During the first part of the 20th century, radium, an alkaline earth metal, was used in countless consumer products like paint, makeup, chocolate, and children's toys. Radium was sold as safe and even beneficial long before the dangers of the radioactive element were understood. The effects of radium exposure on the body, although frequently attributed to other elements, were often painful and sometimes fatal. The "Radium Girls," factory workers who handled radium daily, experienced numerous health problems, as did consumers of radium water and other fraudulent medical treatments that contained the element. The common use of radium resulted in slow radiation poisoning, which broke down the body by eating away at bones, teeth, and organs.
Radium is not only still commonly used in cancer treatments and some electronics, it also occurs naturally across the globe. The inclusion of radium in common products, however, is mostly a relic of the past. While no longer widely used in consumer goods, existing radium effects could persist for another 1,500 years before diminishing.
When Teeth Were Pulled, 'Honeycomb Jaw' Could Occur
Many of the factory workers who were exposed to radium daily underwent tooth surgery to help with the radium-induced pain. Unfortunately, their bodies were unable to heal from the wounds of tooth extraction––pieces of decayed jaw would often come loose during the procedure. Some doctors hypothesized that the bone deterioration was due to an infection associated with the teeth, but closer inspection revealed that, in many victims of radium exposure, the jaw bone was honeycombed from decay. In 1924, a New York dentist, Theodor Blum, was the first to connect "radium jaw" with the women working with the element.
Eben Byers, an avid drinker of "Radithor," also experienced similar jaw deterioration. When called to testify at Federal Trade Commission hearings concerning the use of radium in consumer products, Byers was unable to do so due to illness. According to his lawyer, who was shocked after visiting his client, Byers's "whole upper jaw, excepting his two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was disintegrating and holes were actually forming in his skull."
Radium-Infused Tonics Rotted Teeth
The most commonly reported conditions from exposure to radium during the first half of the 20th century involved its effects on the teeth and joints. Factory women experienced pain in their mouths, and their teeth sometimes rotted until they fell out or had to be pulled by dentists. Famed amateur golfer and playboy Eben Byers began to lose his teeth three years after first imbibing "Radithor," a radium-infused tonic, in 1927. He drank approximately 1,400 bottles of the substance in a two-year period, causing his body to decompose from the inside out.
Bones Broke Easily
Just as Byers's bones decayed, so too did the Radium Girls' bodies break down. Prolonged exposure to radium weakened their bones to the point that they would "crumple or snap under little pressure," a condition known as radiation osteitis. X-rays revealed crushed vertebrae, broken legs, and jaws eaten away to the point of deformity. Many individuals became disabled as a result; the spines of several subjects compressed simply because of their decreased vertebrae density. The severity of the effects did, however, depend on their exposure.
Radium Exposure Led To Numerous Birthing Issues
Several of the so-called "Radium Girls" attributed their failed pregnancies to radium exposure. In 1925, Albina Larice reportedly suffered from several stillborn births and overheard doctors referring to her as a "radium case." Another one of her children died in infancy several years later––she believed radium to be the cause of each tragedy. Irene Corby LaPorte worked with radiation from 1917-1918. During the 1920s, she experienced three miscarriages.
In 2011, studies indicated that exposure to radium and uranium may cause cleft palate deformities in children. In areas with high levels of radium in the water, women reported babies born with defects, as well as high infant mortality rates.