It’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t understand the negative health effects of radiation; however, there was a time in the history of the United States when we thought that using radium in everyday products was not only safe but actually healthy, and it wasn’t that long ago. Now, with our modern understanding of how radium affects the body, this seems completely ludicrous. But the sad truth is that countless people fell ill from radiation poisoning as a result of our lack of research into this radioactive element.
It all started with Marie Curie and her pioneering research on radioactivity that won her two Nobel Prizes, making her the first woman to ever win the award and the first person to ever win it twice. In her research, she discovered two previously unknown elements, radium and polonium, which were significant in that they were both more radioactive than uranium. In the years that followed her discoveries, radium started appearing in a myriad of consumer products throughout the United States, becoming a household fixture that was slowly poisoning the American public.
Of course, the discovery of radium led to a windfall of important scientific discoveries that forwarded medical technology and research. However, the negative effects that came from lacing consumer products with radium were widespread and deadly, and it wasn’t until the case of the Radium Girls that the radioactive element began to disappear from American households. Finally, with the 1938 Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics Act, the government acknowledged the harmful properties of the element, and consumer radium was dead.
The Radium Girls
The case of the Radium Girls was the incident that finally awakened the American public to the harmful effects of radium, but it was too little and too late. The incident involved three different factories in Orange, New Jersey; Ottawa, Illinois; and Waterbury, Connecticut. The factories hired small-town girls from local communities to paint watch dials with radioactive radium paint and instructed them to lick the paintbrushes to give them a fine point. Some of them even used the luminescent substance to paint their nails, faces, and teeth.
As a result, most of the girls employed ingested deadly quantities of radium. Around 4,000 workers were hired by the United States Radium Corporation to paint watch dials with radium throughout the United States and Canada. However, it was only after a string of deaths and an investigation by the County Physician of Newark that the United States Radium Corporation was brought to court for misleading their employees into thinking that the harmful substance was safe.
Some of the very first people to recognize the harmful effects of radium were dentists, who noticed increased instances of dental pain, lesions, ulcers, and loose teeth in the women that were working at the factories. Many of the women also experienced anemia, bone fractures, suppression of menstruation, sterility, and necrosis of the jaw (which became known as “radium jaw”). But while medical professionals around the country were discovering the health defects caused by radium, many of them were swayed into withholding their data by the United States Radium Corporation and other large radium distributors.
Finally, when Grace Fryer made the decision to sue United States Radium, it took her a whole two years to find any lawyer willing to take on the massive corporation. And even after she found a lawyer willing to take the case the litigation moved painfully slowly. The first court appearance didn’t occur until 1928, more than a full decade after the opening of the New Jersey facility in 1917. Five women who worked at the facility, later nicknamed the Radium Girls, took the stand against United States Radium, two of them bedridden and none of them able to raise their arms to take the oath. The court ruled in favor of the Radium Girls, establishing legal precedents for provable suffering and spurring on the enactment of labor safety regulations.
A similar case was brought against the Radium Dial Company in Illinois in 1937. And when the court ruled in favor of the employees, the Radium Dial Company appealed a total of eight times before they were finally forced to pay.
Both cases were pivotal moments in the development of labor safety standards and a more complete understanding of radiology in our nation. Unfortunately, these advancements did not come early enough to save the many women who died or suffered irreversible health effects as a result of the negligence of companies like the United States Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company. Apparently, if you go to the graves of the Radium Girls today, their corpses are still radioactive enough to register on a Geiger counter.
Everyday Uses of Radium
The Radium Girls were not the only unfortunate Americans to suffer negative health effects due to our lack of understanding of radiation’s effect on the human body. For a while, radium was considered to be a cure-all and was added to a wide variety of household products. And while the United States Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company are the companies most well-known for poisoning the American public with the radioactive element, there were plenty of other businesses out there that relied upon selling radium to the masses to make their bottom line.
Radium in Water
Yes, people used to purposely irradiate their water and drink it thinking that it would prevent arthritis, senility, and flatulence. And yes, flatulence was thought to be an affliction that needed curing back in those days. The most famous device used to irradiate water was called the Revigator, which is just about the height of pseudoscience.
The Revigator was invented by R. W. Thomas, who was working as a stock salesman (not a medical professional of any kind) at the time. The device consisted of a ceramic water crock that featured a liner filled with uranium and radium. Consumers were instructed to fill the water crock at night, and then drink eight or more glasses of the irradiated water the next day to get the full benefit of the radiation.
Radium in Toothpaste
People also used to believe that brushing their teeth with toothpaste laced with radium and thorium would increase blood flow in the gums, kill bacteria, and increase the “life force” in the tissues of one’s mouth. While the radium-infused toothpaste probably did kill the bacteria in a person’s mouth, it was also unfortunately killing the person using it.
One company that sold toothpaste containing radium was started by Dr. Alfred Curie, who was not related to Marie Curie in any way; however, he most likely benefited from their assumed connection.
Radium as a Cure for Impotence
Before Cialis or Viagra took to the market, radium was also sold as a way to cure impotence. Apparently, wearing jockstraps impregnated with radium, carrying around a radium-infused piece of metal in one’s pocket, and even inserting radium into one’s urethra were all ways that a man could hope to improve his sexual prowess. In reality, radium is now known to cause impotence rather than cure it.
One of the most famous radium-based alleged impotence curing devices was called The Radiendocrinator, which was essentially a metal case containing radium-soaked pieces of paper about the size of a credit card. The device was meant to be placed under the scrotum as a cure for impotence. The inventor of The Radiendocrinator died of bladder cancer in 1949.
Radium in Cosmetics
Women were also told that radium had the ability to brighten the skin and reduce the effects of aging. And so, the market for radium-based cosmetics was created.
Among the most popular brands for radioactive makeup was Tho-Radia, which was also co-founded by Dr. Alfred Curie. The company sold many products containing thorium, but only their cream and powder products were known to contain radium.