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Radium Studies

Radium Dial Painters
Radium Dial Painters. (photo from Stannard, J. N. Radioactivity and Health: A History.)

The radium dial painting industry began in the United States in the early 1900’s when it was found that objects painted with radioluminous material were visible in the dark. Several dial painting plants were established to capitalize on this discovery, including the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey (initially located in Newark, New Jersey) and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois (previously located in Chicago and Peru, Illinois). These plants employed several hundred women to paint watch dials and military instruments with radium paint. Many of these women ingested 226Ra and 228Ra (mesothorium) as they ‘tipped’ brushes between their lips to obtain a finer point.1

A New York dentist, Theodore Blum, was one of the first to note the biological effects of radium when he observed what he termed “radium jaw” in a woman who had worked at a New Jersey dial painting plant. Such early cases exhibited “acute necrosis of the jaw, usually involving infection and severe leukopenia and anemia.”2 Within a few years osteogenic sarcomas began to appear. The practice of tipping brushes was prohibited in the late 1920s.

Medical Exposures
Radithor. (photo from Oak Ridge Associated Universities)

In addition to those occupationally exposed in the dial painting industry, numerous people ingested radium or received injections for therapeutic purposes. Physicians prescribed radium to treat a variety of ailments such as acne, arthritis, and high blood pressure. Individuals also self-medicated themselves using publicly available “remedies” such as the radium spiked water, Radithor, which was certified to contain 1 µCi of 226Ra and 1 µCi of 228Ra.2

Radium Research

Several radium research programs were initiated to study the effects of radium in humans. These clinical studies included radon breath analyses, skeletal and dental x-rays, in vivo counts, and physical examinations. Bone samples were collected from deceased “radium poisoning” victims. These studies were consolidated at Argone National Laboratory in the late 1960s. On closure of these studies, Argonne’s collection of human tissue and bone samples was transferred to Washington State University’s National Human Radiobiological Tissue Repository (NHRTR) as part of the U.S. Transuranium and Uranium Registries (USTUR) project. The NHRTR archives frozen, ashed, dried, and plastic embedded bone samples from the radium studies carried out by Argonne National Laboratory/Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the New Jersey Radium Research Project.

rowlandcover anl-7531cover
Radium in Humans: A Review of U.S. Studies (R.E. Rowland, 1994) and The Argonne Radium Studies: Summary of Fundamental Data (ANL-7531 and ACRH-106) summarize data from the radium studies. (click for larger images)

Dosimetric and exposure information on the persons studied has been catalogued in publications such as Argonne National Laboratory/Argonne Cancer Research Hospital’s The Argonne Radium Studies: Summary of Fundamental Data ANL-7531 and ACRH-106 (January 1969).

Radium in Humans: A Review of U.S. Studies (R.E. Rowland, ANL1994) describes the history of radium research projects and summarizes 226Ra and 228Ra intakes, birth and death dates, causes of death, exposure types, and exposure dates/durations for more than 2000 radium dial workers, physicians, patients treated with radium injections, and persons who were exposed to radium for other reasons.

Download Radium in Humans: A Review of U.S. Studies

Download R.E. Toohey’s presentation: The Saga of the Radium Dial Painters

  1. Rowland, R.E. Radium in Humans: A Review of U.S. Studies. Argonne National Laboratory: Environmental Research Division; 1994.
  2. Stannard, J.N. Radioactivity and Health: A History. DOE/RL/01830-T59. Battelle Memorial Institute. 1988.