The Radium Girls

In the early 20th Century, when we hardly understood radiation and it’s effects there was a group of women who nowadays are referred to as the Radium girls. This group was made up of thousands of women working in factories that involved close encounters with one of the most radioactive substances in the world.

The Discovery and Application of Radium

Radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898 who were looking for evidence of uranium in minerals. Marie Curie started focusing on the specific mineral pitchblende, which seemed to give off a larger than expected amount of radiation that she was used to from her studies of uranium. Her and her husband Pierre began investigating this and discovered the presence of dubbed polonium, which is element 84. They also discovered the evidence for element 88, which is radium.

Radium was so interesting because it naturally was expelled from rocks, and it became even more interesting when scientists discovered it’s unique ability to shrink tumours down to a harmless lump. This lead to a whole new wave of ‘radium therapy’ based treatments which were quite harmless as they all contained very low amounts of radium. The problems began to arise when people started making glow in the dark paint using this radioactive substance and other chemicals.

The Issues and Illnesses

In the early 1920s the U.S. Radium corporation employed over 4000 factory workers, most of whom were women to add this glow in the dark mixture to watch faces. This caused these poor women to suffer serious health problems like tumours, deteriorating teeth and bones and severe anaemia and the effects have brought to light the serious health concerns of radiation. These poor women mostly died and had to live their lives in pain but we do have them to thank for showing us just how dangerous unknown substances can be.