|MadSci Network: Chemistry|
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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