Blogging the Periodic Table

Radium: Cures Gout! (Warning: Also Causes Cancer.)
Each one has a story.
July 29 2010 6:49 AM

Blogging the Periodic Table

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Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

When steel magnate Eben Byers succumbed to cancer in 1932, the Wall Street Journal commemorated his death with this headline: "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off." Byers had been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the great periodic table fad of his day—drinking radioactive health tonics. These drinks were supposed to cure everything from skin lesions to gout to impotence. Things didn't quite work out that way.

We have a hard time imagining today what an innocent plaything nuclear radioactivity seemed to most laypeople after its discovery at the turn of the 20th century. For reasons that were then obscure, certain elements along the bottom rows of the periodic table emitted bits of charged matter or light, and sometimes even "transmutated" from one element to another—the dream of the alchemist finally coming true. The fact that most of those elements are rare only heightened the sense that science had uncovered a secret boon for humankind.

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Radium, discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, was especially popular: the "it" element of its day. Radium glows an eerie blue-green in the dark, giving off light for years without any apparent power source. People had never seen anything like it. It was perfect for watch faces and airplane dials and other things you wanted to see at a glance in the dark. Companies like U.S. Radium soon hired roomfuls of mostly young women to apply radium paint to their products.

Unfortunately, many "Radium Girls" had a bad habit of moistening their brushes with their lips and tongues. They wanted to focus the bristles into a tight point so they could paint with precision, and ended up ingesting radium with each lick. Even the ones who didn't nibble on radium paint were gradually exposed. Some even painted their fingernails with it, for their boyfriends.

Radium atoms emit what are called alpha particles, which (as discussed in a previous post) aren't much of a threat provided you stay clothed in their presence. Alpha particles are relatively large, a bundle of two protons and two neutrons, so a cotton shirt or pair of slacks will stop them. Unlike other forms of radioactivity, alphas are just too bulky to get through the atomic tangles of most matter.

The flipside, though, is that if radium does find its way inside the body, the alpha particles are too bulky to escape. Once ingested, they become fat wrecking balls capable of busting holes in whatever they find. Radium's location on the periodic table—it sits beneath calcium—explains why it is especially dangerous compared with other elements. The body tends to treat elements in the same column of the periodic table as equivalents. Instead of flushing radium out, then, your body thinks radium is a great thing to pack into bone—where it kills some cells outright and scrambles the DNA of others, causing problems like cancer. Some of the Radium Girls felt sick almost immediately. But in many of them, radium bided its time, accumulating slowly and not administering the poison until years later.

If the Radium Girls thought Element 88 merely fun and harmless, Eben Byers and many others saw it as a magical health cure, as did many medical "authorities" of Byers' day, some licensed, many not. Patients began clamoring for radium, and the free market was happy to help people fulfill their wishes. Many consumers bought radium-lined crocks called Revigators (read: reinvigoration!) to soak drinking water in. The radium would leach from the Revigator walls into the liquid overnight, and the next day the owner could open the spigot for healthful radioactive cocktails. Often, people invited guests.

Those who could afford it skipped this radioactive Britta filter and got something more fashionable—bottled radioactive water, especially the Evian of its day, Radithor. Byers drank a bottle of Radithor every day for something like four years, convinced it would make him as close to immortal as this world allows. Instead, he ended up wasting away, dying of bone cancer, his face so disfigured his jaw did, in fact, come off. But really, there's no good reason to single out Byers. He wasn't more fanatical about radioactive water than many; he simply had the means to drink as much as he wished, and his public role as a business leader ensured that his pathetic decline was public news.

In fact, beyond the sheer number of casualties, there's not even reason to single out radium as unique for being abused as a medicine. Byers and the illnesses suffered by the Radium Girls cooled the public's enthusiasm for radium goods, but other elements stepped into the spotlight. Pretty much every natural element on the periodic table has been touted at some point as a miracle cure for something, and you can find pills or supplements of many online even today. Year to year the in-vogue elements change, but the claims—Cure terminal diseases! Rid your body of toxins!—stay the same. If studying the periodic table taught me nothing else, it's that the credulity of human beings for periodic table panaceas is pretty much boundless.

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Sam Kean is the best-selling author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb. His new book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, comes out May 6.

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