This was hands-down the most fascinating and haunting science blog post of the past several weeks: Deborah Blum’s “The Radium Girls” over at PLoS Blogs. Originally touched on in her book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, this three part series tells the troubling story of the young girls who painted luminous watch dials in the 1920s.
I got this far and was inescapably hooked:
There were bottles of radium water (guaranteed to make the drinker sparkle with energy), radium soda, radium candy, radium-laced facial creams to rejuvenate the skin, radium-sprinkled face powder in four clearly labeled tints: white, natural, tan and African, soaps, pain-relieving liniments and lotions. Researchers discovered that the European hot springs, famed for their healing powers, contained radon, a gas that derived from the element uranium. Perhaps, scientists suggested, the health effects of the mineral hot springs came from radioactive elements in the ground around them; spas in upstate New York rushed to compete by dropping uranium ores into their swimming pools; a New Jersey company grew rich selling hundreds of thousands of bottles of “Radithor: Certified Radioactive Water” as a tonic that guaranteed new vigor and energy. Radiant Health, the ads proclaimed, beautiful skin, endless vigor, and eternal health – ingesting radium seemed the next best thing to drinking sunlight
Sadly for the girls (mostly teens and young women) who painted the glowing watch dials and played with the radium –coating their hair, fingernails, and even their teeth with the pretty glowing substance — it was not a radiant path to eternal health but a hellish descent into a grotesque and painful death. By 1924 nine formerly healthy young women were dead.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize science writer and Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin. Her blog post intrigued me enough that I downloaded the audio version of The Poisoner’s Handbook from iTunes. I’ve been listening to it in my kitchen in the evenings when I prepare dinner — much to the consternation of my family. Last night Arsenic was on the laptop and chili was in the cookpot.
They let me take the first bite.
I used to hold my parent’s alarm clock, with hands painted with radium, up to my eye to see the hands sparkle in the dark. I’ve wondered if it had any lasting affect, though it would be hard to tell. At my age having bad sight is “normal.”