MadSci Network: Chemistry

Re: How dangerous is radium to everyone?

Date: Mon Mar 1 10:24:37 1999
Posted By: Bernadette Baca, Health Physicist, Uranium Licensing Project, Texas Dept of Health-Bureau of Radiation Control
Area of science: Chemistry
ID: 920232072.Ch

Radium has received a reputation of being a very dangerous element.  Many 
years ago, in efforts to increase technology and make our lives a little 
bit easier, radium was discovered to create self illuminating clock 
faces and gadgets.  The radium was mixed with another chemical compound 
called a luminescent or phosphor which, when the alphas from the radium 
interacted with it, cause it to lightly glow.  Hence another reason for the 
"glow in the dark" persona of radiation.

The biggest problem with, at this time, the new technology was that all the 
self illuminating face plates and gauges were hand painted.  Many women 
were hired to paint the face plates of clocks, aircraft gauges, etc.  As 
they painted, they would curl the tip of the paint brushes in their mouth 
to make a fine point to paint with.  What they did not know was this was 
how the radium would enter their body.  In addition to ingesting or 
"eating" radium, many of the workers would also ingest other harmful 
chemicals from the paints such as lead.  Over time many women ingested 
sizable amounts of radium, lead, and other harmful chemicals and became 
sick.  The problem was investigated and linked to the radium.  Soon the use 
of radium was eliminated from use in creating the self illuminating clock 
faces and other gauges.

Despite such a negative reputation of radium, it has been a great benefit 
in the area of medicine.  Many cancers are treated with "seeds" (small, 
round BB like pellets) or needles with radium implanted within them.  
Certain cancers are identified to be easily killed by the radiation emitted 
from the radium.  The seeds are surgically implanted or needles inserted 
into the cancer and given some time to kill off the cancer.

Today, the medical use of radium is about the only real situation a person 
would encounter radium in amounts to be of concern.  Many of the 
radium self illuminating gauges and clocks are very rare to find and 
only by difficult searching might be found in an antique shop.  Even then, 
only by ingesting quite a bit of the paint off the dials and gauges, would 
it be harmful to anyone.

Since radium is a natural daughter product from the uranium decay chain 
(uranium ores), it is considered to be found naturally occurring in nature. 
 Right in the dirt under our feet.  However, the amount found in nature is 
exceptionally small and does not pose a hazard.  What little bit found in 
nature must be concentrated immensely in order to get enough for any uses. 
Many tons, and I do mean tons, of uranium and other mineral ores 
(already concentrated mineral bodies) must be excavated, crushed and the 
radium chemically removed from the crushed rocks and minerals in order to 
get what radium we can from the earth.

So, the most harmful means of encountering radium now in our life is 
through misuse of the medical treatments and intentionally ingesting the 
paints off quite a few old self illuminating dials and gauges.  It is 
highly unlikely to encounter radium in our lives these days, except for 
cancer treatment.  The danger for radium exposure in everyday life has been 
well eliminated through the use of even newer technology to get self 
illuminating dials and gauges and better restrictions and regulations on 
the medical and mining uses of radium.

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