The Unbelievable True Story Of America’s Radium Girls

Published November 18, 2017
Updated January 24, 2020

The Dangers Of Radium

Ad For Radium Water

Wikimedia CommonsAn ad for radium water.

Unfortunately, that bright element had a dark side. The only stable isotope of radium is radium-226, which has a half-life of 1,600 years. For as long as it lasts, any sample of radium will emit alpha particles in all directions.

Normally, alpha radiation is harmless in small doses. Countless natural sources of this radiation can be found in the average kitchen or bathroom. Even nature is full of it as the low-energy particles have a hard time penetrating even one layer of skin. Outside the body, it’s virtually safe.

Inside the body, it wreaks godawful havoc on the body’s tissues. That warming glow radium puts out is caused by the element’s atoms acting like tiny batteries.

Light photons strike the radium atom, bumping its electrons into a higher orbit. After the sun sets and it gets dark, those electrons spontaneously drop into lower orbits, emitting a particle and some photons as they go.

When radium is placed next to human cells or in the bloodstream, like when it crosses a mucous membrane such as the gums, it turns into a microscopic machine gun that gets lodged in the body’s tissues. The radium then fires off particle after particle at very close range, eventually mutating and killing the cells around it.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.