On September 12, 1922 Amelia Magia died at the age of 25. An immigrant woman dying young in the 1920s was not uncommon, but what was unusual was the number of women that died with the same symptoms around the same time.
Like many women in 1917, Amelia worked as a dial painter and painted watch faces with a special paint that glowed in the dark. This was a popular job for women during World War I, as soldiers in the military needed watches they could read at night but not be seen by the enemy. This paint contained radium, a radioactive element that gave the watches a subtle glow. The watch faces only required less than a millionth of a gram of radium to glow.
When radium was discovered in 1898, it was thought only to give positive health benefits, and was used in everything from medical treatments to candy for children. Like so many other women, Amelia would use the radium-containing paint as a novelty on her hair, nails, and face. While the radium company denied radium had anything to do with Amelia’s death, and the deaths of several other dial painters, New Jersey’s local Medical Examiner, Harrison Martland, thought otherwise.
Martland contacted New York’s Chief Medical Examiner, Charles Norris, and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, for assistance with Amelia’s case in 1927. Amelia’s body was exhumed, and her remains were sent to Norris and Gettler. To check the bones for radium, Gettler cleaned the bones, placed them on covered sheets of X-ray paper, and left them in a dark room for several days. Upon returning, he removed the X-ray sheets and could see exactly where the bones had been placed. They contained so much radium that even five years after her death her bones were still radioactive!
For some dial painters, it took months, or even years, to experience symptoms such as weight loss, achy joints, anemia, ulcers, tumors, and decaying bones due to the radium exposure. Radium kills slowly because the body mistakes it for calcium. Radium and calcium are alkaline earth metals, meaning they share many of the same chemical properties due to both of their atom’s outer shells containing two valence electrons. Although radium is radioactive and calcium is not, the body cannot distinguish between these two elements that appear to behave the same way. The women would put the paintbrush tip between their lips to make a fine point, and as a result, the paint was absorbed into their bloodstream and delivered to their bones as if it were calcium. The radium, however, damaged their DNA, led to very fragile bones, and eventually killed them.
The discovery of the dangers within radium and the deaths of over 100 dial painters destroyed the positive view society had on radium. The high demand for radium dwindled to nothing in the market after this first encounter with the new poison thanks to the work of determined medical examiners.