Radium and Marie Curie will always be taken in one breath.
Radium was formerly used in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. A typical self-luminous watch that uses radium paint contains around 1 microgram of radium.In the mid-1920s, a lawsuit was filed against the United States Radium Corporation by five dying “Radium Girl” dial painters who had painted radium-based luminous paint on the dials of watches and clocks. The dial painters routinely licked their brushes to give them a fine point, thereby ingesting radium. Their exposure to radium caused serious health effects which included sores, anemia, and bone cancer. This is because radium is treated as calcium by the body, and deposited in the bones, where radioactivity degrades marrow and can mutate bone cells.
During the litigation, it was determined that the company’s scientists and management had taken considerable precautions to protect themselves from the effects of radiation, yet had not seen fit to protect their employees. Worse, for several years the companies had attempted to cover up the effects and avoid liability by insisting that the Radium Girls were instead suffering from syphilis. This complete disregard for employee welfare had a significant impact on the formulation of occupational disease labor law.
As a result of the lawsuit, the adverse effects of radioactivity became widely known, and radium-dial painters were instructed in proper safety precautions and provided with protective gear. In particular, dial painters no longer licked paint brushes to shape them (which caused some ingestion of radium salts). Radium was still used in dials as late as the 1960s, but there were no further injuries to dial painters. This highlighted that the harm to the Radium Girls could easily have been avoided.
From the 1960s the use of radium paint was discontinued.
Radium is still used today as a radiation source in some industrial radiography devices to check for flawed metallic parts, similarly to X-ray imaging.