The radium age

The radium kit found in PA

My Great-Uncle Harvey was the only physician I knew as a kid. He delivered my father, my aunt, me, and my sister; he visited me in the hospital when I had my tonsils out; gave us our shots; and attended to all of the other minutiae of keeping us all healthy. In fact, it wasn’t until I joined the Navy that I finally understood why most of my classmates had never enjoyed going to the doctor (the dentist as well – my grandfather and uncle were my dentists until I joined the Navy). What makes this family history relevant is that my great-uncle began practicing medicine in the 1920s and he used to use radium in his medical practice.

From today’s perspective, it’s hard to understand how enraptured people were with radium a century ago. Not only was radium used to treat cancer, but radium-bearing potions were drunk to improve one’s overall health and radium was even applied in plasters to help treat medical conditions that were intractable to other remedies. Radium was used for all sorts of glow-in-the-dark products, including watch dials and even fishing tackle. With today’s hyper-sensitivity to radiation this is hard to believe – but one of the reasons for today’s hypersensitivity to radiation might actually have something to do with the profligacy of earlier decades.

Consider first the miracle that radium must have seemed to the physicians of my great-uncle’s era. Being able to burn out a cancer (instead of facing the risks of surgery) must have seemed miraculous and it was only natural to wonder what else radium could treat. Add to this the fact that the prompt effects of radiation exposure (burns, for example) manifest and often resolve themselves over the course of a few weeks or months, while the long-term effects (cancer) take up to a few decades to appear – for the first 20-30 years it likely seemed that the use of radiation in medicine was all benefit with no long-term downside. Radium had to have seemed miraculous to my great-uncle and his colleagues. This early work grew into today’s radiation oncology and nuclear medicine, but there is also no denying that much of the early inquiries into the use of radiation in medicine ended up causing harm directly (in cases of people injured or made ill by their treatments) or indirectly (when these treatments inspired the use of radium in later patent medicines).

In the post-World War II years the growing field of nuclear science began producing all sorts of other nuclides, including many that were better-suited than radium to addressing the needs of both medicine and industry. The use of radium went into decline and for the last 20 years the emphasis has been on finding and disposing of the radium that had been used – with a half-life of 1600 years we can’t just wait for it to decay away. These radium round-ups have met with a great deal of success, but there was a lot of radium produced and it is far from being accounted for yet. Military gear – compasses, watches, instrument dials, and the like that people have collected – the locations of former medical and industrial facilities, occasional medical sources that were left behind in basements or storage lockers, and the soil beneath many of these facilities; all of these keep coming to light year after year.

One such case – and the one that prompted this posting – came to light just a few weeks ago when an antique medical kit containing almost a gram of radium was found in the trash in Norristown PA (for those who are interested in more details there is a posting on the Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection web page that gives a short description of the incident). Radium hasn’t been widely used in decades – in the words of health physicist Joel Lubenau, “Who would have thought we’d be dealing with a gram of radium in the 21st century?”

Coming on the heels of the radioactive tissue box holders this could be taken to suggest that we have lost all control of radioactive materials. But I’m not sure I am willing to go that far.

One thing to keep in mind is that there’s a big difference between these two incidents. The cobalt-60 source that ended up in a batch of molten steel in India represents a breakdown in regulatory control – a radioactive source that should have been accounted for. But as health physicist Jim Yusko points out, most radioactive materials were not regulated at all until the passage of the Atomic Energy Act in 1954 – the radium in this kit (like the radium my Uncle Harvey used) was never licensed. In fact, prescription drugs today are better-controlled than were the medical radionuclides of the Radium Age. So this kit’s turning up doesn’t represent a breakdown in regulatory controls so much as the unearthing of a legacy of medicine’s past infatuation with radium.

One final comment seems in order. It matters from a societal standpoint that this radium kit was never under regulatory control because it means that, in this case, the system did not break down. But from a health standpoint it doesn’t matter where the radioactivity came from – radiation is radiation and it affects our bodies the same no matter where it comes from. Properly handled, the radioactivity in kits such as the one found in Pennsylvania poses no risk – but not many are trained to handle radioactive materials properly. If you happen to find something like this yourself it’s a good idea to treat the radioactive materials with respect, to call the regulatory authorities right away, and to do your best to keep the materials secured (put them in a locked storage room or shed, for example) until someone else comes to take responsibility for it.


Dr Y is a certified health physicist, trained in nuclear power plant design and operations, with experience in nuclear power, environmental science, and planning for radiological and nuclear emergencies. He has 30 years of experience in the areas of nuclear and radiation safety

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2 Responses to “The radium age”

  1. Mary Jean Scott Silk February 14, 2012 at 10:41 AM #

    In 1959 when I was in Spain during my honeymoon, I was horrified to see that the bottle of water presented to me in a restaurant stated that it had radioactive content. Needless to say, I did not drink it. I was working as a PhD physicist at Harwell at the time and therefore was very aware of the dangers of radioactivity.

  2. Dr Y February 14, 2012 at 1:22 PM #

    This may or may not have been risky – it depends on whether the radioactivity was present naturally or was deliberately added to the water . And either way the important thing is how much activity and what radionuclide(s) was present. For example, when I visited Hot Springs National Park in the 1980s I noticed that natural radioactivity in the hot spring water was present in higher concentrations than in our reactor coolant. And there are measurable levels of natural radioactivity (albeit lower concentrations) in virtually any water that comes from the ground. And, in fact, when I lived in Columbus Ohio we got annual water quality statements sent to us that listed radioactivity concentrations – all too low to cause harm.

    There was a time – mostly during the Radium Age – when people deliberately added radioactivity to water for its “healthful” properties. But I don’t believe the practice carried forward into the post-WWII years in the US. Most of this was low-level radioactivity – whatever could diffuse out of concrete impregnated with radium or uranium.

    Anyhow – either way the bottom line is that it is the amount of radioactivity (natural or artificial)and the radiation dose you’ll get from it that determines the risk. My guess is that a single bottle – probably even multiple bottles – of the water would not have had much of a difference. But it’s also certain that not partaking – as you did – is the surest way to guard against a high dose!

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