This is a contribution towards our periodic (periodic…get it?) posts about safety in the Catalyst. This was written by our former student Zach Wahrenberg, who worked as a lab manager in our department as well.
“Radium, an element isolated from uranium ore by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie, was hailed as a wonder drug for much of the first part of the late 19th and early 20th century. The unearthing and mainstream usage of radium also goes down in history as one of the most notorious examples of serious safety lapses in society.
In 1889 when radium was first isolated there were very few regulations pertaining to food and drugs and therefore it was easy for radium to find its way into commercially produced prescription medication and over-the-counter medications without much initial testing. Today it would be much harder for such a drug to get through FDA approval. It is also to be noted that very little was known about radium, however what they did note was that radium worked to treat a variety of maladies. Tumors shrunk in size people seemed to get better. Skin disorders vanished. It was touted as the miracle drug for ailments from high blood pressure to depression and even cancer. Radium’s usefulness in cancer therapy was recognized early in the century and is still used today. A technique was developed in which tiny ”needles” filled with radon – a radioactive gas given off by radium – were used to kill cancer cells. Radium Chemical and other companies leased the needles to hospitals and shipped them all over the country. No one really investigated what the mechanism of this miracle drug’s action was on non-cancer-containing people until it was much too late.
Marie Curie, the discovered of radium, like other researchers and “industrialists” of the time, was uncertain about the potential dangers of radioactivity from radium. In 1925 Curie was invited to participate in a commission of the French Academy of the Medicine. From these meetings came a series of safety regulations that outlined new safety protocols for handling radioactive materials. This commission met after several incidents of severe illness of radium dialer painters workings in a watch factory in New Jersey. The “Radium Girls” at the factory all died from horrible diseases caused by ingesting radium. There was radium in the paint to make the glow-in-the-dark dials, and they would lick their paintbrushes to get them to a fine point…. and that was how they injested dangerous amounts of radium.