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The Disturbing Consequences Of When We Used To Put Radium Into Common Products

Updated November 16, 2018 393.0k views10 items

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.

  • Bone Cancers Were Incredibly Common

    Studies into radium exposure have identified approximately five major cancers caused by the element. Bone sarcoma and head carcinoma, usually of the sinus and ear cavities, commonly occurred several years after exposure. Bone marrow cancer, or multiple myeloma, occurred in several cases of radium exposure, as did breast cancer and leukemia. While radiation is often used as a cancer treatment, this can lead to future types of cancer in a patient, especially if he or she is treated as a youth. 

  • Radium Was Often A Treatment For The Fatigue It Caused

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The popularity of and confidence in radium made its identification as a cause of illness difficult. Female factory workers who dealt with radium initially reported exhaustion, but this was often attributed to various other illness, including syphilis. Due to the paucity of records on patients given early radium treatments, assessment of their initial symptoms is more difficult than it otherwise may have been. Additionally, they were treated with radium for other illnesses such as arthritis or fatigue, so attributing their symptoms to radium is impossible. When initial reports of radium's dangers emerged, however, companies that utilized radium in their products immediately passed the blame onto other sources. 

    Exhaustion among factory workers may have been linked to anemia, which was also a common affliction resulting from radium exposure. Marie Curie, the famed scientist who discovered radium and praised its use, died of aplastic anemia in 1934 as a result of prolonged radium exposure. Anemia continues to be a problem for cancer patients who undergo radiation therapy.

  • Radithor's Creator Also Created A Radium-Infused Jock Strap

    Video: YouTube

    William J. A. Bailey, the founder and salesman for Radithor, the radium infused water that Eben Byers drank, swore by the Radiendocrinator, another one of his inventions. The product, a radium-infused jock strap that men were supposed to wear overnight, was purported to increase male sexual performance. Bailey also drank a substantial amount of Radithor, and the combination of the two may have led to his death from bladder cancer in 1949. 

  • Basic Movements Like Sitting Up Became Increasingly Difficult To Achieve

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Various combative treatments were developed in response to the mystifying joint pain associated with radium. In 1924, Quinta McDonald's hips bothered her so severely that she was put into a body cast for six months. By 1925, she was unable to move her hips or perform most common movements, even as minimal as sitting. Similarly, Edna Hussen lost the ability to move one of her arms during the late 1920s. She also experienced problems with her teeth, though removing them seemed to solve her oral ailments. Notably, McDonald and Hussen were both Radium Girls; the muscles of both women had begun deteriorating due to exposure.