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1900s French Radium Fad Leaves Scary Legacy

July 20, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics
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France, the land that discovered radium, is still dealing with the consequences.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, discovered radium in Paris in 1898. The luminescent new miracle metal charmed the world, but especially the French.

Many of us remember “radium dial” watches and clocks, highlighted with radium paint so the hands would glow in the dark. But the radium craze went way beyond that, and nowhere more than Paris. The French put radium in lipstick and even water fountains. Hucksters—and some well-meaning health professionals—promoted the supposed healing properties of radium-laced body lotions and cough syrups.

“Marie Curie never patented her discoveries, so a lot of people rode the radium wave,” said Eric Lanes, head of radioactive decontamination for ANDRA, France’s national agency for radioactive waste. He was quoted in a Reuters news agency story.

The promotion of radium as a cure-all had a kernel of validity, Lanes said:

Cancerous cells are more sensitive to radiation than healthy ones. Curie understood that. But some people embarked on businesses more akin to charlatans’ tricks.

Lanes cleans up the legacy of those businesses: bits of radium hiding in the cracks and corners of buildings once used to make radium products. ANDRA says the radiation produced by such trace amounts of the substance doesn’t pose any serious health risk. Nevertheless, it has identified some 130 problem sites. About 40 are scheduled for decontamination, half of them in Paris.

Usually, the process follows the procedure used on a house, once a factory for aircraft altimeters that used radium-painted dials, in the Paris suburb of Chaville. Workers wearing masks and protective suits remove any contamination they find, ripping out floors and even digging up garden soil.

The house’s occupants live elsewhere for three months, at ANDRA’s expense, before getting their renovated home back. Cost to French taxpayers: 260,000 euros ($318,200).

Other places retain so much contamination that they must be razed. The Reuters story mentions a subdivision near Paris built next to an old factory that produced radium needles for hospitals.

One former resident whose house was bought and demolished by ANDRA said:

No one told us anything when we bought it in 1966, but a lot of mystery surrounded that house. We were only told, ‘You shouldn’t grow vegetables in the garden.’

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