Lessons From Radium

Radium has been involved in two separate incidents where significant radiation exposure has occurred. These were recreational and work place related.


The story is well told in a Scientific American article from 1993 [1] and it is worthwhile asking your DOT (or SOT, or whatever the current lingo is!) to get a copy for the registrar archive. I would suggest you consider this suggestion). The story concerns a substance called Radithor and a man named Eben Byers who was notable because of his social connections.

Yes, once again if you want to change human behaviour (notably when it is based on the "old fashion sin" of greed), you have to have a scandal and some one hurt. Eben's story makes very good reading anyway.

Workplace This is the story of the Radium Dial painters, who as could be expected with many industrial problems were predominantly women.

You will notice the connection between Eben Byer's bones and the Radium Gal's bones also. Now what does that have to do with chemistry?

Radium is a chemical element that sits in the group called **Alkaline Earth Metals**. This is the vertical group second from the left on the Periodic Table originally constructed by Dmitri Mendeleev.

His was one of the most significant pieces of chemical thinking in the history of elements, and his real breakthrough was to realise that he didn't know everything (what a refreshing thought for an oncologist!) and so to leave HOLES in his version of the table. He realised that sodium, potassium and lithium has very marked similarities in chemical reactions (they all formed salts with chlorine in a 1:1 ratio, their oxides were all very basic (ie, alkaline), etc, etc.) and some differences that also formed a pattern (their reactivity got greater as the weight of the atom got heavier, unlike the halogens - Cl, F, Br and I - which got less reactive as they got heavier). By following this pattern he divined a repetitive pattern of chemical similarity, and so instead of a long string put them on a 'spiral' with Li, Na, & K in a line, and F, Cl, Br and I in a line also. In time the gaps filled in. This of course is a very superficial treatment of what is a very exciting story which has been better told elsewhere [2].

So back to radium! The element is a metal which is extremely reactive. This is because the 2 outer shell electrons are so far from the nucleus that they are bound very very loosely and so need no encouragement to abscond into a promiscuous bonding relationship with almost any passing element that feels a need to indulge in the stray electron. This is very similar to CALCIUM which likewise reacts immediately it contacts water and forms a dual positively charged ion (a.k.a the calcium cation $Ca^2$$^+$) - remember this from high school? Radium is the same - it reacts on the thought of getting near water to form the $Ra^2$$^+$ cation.

So it should come as no surprise to know that radium acts in the body as a calcium analogue! Which is to say it hasn't an original thought in its own head so it mindlessly hangs out where ever the calcium goes. Remember the times when your mother asked you after some stupid, stupid act "if Mary-Jane took a sharp knife and cut her throat, would you do the same thing?" Well, radium would say "Yes, Mum, I will do what ever Calcium does." So where is the radium - in the bones with all the calcium! Get it now?! Ah, the Beauty of Chemistry is everywhere!

1. Roger M. Macklis, "The Great Radium Scandal", Scientific American, 269(2), pp. 94-99, Aug. 1993
2. "A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table" by Michael D. Gordin - 364 pages; Publisher: Basic Books (April 27, 2004); ISBN-10: 046502775X; ISBN-13: 978-0465027750
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