In the early 1990s, an interesting radioactive element was discovered know as radium. Because this greenish yellow material emitted a unique, evanescent glow in the dark without needing any additional light source, radium soon became a popular additive to paint, being used on dials in airplanes, as well as functioning as a glowing mechanism for clocks, jewelry, dish wares, and more. Radium is a byproduct of the elements uranium and thorium, and belongs to the family of alkaline earth metals.
The very first “glow in the dark” items were all painted using radium, which science has now discovered to be a highly toxic radioactive material that can cause severe health issues including cancer if digested or inhaled.
Many of the unfortunate factory workers during the 1920s to the 1970s who were exposed to high levels of radium devolved fatal bone tumors, most commonly in their jaws, as a result of exposure to the substance through practices such as licking their paintbrushes to wet them, breathing in paint fumes over several years’ time, and absorption of the radium through their skin if they chose to go without protective gloves or masks. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Radium is highly radioactive. It emits alpha, beta and gamma radiation. If it is inhaled or swallowed, radium is particularly dangerous. Once inside the body, it emits radiation directly to living tissue, where it damages cells.”
Despite the tragedy of these poor workers’ misfortune, it is undoubtedly a good thing that they were martyrs to the cause in the eventual ban of radium production as a paint in housewares. Albeit, radium and uranium glass and jewelry is not usually considered dangerous unless it is worn or used a lot over a long period of time. However, it is still worth avoiding handling these glasswares regularly without the use of gloves, and it is strongly suggested to not eat off uranium glass dishes or to drink from radium cups.
Despite the controversy surrounding radium glass and radioactive antiques in general, there are still a great deal of avid collectors to this day. Radium products are inarguably some of the most beautiful and interesting household items every designed, so it’s easy to understand why people would still want to marvel at their beauty from a distance in the form of radium chandeliers and/or keepsakes safely stored in cabinets or display cases.