the tumors. Very quickly, other doctors learned to make use of radium radiation. People began flocking to the waiting rooms, thrilled to be able to make small, unsightly marks on their faces disappear with just a few applications of a radium salt.


Radium would become the tool for fighting cancer, the disease that was thought to be uncurable. Some hospitals equipped themselves with a radium bomb to treat deep tumors. Another technique, Curie therapy, was also developed, which consists of inserting a platinum needle that contains radium powder into a cancerous tumor. The recovery rates, low at first, improved over the months. The medical journals were full of examples of radium proving to be a miracle cure.


The Roaring Twenties


Praised for its beneficial effects, radium became a magic potion, a panacea giving raise to flourishing businesses: radium cremes, tablets, toothpastes, and shampoos were believed to invigorate, rejuvenate, and cure chronic diseases, such as rheumatism, arthritis, and gout. They were freely available on the open market. No authorization was needed, as it was a natural product. And industry wouldn't stop there: It doped paint with radium to make the hands and faces of watch clocks luminous. Or for luminous signs in airplanes and public spaces.


Manufacturers would use radium in the tips of lightning conductors to prove their effectiveness.


A Rare, Expensive Product


Although the radium industry was expanding, the product remained extremely rare. Around 400 metric tons of ore had to be processed to extract a single gram of radium. No wonder it was 2,000 times more expensive than gold. One gram cost the same amount as a luxury house in Paris. It had become so expensive that Marie Curie, who no longer had the means to buy it, could no longer obtain any.


In 1921, a journalist organized a collection amongst American women in the United States. She collected the 100,000 dollars, the equivalent of a million dollars in today's money, required to purchase a gram of radium for Marie. This gift was presented to her by the President of the United States. In all, only 1 1/2 kilograms of radium would be used worldwide before it was banned.


Radium Danger


Evidence of the toxicity of radium was first gathered in the United States. In 1924, a New York dentist noticed an increasing number of cases of jaw cancer in his female patients. All had the same job: painting luminous numbers on the faces of alarm clocks. And they were all doing the same thing: dipping their paint brushes in radium paint, and then putting them in their mouths to give them a fine point. But the initial press articles reporting this news did not reflect public opinion. The product was said to have so many virtues that people could not admit that there was a cause and effect relationship, especially since industries employing radium did their best to discredit those who questioned its safety. But, several commissions issued official alerts to American consumers when other suspicious deaths were reported, including one young American, Evan Byers, a wealthy industrialist and ex-golf champion, who died in 1931 from a radium overdose. On the advice of his doctor, he had been systematically adding a product known as Radithor to his drinking water.


Radiation Protection Measures


This scandal caused in the United States by the female clock painters would mark a turning point in the history of radiation protection. At the time, protection mainly concerned external exposure for medical staff using screens, shielding, and remote handling devices.


Cancerous organs are bombarded daily with radioactive irradiation which breaks up and destroys the malignant cells. Viewfinders similar to those in periscopes are used to monitor the treatment through lead-lined walls, thus avoiding the radiation.


The painters in the US factories were subjected to internal exposure as they ingested radioactive elements. The tragic fate of these women was to lead to the establishment of a new type of standard: an ingestion limit.


The Decline of Radium


Radium's reputation, which had been so positive, was finally destroyed by the death of Marie Curie in 1934 from leukemia, most likely linked to her long-term exposure to radiation. Just a few months before her death, she had the pleasure of being present at the discovery of artificial radioactivity by her daughter and son-in-law, Iréne and Frederique Curie.


Radium was gradually replaced by artificial radioactive elements, such as cobalt, iridium, and cesium in medicine, and tritium for luminous paint. It would finally be prohibited in the 1970s as part of radiation protection regulations.


The Legacy of Radium


Although radium is no longer used today, it has not gone away. Some industrial sites where it was used are still polluted by residue which continues to emit radiation. One example is the Bayard Clock Factory which flourished in the 1950s before finally closing in the late 1980s. The factory is now being decontaminated. Every building and every square meter of the workshops was inspected. If radium was detected, the walls had to be scrapped and the ground had to be dug up. After several years of decontaminated work, 800 tons of waste were removed to the specialized storage centers run by Andra, the French National Agency for the Management of Radioactive Waste. 800 tons containing only about 2/10ths of a gram of radium.


As far as medicine is concerned, many items containing radium still lie forgotten today in hospital cupboards, in the attics of doctors or their descendants, and even in the offices of solicitors and bankers who regarded radium as a financial investment. Any member of the public handling such an item without taking any precautions would reach the authorized annual exposure limit in an hour. So, it is a real danger, and this is why campaigns have been organized by IRSN, the French Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Protection Institute, and Andra, to locate items contain radium and to collect and store them in safe locations. In the campaign in 1999, more than 500 items were collected.


The Epic Story of Radium


The story of radium lasted for more than 70 years. For those seven decades, it would first be acclaimed by scientists and then condemned. First a wonder drug, and then a poison.  Discovered, celebrated, suspected, and then finally prohibited. Radium is one of the great scientific stories of the 20th century. A true epic.


The end