Sunday, March 2, 2014

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE RADIUM GIRLS

By Suzette Ferrari

During World War I, U.S. Radium Corporation hired hundreds of young women to paint military watch faces with its luminous paint, Undark.  The women were instructed to keep a fine point on their paint brushes by licking or rolling the brushes against their lips.  For fun, the women often painted their nails or teeth for a glow-in-the-dark surprise.  The surprise was on
them.
U.S. Radium Dial Painting Studio
Undark was made in part from radium salts.  After years of being ill and searching for an attorney to take their case, five fatally ill former employees of the Orange, New Jersey, factory, dubbed the “Radium Girls,” sued U.S. Radium.  The case, including U.S. Radium’s cover-up, delays, and smear tactics, was widely covered by the media.  Running out of time, the women settled their case shortly before most of them died.  D.W. Gregory’s play, Radium Girls, is based on their story.
The discovery of radium is attributed to Marie Sklodowska Curie (later Madame Curie) and her husband Pierre Curie, who isolated radium chloride from uranium ore in 1898. 
 
Madame Curie
Uranium ore, also referred to as uraninite and pitchblende, was a by-product (or tailing) of silver mining.  Madame Curie and Andre’-Louis Debierne isolated radium in its pure metallic state in 1910 or 1911.  Madame Curie won two Nobel Prizes for this work, and the common unit for the measure of radioactivity is called the “curie.”
 
The isolated substance was called “radium” because it emitted energy in the form of rays.  Radium is a heavy element, and its atoms (or isotopes) are unstable.  (For reasons beyond this author’s understanding) because of this instability, radium is luminescent and radioactive.  It is three million times as radioactive as the same mass of uranium.  On the Periodic Table of Elements, radium (Ra) is found in the same group or family as magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca).  The body may treat radium as if it were calcium, absorbing it into the bones, where it the radioactivity degrades the marrow and can mutate the cells of the bones.  In general, however, radiation causes damage to the body because it changes the chemistry of everything with which it comes in contact.
 
Radium isotopes emit radiation as alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays.  Although not generally harmful to exposed skin, when ingested (or swallowed), the high energy alpha particles collide with tissues and cause damage to the body.  Beta particles can redden or burn skin but can be stopped by solid materials.  However, if ingested or inhaled, beta particles travel deep into tissues and cause molecular damage.  Gamma rays are essentially pure energy and can pass entirely through the body (like X-rays), colliding with and energizing atoms in the body.  A lead apron or wall is required to stop these rays.
 
The connection between radium poisoning and the dial-painting industry was not made until 1924 or 1925.  It is now known that the inhalation, injection, or bodily exposure to radium causes cancer, necrosis, and other disorders.  However, in the 1910s and 1920s, radium was touted a miracle cure for all kinds of ills.  Radithor, billed as “liquid sunshine,” was a radium laced water said to increase one’s vitality, sort of like today’s Red Bull.
 
Gregory’s play captures all of the physical, legal, and social hurdles the New Jersey “Radium Girls” faced in trying to get compensation for their injuries.  For a more indepth discussion of the history, key players, and legal significance of the Radium Girls saga, read Kovarik and Neuzil’s excellent article, listed below.  There are numerous other stories of the Radium Girls of Ottawa, Illinois.  Perhaps, the subject of another play?

 
Sources:
Alpha ParticlesBeta ParticlesGamma Rays, @  http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/

Environmental History Timeline: Radium Girls, by Bill Kovarik and Mark Neuzil, @ http://66.147.244.135/~enviror4/people/radiumgirls/


LaPorte v. U.S. Radium Corp., 13 F. Supp. 263 (D. Ct. N.J. 1935).

Nanny Froman, Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Polonium and Radium, @  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/themes/physics/curie/

 
 

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