Radium Part II: Trying to Close Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Until 1945, radium was the best known radioactive material. It was widely found in consumer and medical products. And, as we saw in Part I of this series, it became notorious for fatally sickening radium watch-dial painters in the 1920s. With few exceptions, oversight of public and workplace safety for radium was mostly a state responsibility, and the federal government’s role was limited to such issues as preventing false advertising and regulating mail shipments.

USRadiumGirls-Argonne1ca1922-23-150dpiAt that time, radioisotopes came from just two limited sources. They were painstakingly isolated from natural ores, as was radium, or created in small batches in particle accelerators. These accelerators fire beams of electrons, protons and other particles at elements to create radioactive isotopes. Today the products of these two processes are called NARM—short for Naturally-Occurring and Accelerator-Produced Radioactive Material.

Scientists working on fission and the Manhattan Project discovered new radioactive isotopes with interesting properties. They soon became widely available to scientists, who found many uses for these products, from medical to basic research. They were under federal control and soon eclipsed the small amounts of radium and other NARM that existed before the war. Cold-War security concerns demanded federal control of nuclear technology and this new radioactive material.

Still, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act avoided intruding on state authority over NARM. It focused the Atomic Energy Commission’s oversight on fissionable material such as uranium and thorium and reactor-produced isotopes. The AEC controlled the vast majority of radioactive material.

This division of power didn’t disturb existing state authority but made little technical sense. An isotope produced in a reactor would be identical to one found in nature or produced in an accelerator.  Moreover, state oversight was uneven.

Radium_Periodic Element TableRadium had lost its luster and fallen into disuse. Safer reactor-produced isotopes and sources with shorter half-lives mostly replaced radium for medical uses. Radium consumer products disappeared from stores by the 1970s. But products made with radium during its heyday (see Part I) retain their hazard for a long time.

So, from time to time, reports would emerge of products found in someone’s attic or office, or contamination found in a building. This prompted the Public Health Service to launch a program to collect and safely dispose of old radium sources.

Beginning in the late 1960s, state radiation control officers called for legislation to give the AEC and later the NRC the power to regulate radium and other NARM. In 1985 the NRC asked to be given authority over NARM waste disposal, but Congress took no action. The status quo remained, in part due to difficulties Congress had deciding on the federal agency best suited to regulate radium and oversee cleanup.

Little changed until the 1990s when terrorism provided a new dimension of concern. Experts worried that untracked or stolen radioactive sources, including radium, could be used in “dirty bombs.” Between 1998 and 2003, as part of the U.S. delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the NRC worked with member nations on a code of conduct for radioactive sources. To limit the potential for “malicious acts,” the code appealed to each country to develop a national system of regulation for a list of radioactive sources — radium among them.

In the wake of 9/11, support for the IAEA code gained momentum. Congress included a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act giving NRC oversight of radium and other sources of NARM. A consensus for federal regulation emerged only when national security issues joined long-standing health concerns.

Radium Part I: Opening Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Marie and Pierre Curie
Marie and Pierre Curie

When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered Radium-226 in 1898, it opened up the atom’s secrets and offered hope that its mysterious radioactive rays were a miracle cure. Sobering reality replaced euphoria as radium factory workers began to die.

Radium taught the world of radiation’s dangers, yet it was not until 2005 that Congress put all aspects of radium safety oversight under the federal government. Until that time, it was primarily regulated — to varying degrees — by the states. This three-part blog series traces radium’s long unique history where states took the lead in regulating it and compensating victims.

Soon after the Curies’ discovery, radium became a consumer and medical sensation. Its radiation reduced tumor growth, and researchers found somewhat elevated levels of radiation at some medicinal spas, such as Saratoga Springs, N. Y., and Hot Springs, Ark. Conclusion? Radiation was a life saver. One physician claimed that radium’s “radiation prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”

Manufacturers hawked quack products they claimed were laced with radium as a miracle cure and status symbol: elixirs, kitchenware, clothes, pillows, razor blades, and cigarette holders, even condoms. Radium’s luminescent properties also made possible glow-in-the-dark paint for watch dials.

In 1925, the New York Times reported one of the earliest instances of radiation-induced cancer. Its victims were young women—watch-dial painters in New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois. The intricate work required them to “lip point” their brushes by licking them. Infections and cancers of the jaw followed from the ingested radium. The isotope’s bone-seeking properties and long half-life made it particularly dangerous. (The time required for the radioactivity to decrease by one-half is referred to as the half-life. The half-life of Ra-226 is about 1,600 years.)

The tragic story of the “radium girls” transformed radiation’s image from panacea to poison. Public discussion turned to compensating victims and limiting radium exposures—duties that usually fell to state courts and agencies. In New Jersey, reformers won their fight for a law allowing compensation for “radium necrosis.”

State labor and health agencies were able to halt lip pointing, but their power over industry was sometimes limited. For example, the New Jersey Labor Department issued to U.S. Radium Corporation an order to tighten safety for its dial painters — “comply or close.” It closed and moved elsewhere.

RadiumAd2_0_Altantic MagFederal agencies mostly deferred to state authority over radium. They issued studies, organized conferences, and developed voluntary safe work practices. The Federal Trade Commission had some influence in shutting down falsely advertised products, such as the “fountain of youth” tonic Radithor, but safety assurance was a state prerogative.

With World War II, change came as nuclear reactors of the U.S. wartime atomic program flooded the world with new isotopes, reducing to near insignificance radium’s commercial and medical applications. The Curies’ Nobel-Prize discovery was about to become an afterthought.

Part II will be posted on Wednesday.