How We Realized Putting Radium in Everything Was Not the Answer

Gone are the days when the only way to make butter seem even healthier was to name it after a radioactive element.

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Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in the 1910s, the girls instructed to put radium in their mouths didn't bat an eyelash. They worked for the United States Radium Corporation painting the numbers and hands on watch faces and military instrument panels. Since the work required great detail, the women were told to "point" the small brush head with their lips, thus ingesting a small amount of radium every time. Each woman would repeat this hundreds of times a day. If there was any uneasiness with this process, the good money they got from the job alleviated it. The young women, many fresh out of high school, would playfully paint their nails and teeth with the luminous paint, known as UnDark. About ten years later, these "Radium Girls" would start to die.

Radium-butter.jpgvia Retronaut

It's no wonder the girls painting watch dials and such weren't aware of the dangers of straight up eating radium. In the first decades of the 20th century, America, along with the rest of the world, was enamored with it. The glowing element was hailed as a panacea for everything from blindness to hysteria. "No medicine, no drugs," raves one ad for an item claiming to help alleviate asthma and nine other things, "Just a light, small, comfortable, inexpensive Radio-Active Pad worn on the back by day and over the stomach at night." One particularly disturbing medical innovation was the "Radiendocrinator," a device the size of a thick stack of credit cards to be worn with an adaptor "like any 'athletic strap.'" Its inventor, who fervently claimed to use the product, later died of bladder cancer.

Radium was more than a medical cure-all. Adding radium to anything somehow made it better. The luminous metal was used in household products such as lipstick, chocolate (in Germany), tonics, and of course, watches. Radium was put into chicken feed with the hopes the eggs would self-incubate, or at least self-cook. Products that fraudulently touted radium as an ingredient were shut down by the government. But that didn't stop companies from riding the marketing wave it created.

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Radium quickly became a veritable marketing force. Products that didn't have anything to do with radium carried the name of the expensive metal to add allure -- similar to the way we use words like "platinum" or "titanium" today. Numerous are the ads of this time for wares like "radium silk lingerie" and decks of cards with the word "radium" emblazoned on them. In one ad, a pastoral landscape dotted with grazing cows near a pristine stream are bathed in the warm glow of a rising sun. Above the sun are the words, "Radium Brand Creamery Butter." There was most likely no radium in said butter, but it must've been a boon to sales.

In 1925, a New York Times article ran the headline, "New Radium Disease Found; Has Killed 5." The new disease was called, "radium necrosis," a polite term for the painful process of one's jaw disintegrating and developing tumors. The five killed by this so-called "new radium disease" were a handful of the girls who were instructed to put radium in their mouths by way of paintbrush. "Trust in radium unjustified," the article sources from a New York doctor. "Cancer called incurable."

412-530x689.jpgvia Retronaut

Researchers investigated the deaths for years, and a month after the inventor of UnDark succumbed to aplastic anemia from radium poisoning, little was done for the female radium painters. One factory owner suggested they start painting with a metal stylus instead of the brushes to stop getting sick.

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Taylor Orci is a journalist and comedian based in Los Angeles. She has contributed to NPR, SlateNew York Magazine, the Independent Film Channel, and Adult Swim.

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