The Radium Jaw
The Radium jaw was a common disease brought on by the ingestion of radium. Especiallly the Radium Girls who worked with Undark by painting the dials and hands of watches suffered of radium poisoning and alongoing bone decay. They were required to paint delicate lines with fine-tipped brushes and after a few strokes a brush tended to lose its shape, so the women’s managers encouraged them to use their lips and tongues to keep the tips of the camel hair brushes sharp and clean. The glowing paint was completely flavorless, and the supervisors assured them that rosy cheeks would be the only physical side effect to swallowing the radium-laced pigment.
Cause for concern was further reduced by the fact that radium was being marketed as a medical elixir for treating all manner of ailments.
Instead the damage to the lower jaw was in many cases so severe that you could simply remove it by pulling it out by hand. The jawbone was honeycombed with small holes, in a random pattern reminiscent of moth-eaten fabric.
The Radium bombarded skeletal material with alpha radiation, blasting it full of tiny holes, and then larger ones, and then larger. It irradiated the bloodforming marrow in the bone’s center. No wonder that the dial painters’ jaws literally rotted away, hips broke, ankles crumbled away, anemias and leukemias bubbled in the bone marrow.
The condition is similar to phossy jaw, an osteoporitic and osteonecrotic illness of matchgirls, brought on by phosphorus ingestion and absorption.
Another prominent example of this condition was the death of Eben Byers, an American industrialist, after taking large doses of a patent medicine containing radium over several years. His illness garnered much publicity, with The Wall Street Journal running a story titled “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off”, and brought the problem of radioactive quack medicines into the public eye.