The Radium Girls
When looking at history, and history of science in particular, we tend to point to the vast enhancements and discoveries made. We discuss how it has affected are daily lives and made them better. However, we usually try to avoid discussing mishaps or tragedies in history. This is the case in point in regards to The Radium Girls story. Initially when discussing this, one must talk about the discovery of nuclear power and nuclear fission eventually leading to the atomic bomb. But also as the first part of The Radium Girls articles points out, the discoveries of radioactive elements by Henri Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie introduced the world to radiation. Marie Curie in particular found the element she helped discover, radium, to be quite fascinating. They found that radium had an extremely long half-life of 1600 years while also releasing a constant energy. At this point in time, scientists were adventurous in discovery and simply were too ambitious to stop studying the element at that point. As with many other scientific discoveries, the scientists had to keep researching and providing experiments to achieve the full possibility of the discovery. We had no idea what possible negative consequences could come about from further discovery of radioactive elements. With the discovery that radium targeted at tumor cells could kill the cells, the scientific world really began to realize that these are powerful elements being handled. Nobody really payed much attention to any possible negative consequences that could arise or had arisen from using radioactive elements. We could not predict that long periods of exposure to such radioactive elements could cause serious harm or fatalities. Nor did we even begin to fathom that these elements could eventually be used as atomic weapons of massive destruction. No, at the time, the positives and enhancements were much more popular to society. Heck, society actually thought radioactivity was cool. As the article describes, there were radioactive candies, radioactive soda, and even water and pools. People actually were told it would “liven” or “spark” you up. Provide a boost of energy. Obviously we did not realize the seriousness of what we were doing. When elements such as these were used to create a luminous glow-in-the-dark look on watches, the story of The Radium Girls ramps up. Mostly young women and teenaged girls, they would paint this luminous substance in the watches and clocks, they would even put it in their hair. Of course they did not consider this dangerous. They simply had no clue. They thought it was fun. As a matter of fact, after the first World War was over this luminous design was very popular. No one thought it was dangerous, until finally the painters of these watches began to become ill, one by one. As the article depicts, some of the girls would lose teeth and have mouth soars. By 1924, nine of the workers at the factory in Orange, New Jersey were dead. All young women. All previously healthy. It was one of these girls whose bones were excavated for suspicious radioactivity. As human beings, we are all scientists, engineers, adventurers, and pioneers. We have to drive to discover everything we possibly can about this world and universe. This is what has helped our species evolve into the complex world of today. With this constant drive for more, we have sometimes found ourselves stumbling across negative consequences of discoveries. This is part of territory. Just like our epic advancements in radioactive and nuclear sciences that have lead to many, many great contributions to the world, they have also lead to the introduction of radioactive production and nuclear warfare. These are unforeseeable consequences, but they are consequences that we should learn from when making further discoveries.
Picture by Daniel Mayer or GreatPatton