May 04, 2004

Old Time Radiation Chic

Radiation became fashionable after Marie Curie's research on the element radium, and one dark night upon returning to her laboratory, she found it filled with an eerie glow. She had discovered that radium-containing compounds glowed brilliantly of their own accord, as the atoms released energy in the visible spectrum in the process of radioactive decay. Although Madame Curie paid for this spectacular discovery with her own early death caused by radiation exposure, the new "miracle substance" made its way into many consumer products, such as watches whose dials glowed in the dark.

One major radium-watch scandal occurred here in Illinois, at the Elgin Watch Company. Remember the fate of the "Radium Girls," the poor souls who used to paint glow-in-the-dark patches on clocks and watches? Luminous paint used back then contained hazardous radium salts instead of today's safer glowing alternatives like zinc compounds or phosphorus, and the radium workers often had a habit of "pointing" the brushes in their lips to obtain finer paint lines.

The results included dreadful skin ulcerations and cancers, corneal cataracts and tumors of the mouth, jaw and neck. Rather than being recognized as radiation sickness, these maladies were often incorrectly diagnosed as advanced syphilis and venereal disease by doctors who felt that these women, who shunned traditional roles by working in factories, must undoubtedly have loose morals. A shameful era, no doubt...but I still think "The Radium Girls" would make a cracking name for a rock band, or a blog.

Better than "Phossy Jaw."

If you're curious, here's the University of Chicago's official training page for radiation safety. So, just how dangerous is radiation exposure? On this page you'll find a small chart that lists some examples of activities that carry a one-in-a-million risk of killing you. They include:
Smoking 1.4 cigarettes (lung cancer)
Eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter
Spending 2 days in New York City (air pollution)
Driving 40 miles in a car (accident)
Flying 2500 miles in a jet (accident)
Receiving 10 mRem of radiation (cancer)
Most of these make sense, like the fact that breathing New York City air for 2 days can possibly kill you - a rather disturbing little statistic. On the other hand, I am thoroughly confused about how eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter carries a 1-in-a-million risk of death. How? By aflatoxin-induced cancer? Allergic reaction? Clogged arteries? Constipation?

Do you have to eat all 40 tablespoons at once?

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