During the first part of the 20th century, radium was used in products ranging from paint to makeup and spa treatments to chocolate to toys. Radium was sold as safe and even beneficial long before the dangers of the radioactive element were understood. The effects of radium exposureon the body were often horrific and painful, blamed on other ailments, and could lead to death. The "Radium Girls," factory workers who handled radium daily, experienced all kinds of health problems, as did fans of radium water and other quack medical treatments that contained the element. The common use of radium resulted in slow radiation poisoning, which broke the body down as it ate away at bones, teeth, and organs.
Radium is still commonly used in cancer treatments and some electronic products, and it occurs naturally all around us. However, putting radium in common products has more or less ceased, thankfully, but due to the half life of the element, it will be another 1,500 years or so until some of that stuff goes away.
You Couldn't Hold Onto Your Teeth For Very Long When You Were Drinking Radium-Infused Tonics Regularly
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 to the point of falling 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 stuff in a two-year period, causing his body to decompose from the inside out.
In A Condition Known As 'Honeycomb Jaw,' Pieces Of Jaw Bone Would Come Right Out When Teeth Were Pulled
Unfortunately, many of the factory workers who were exposed to radium on a daily basis and had to have tooth surgery to help with the radium-induced pain didn't have the ability to heal from the wounds brought about by pulling teeth. Even worse, pieces of decayed jaw would also come loose during the procedure. Some doctors thought that the jaw rot was due to an infection associated with the teeth, but soon they began to look more closely. In many victims of radium exposure, the jaw bone was honeycombed and breaking down. In 1924, a New York dentist, Theodor Blum, was the first to connect "radium jaw" with the women working with the element.
For his part, serial radium drinker Eben Byers also experienced deterioration of the jaw. When called to testify at Federal Trade Commission hearings about the use of radium in consumer products, Byers was unable to do so due to illness. According to his lawyer, who visited Byers and was shocked, 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."
Bones Were Eaten Away And Broke Easily – And Spines Could Crumble From Their Own Weight
Just as Byers's bones decayed, so too did the Radium Girls' bodies break down. Prolonged exposure to radium led to bones that weakened to the point where 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 ended up disabled as a result; some had their vertebrae compress simply because they couldn't support their own weight anymore. However, the severity of effects on their bones depended on their exposure.
Exposure To Radium Led To Stillborn Births, Miscarriages, Infant Deaths, And Birth Defects
Several of the Radium Girls blamed their exposure to radium for the failed pregnancies they experienced. Albina Larice reportedly suffered from several stillborn births and overheard doctors talking about the her as a "radium case" in 1925. She later had a child die in infancy and blamed both deaths on her exposure to radium. Irene Corby LaPorte worked as a Radium girl from 1917-1918 and experienced three miscarriages during the 1920s.
As recently as 2011, studies indicate that exposure to radium, as well as uranium, may cause cleft palate deformities in children. The conclusions need further research, but in areas with high levels of radium in the water, women reported babies born with defects along with high infant mortality rates.