Uses of Radium

After celebrity, the time for oblivion

How to promote a famos mineral water !
The rgranitic ocks of the Massif Central in France are lightly radioactive. At the time when radium was publicised, a famous thermal spa put forward this radioactivity as a way of promotion. However this would not have been the case today. In fact, exposure to radioactivity due to the presence of the descendants of uranium in the rocks does not lead to any health problems, even in granite areas like the Massif Central. The spa guests can drink the water from these springs without worrying about it.

While the use of this metal is now forgotten, the discovery of radium caused a sensation. The new element was rare and expensive, spontaneously bright and emitted a huge amount of radiation and energy: 1.4 million times that of the uranium discovered by Becquerel. It was the most radioactive element that could be seen and weighed.

Bayard’s alarm-clocks in the 1950's
One of the first uses of radium was to make luminous the figures on the dials of clocks, alarm clocks and compasses. Traces of radium were added to a suspension of zinc sulfide, causing luminescence of the paint. In 1949, at the time of this advertising of the Bayard’s alarm-clocks, it was many years since radioprotection precautions were taken for the painting the dials.
The alpha rays emanating from radium would become an amazing tool in the exploration of the microscopic structure of matter, leading to the discovery of the atomic nucleus.

Medical applications started from the end of 1901. A new field was created to group together all the therapeutic applications where radium is present: brachytherapy or radium therapy.

The needs of medicine at the time lead to the production of many diverse things putting into perspective very small quantities of radium. It involved needles and tubes or even applicators containing radium. Between 1910 and 1930 these were stocked in hospitals and surgeries. The needles and tubes of radium that were rigid are today replaced by supple wires of iridium-192.

At the end of the war of 1914-1918, the demand was so great that the product became scarce and very expensive, which aroused the interest of industrialists for an element where one gram reached the price of a good house in Paris. A Belgium company, The Mining Union of Haut Katanga developed production of radium from rich in uranium. It was a left-over uranium stock of this Union Minière, hidden in Morocco during the Second World War by Frederic Joliot, which allowed France in 1948 to dispose of the uranium needed to start Zoe, the first French atomic pile.

The radium mania increased the demand, but the only serious industrial use would be for luminescents watches and alarm clocks paintings that lasted until the 1960s. Although these paintings containing traces of radium had been abandoned for a long time, radiological controls still had to be put in place in old watch making factories (Bayard, Lip and Jazz), that sometimes had to undergo decontamination.

Radium needles
Radium needles for medical use. Radium was at the origin of the first uses of radioactive sources for therapeutic purposes. The radium needles, which were rigid, are nowadays replaced by flexible wires containing iridium-192. Radioactive sources are used in the form of tubes or wires introduced in natural cavities or implanted in tissues. Brachytherapy remains today the preferred treatment for uterus cancer, a common and serious cancer.
In the United States, employees victims of cancer as a result of licking the brushes used to paint the hands on the alarm clocks were brought out of oblivion when a touching book was published in 1999 (“Deadly glow : the radium dial worker tragedy “ by R. Mullner). It was difficult to link the observed diseases to a miracle product so praised for its benefits, but once the connection was established, legal arguments delayed the necessary measures. A great physicist, Glen Seaborg, had not forgotten this tragedy in 1944, when he imposed the first,rules of radioprotection at the start of the Manhattan Project.

RETURN PAGE : Radium : The radioactive nucleus that made History

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