Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Diagnosing Radium Poisoning

The challenge of diagnosing radium poisoning caused the suffering of those who worked with it to go on for decades and enabled companies to avoid liability for its deadly impact. The first challenge was realizing that radium was, in fact, harmful when it had been initially lauded as a miracle cure-all. However, the more significant barrier to overcome was corporate greed. Even when radium was known to be dangerous, those who profited from it hid the truth at the expense of many lives.

How were they able to get away with such a thing?

Dial painters at Luminous Processes - 1939
Partly because the worst effects of radium poisoning became evident between the World Wars. While the 1920's were roaring, the 1930's saw families and entire communities suffering. Few wanted to be the one to speak out against a well-paying company like those that worked with radium.

Another factor was the problem with diagnosing radium poisoning. Dozens of deaths were attributed to other diseases and conditions for years before the truth was accepted. Radium was killing people.

One of the populations hardest hit was young, working-class women who worked as dial painters, using radium infused paint to make clock faces and other instrument dials glow in the dark. They would point the tips of their paintbrushes with their lips to complete the fine work, and, all the while, they were introducing fatal poison to their systems.

Girls in their teens and twenties working in dial painting studios started suffering from fatigue, headaches, digestive issues, and pain in their joints, but one of the worst symptoms of radium poisoning affected their mouths and jaws. They noticed loose teeth that eventually fell out, leaving behind sores that wouldn't heal. Several women eventually died from so much of their mouths rotting away that they bled to death.

Bedside hearing of Catherine Donohue - 1938
It was eventually discovered that radium took calcium's place in the women's bones, making them fragile and radioactive. Broken and disintegrating bones left some bedridden and others in stiff braces to hold their spines in place. If the early symptoms did not prove fatal, the women started developing tumors and cancers that left them infertile, required amputations, or caused their bodies to simply waste away.

This wide variety of symptoms and illnesses provided companies utilizing radium to argue that there was no single illness - no such thing as radium poisoning. Workers' Compensation laws were in early stages in the states where they existed at all, so most women and their families struggled with medical bills and loss of income as well as the illness itself.

The first test for diagnosing radium poisoning was developed after a male employee of US Radium Corp died. No one had listened to the female dial painters,  but the death of a male scientist was more difficult to ignore. During the autopsy, the victim's bones were reduced to ashes so that they could be tested with an electrometer, and radium poisoning was officially diagnosed for the first time.

This didn't help those who were sick, since their bones couldn't be removed and tested, so work began in earnest to develop additional tests. In 1925, decades after the discovery of radium, scientists and doctors finally determined ways to measure radioactivity in bones and breath. The dial painters who were tested had results that indicated radium deposits within their bodies at extraordinarily high levels.

Ottawa, IL EPA Superfund Site
Unfortunately, there was still no cure. While those who had worked with radium knew what was killing them, the information was bittersweet. Symptoms could be treated, but there was no way to remove the radium that was deposited into bones where calcium should have been. Women continued to sicken and die, while companies continued to profit from their labor for about two more decades before the nation's laws caught up with the needs of those who were vulnerable to exploitation and misinformation.

Environmental Protection Agency cleanup sites caused by radium deposits continue to cause health problems and cost taxpayers millions to this day.


  1. Your blog is glowing green now. Interesting touch.

    What a sad story.

  2. Wow. Sigh. I recall having shoes fitted but had to scoot my feet under an ex-ray machine and could look into the top to see my bones. Circa mid-1950s. 'Completely harmless!' said the owner, who died young... Online photos of limb, face deformations and more. Horrific. Thank you for this well written article, and bless those poor souls who suffered and died because of yet another medical fiasco.

    1. How sad! I'm sure he had been assured that it was harmless too. It makes me wonder what dangerous products we use today without realizing it.

    2. I sure hope not! We would all be in trouble.