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Originally published October 14 2014

Legacy radium continues to contaminate U.S. cities, costing millions in clean-up and healthcare costs

by Julie Wilson staff writer

(NaturalNews) A radioactive metal once admired in the early 1900s is now the source of deadly health and environmental impacts that are financially burdening individual states and the federal government.

Humans seem to have always been impressed by shiny objects, making the discovery of radium particular exciting with its glow-in-the-dark properties. Soon after French physicist Marie Curie discovered the radioactive, silver-white metal in 1898, manufacturers wasted no time in putting it to use.

Intrigued and distracted by its luminescence, radium was soon marketed in a number of products, in many of which you'd least expect to find a radioactive substance. Regarded as healthy and, by some, as a miracle agent, radium was used in cosmetics, toothpaste and health spas. It was also used in heating pads, painting decals on airplanes and as a method for treating impotence, arthritis and cancer.

In the early 1900s, radium was considered the fountain of youth

Clueless about the dangers, the radioactive substance was also used in chocolate; children's toys, including nightlights; drinking water; and the infamous glow-in-the-dark clocks and watches that were later linked to horrible, excruciating deaths in several young women.

An invisible, yet deadly, killer, radium has a half-life of about 1,600 years, meaning it takes that long for one ounce to decay to one-half an ounce. After the dangers surrounding radium were finally understood, its use began to fade; however, due to early popularity and its persistence in the environment, lingering radium still poses an immense threat today.

The U.S. Radium Factory, which produced glow-in-the-dark watches containing radioactive paint in the 1920s in four New Jersey counties, has since contaminated 220,000 cubic yards of soil. The contaminated soil was used to fill in low-lying areas of Essex County, where hundreds of homes would soon be built, a mistake with a $218 million price tag.

That mistake was finally admitted in 1983 following an aerial survey of the 12 square miles around the radium plant, which revealed dangerous gamma radiation. More than 13 years of cleanup ensued, with 80,000 cubic yards of tainted soil removed and sent to Utah for disposal.

Unfortunately, the radium contamination in Essex County was not an isolated incident. A Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, became contaminated after radium-based paint was used for aircraft dials and other equipment in the 1940s and 1950s, according to a report by Next City. The dumping of chemical waste later led to the Navy replacing thousands of feet of contaminated sewer lines, a project that was only completed in 2012.

Radium exposure in humans can occur through inhalation or ingestion and the latter was the source of exposure in the "Radium Girls," a group of dial-painters employed by the U.S. Radium Plant in New Jersey. Part of their job involved pressing radium-dipped paint brushes between their lips to give them a nice fine point for painting, a practice that later caused horrific symptoms, which resulted in death for many of the girls.

Over time, radium can accumulate in the bones, pretending to be calcium due to its similar chemical make-up, but, instead of strengthening bones, radium slowly kills bone tissue, contributing to a grisly death.

After four years of painting dials, 21-year-old Frances Splettstocher first developed anemia before the tooth and mouth pain set in. When a dentist tried to pull an aching tooth, part of her jaw came with it, leaving a gaping hole in her cheek that continue to rot. "In excruciating pain," she was the first of the painters to die, only a month later, according to The Waterbury Observer. The Radium Girls were told that the paint was perfectly safe and, in fact, would make their cheeks glow.

Radium emits several kinds of radiation, which if inhaled can cause lung cancer. At elevated levels, the metal has also been linked to fractured teeth, bone cancer and cataracts, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


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