Tuesday, March 29, 2011

They glowed like ghosts

There could be no better time for Deborah Blum to recall the story of the Radium Girls. With fears rising about radioactivity in Japan and spreading elsewhere, it’s easy to forget that we once held radioactive elements as miracle medical cures and items of high fashion. It’s astounding to learn how naively we treated these elements less than a hundred years ago. Compare that to today where the news is abuzz and the public in panic at any detection of radioactivity above background level, even if the levels detected are of no harm.

At the time, radioactive elements were just discovered and businessmen were quick to find ways to utilize them. One property that made radium so intriguing was its otherworldly glow, an eerie blue green shimmer. While today we take for granted our digital watches with luminescent faces, in the early 20th century there was no such technology. And one popular application of these wondrous new elements was self-luminescent paint, used to make the dials and numbers of watches and other interments visible in the dark. Of course these details had to be painted on by hand, where workers had to craft a fine tip to their brush with their lips between strokes…

“The painters were teen-aged girls and young women who became friendly during the hours together and entertained themselves during by breaks by playing with the paint. They sprinkled the luminous liquid in their hair to make their curls twinkle in the dark. They brightened their fingernails with it. One girl covered her teeth to give herself a Cheshire cat smile when she went home at night. None of them considered this risky behavior. Why would they when doctors were using the same material to cure people, when wealthy spa residents were paying good money to soak in the stuff, when the popular tonic Radithor was promoted by neighboring company? No one – certainly not the dial painters themselves – saw anything to worry about it.

Until, one by one, the dial painters began, mysteriously, to fall ill. Their teeth fell out, their mouths filled with sores, their jaws rotted, they wasted away, weakened by an apparently unstoppable anemia. By 1924, nine of the dial painters were dead. They were all young women in their 20s, formerly healthy, with little in common except for those hours they spent, sitting at their iron-and-wood desks at the factory, painting tiny bright numbers on delicate instruments.”

It was not known at the time but radium is treated by the body as calcium and is incorporated into the bones. The girls’ severe anemia was caused by a degradation of their bone marrow from the radiation. And with each breath they took, they poisoned themselves further. As radium decays, it breaks down to radon, a gas which is also radioactive. With a constant inhale and exhale of lethal air, the girls withered away as their eventual legal fight ensued.

“Katherine Schaub’s jaws were starting to break apart; as she told her lawyers, she hoped the money – they were asking $250,000 each – would pay for her funeral. “If I won my $250,000, mightn’t I have lots of roses?””

The whole story is recounted by Blum brilliantly in this three part series (Part I // Part II // Part III) which is also found in her book, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. I encourage everyone it up as it is easily the best popular science book I have come across. It is especially interesting to me, as it shows the birth of my whole field, toxicology, something that I had not realized was such a recent branch of science. The book details the work of the two most steadfast scientists, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, transforming not only the reputation of the notorious New York Medical Examiner’s Office but also building the foundations of an entirely new field of science. Thorough their endless experimentation and the constant battle against sheer bloody-mindedness of political corruption at the time, Norris and Gettler were unmatched in their novel thinking and perseverance. It was actually quite inspirational to read the lengths and sacrifices these two went through to convince the scientific, legal and political communities that toxicology was a field on its own and worthy of respect. The most amazing part of the book is Blum’s engrossing storytelling as you can glean from the excerpt above. The whole book reads like fiction but it is entirely factual.

So after the next apocalyptic scenario you hear about Japan's radiation reaching American, think back on the Radium Girls and a time when radioactivity was so poorly understood.

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