Early radium & X-ray use and later cancers

It wasn’t until around 1920 that we realized some control over the use of X-ray and radium were necessary. The best example in American history of our lack of understanding of the dangers of radioactivity, was the extensive use of radium in luminous paint during the First and Second World Wars.  This paint was used to illuminate the faces of watches and U.S. army issue compasses. The radium-activated paint was applied by brush and the painters, mostly young women in New Jersey and elsewhere, found they could work faster by tipping their brushes with their lips, thus ingesting large amounts of radium.

The Radium Girls hard at work painting watch faces and compasses

In those days, very little attention was paid to the safety of workers. Dial painters were irradiated from the paint which contaminated their workplaces and from the inhalation of radon.  The hazard was first recognized in 1924, when a New York dentist identified a new disease which he called “radium jaw” which he found regularly in patients who were ex-dial painters.  The first bone sarcoma was recorded in this group of women in 1923 and one third of them eventually died of various cancerous malignancies.  The data derived from the experiences of these unfortunate young women eventually helped to set new radium tolerance levels.

Despite the realization that radium could be used to kill malignant cells, the public became besotted with radium as a general panacea for many illnesses.  A number of potions were sold containing radium, the most famous being Radiothor. Four hundred thousand bottles of this quack remedy, which was said to cure a range of maladies from stomach ulcers to impotence, were sold between 1925 and 1930. 

My grandfather was a very early adopter when it came to X-ray technology. Like so many, he felt that this new technology could solve a lot of problems. In fact he took a correspondence course in using X-ray on humans probably in the 1940s, and then traveled around providing X-rays where needed. Although little was really known about radiation risks from the 1930s to the 1950s, American shoe stores supplied shoe-fitting fluoroscopes, which allowed customers to see the bones in their feet, a gimmick to ensure “a proper fit.” The practice ended in the 1950s when it was determined to be a risky practice due to the radiation, and shoe clerks had no formal medical training in using X-ray technology.

When my grandmother developed major problems with her periods in the early 1960s, my grandfather decided the best solution was to use X-rays to radiate her ovaries. In the mid-1980s my grandmother developed stomach cancer and died soon afterward. Gee, I wonder why that cancer developed in the exact same region as the earlier X-rays?

Early chest X-rays used constantly with little regulation

In addition, two women I know well, including my own Mom, received annual chest X-rays in grade school to check for tuberculosis. Both of these women developed breast cancer in their thirties. How many more women were exposed to unneeded radiation in grade school?

Back then, X-rays were used to treat ringworms, acne, menopause discomforts, mental patients and even facial hair removal in beauty shops. These were largely uncontrolled misuses of radiation because there were no specific legal regulations governing radiation safety at the time. One has to wonder how many cases of cancer decades later were at least partially caused by our unwise confidence in X-ray as a cure for all ills.

To learn more about the Radium Girls’ tragedy go here to read an article published in History Magazine in October 2007 by me.