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Questions for Deborah Blum, Author of The Poisoners Handbook

The Radium Girls, a group of mostly teenaged immigrant workers who worked at U.S. Radium Corp. in Orange, N.J., from 1917 to 1926, occupy a tragic place in the history of cancer. The women painted clock and watch paint with paint made luminous by radium dust, called “Undark.” Instructed to sharpen their brushes with their lips, the women ingested large amounts of radioactive material that caused leukemia, cancers of the bone and anemia. A cohort of six women who sued U.S. Radium in 1925 and forced the company to settle were dubbed Radium Girls by the press. A total of 112 workers are believed to have died as a result of radium exposure out of about 3,000 workers.

In her book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin Press) and on her blog, author Deborah Blum unearthed how a New Jersey medical examiner named Harrison Martland struggled to prove that radium had caused the cancers in the girls. The discovery that radioactivity could cause cancer, as well as cure it, was a milestone in the scientific understanding of cancer, carcinogens and occupational hazards. Txchnologist caught up with Blum at the end of August. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Txchnologist: You tell the story of how radium, from the moment it was discovered by the Curies in 1898, was hailed as a miracle cure to cancer and an energizing tonic. What does this tell us about how people thought about radioactivity and science in 1900?

Deborah Blum: Science was a rising force in the way people thought about the world. People were comparing what it did to biblical miracles and, more than that, it was harnessing unseen power. And now you had these once dead rocks in the Earth that are glowing with life. Uranium and radium and polonium are like these miraculous substances. It’s like unearthing these little shining stars in the dirt – people really saw them that way. Literally, no one thought of this having a downside. So when they first started doing medical experiments with radium and they saw this cancer shrinkage, they said, “We use radioactive materials to shrink tumors and they work.” Science was this heroic field of adventure and discovery and something like radium was a huge deal.

Txch: It seems like an innocent time for a culture that was in thrall to science.

DB: There was an innocence about it, in that no one had ever really questioned that there might be a dual nature to these things. There were just these amazing things that made you healthy and made you glow in the dark. But in the laboratories, scientists were starting to worry. Marie Curie’s husband Pierre was run over by a horse and cart in the streets of Paris. There were a lot of rumors around the scientific community that his legs collapsed as he tried to get away and that was because of radium.

Txch: What started happening to these Radium Girls?

DB: The worst way to absorb radium is to swallow it. It’s a radioactive element that mostly emits, at the lower levels, an alpha radiation, which is fairly weak radiation that doesn’t penetrate paper or clothes or skin. But if you swallow radium, the element itself is structurally very like calcium. So the body takes it up in calcium delivery systems that go to your bones. And now inside your body you’ve got a radioactive element. It basically breaks the bones apart where it sits.

Radium dial painters. Courtesy Argonne National Laboratory

These Radium Girls were painting watch faces, clock faces with a luminous paint that contained a lot of radium. Not only are they painting their teeth for fun but, in the course of painting, they’re taught to lip point their brushes. So you paint, paint, paint, do the one, the two and the three [on the clock face] lip point the brush, get it sharp again, do the four, the five and the six. And these girls were swallowing radium all day.

Within a year or two, you start getting all these weird illnesses. You started getting the creeping exhaustion and anemias. Then they started seeing these really bizarre bone collapses. Girls’ jaws were literally crumbling in their face. People’s legs would break underneath them. Finally in 1923-24 the company hired some consultants who came down and talked about the incredible exposure to radium but concluded it wasn’t really a problem.

Then the Consumer’s Union, which was a super aggressive worker advocacy group, came in. Then the state of New Jersey came in and you start seeing the notching up of the scientific response.

Txch: When did people get the first inklings that it was radium?

DB: It was suspicion starting with the Consumer Union group. They did a report where they said, “You’ve got a super exposure to radium and you’ve got all these sick girls and we believe that you’ve got occupational health exposure.” The company denies it. But then you get a New Jersey medical examiner saying, “There’s something about this that is really creepy to me.” So what you had in the mid-1920s this association. Not a cause and effect but an association.
Then Harrison Martland in New Jersey comes in and he takes a look at these Radium Girls and he discovers they’re exhaling radon gas. So if they’re exhaling radon gas that tells him that radium is deposited in their bodies.

Txch: But people still weren’t convinced, were they?

DB: No. People said, “Oh they swallowed a little radium, what’s the big deal?” It was the bone situation that really turned it around. They took the bones of a girl who had been dead for five years and they were still radioactive. That did two things: One, is that you could say this isn’t just random radiation. You could start to figure out the pathway of the radium to the bones and the effect.

The other thing was that, in the standard annals of toxicology poisoning was an acute effect: I swallow cyanide and I drop dead. So that was one of the arguments of the U.S. Radium Corp. Some of these girls started getting sick, they quit, and the really serious illnesses developed when they were no long working at the plant. So we’re not responsible for that. It redefined the way we thought about poison and occupational exposure.

Txch: How well did the medical establishment understand the concept of carcinogenic materials at that time?

DB: The idea that chemical exposures could cause diseases, I think that was there. But the whole biology of it, the genetics of it – they didn’t have a clue.

Txch: What did this story tell you about scientific optimism in that period?

DB: There’s this growing awareness that these aren’t all miraculous substances. Radium, the wonder element, can kill you in a very bad way. Mercury, which was a really popular medicine, is very dangerous. You see this happening over and over because the science itself is growing up enough to see the other side. I think that marks a wonderful time in the history of science where they’re starting to recognize that every element, every discovery has the potential to help and to harm.

Top image: A 1918 advertisement in the New York Tribune.

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