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What is Radium?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Radium is a highly radioactive chemical element classified among the alkaline earth metals of the periodic table of elements. This element has several research uses, and historically it was used in a wide range of industries. Before the realization that radiation was harmful, radium was actually used as a health additive in personal care products, and its inclusion was an advertising point to make these products appeal to consumers. Unfortunately, numerous radiation-related deaths occurred before the scientific community realized that radium and other radioactive elements posed a health threat.

Radium is found in trace amounts in uranium ore, and it is significantly more radioactive than uranium, a well known element due to its use in atomic weapons. This element is the heaviest of the alkaline earths, and when it is isolated, it proves to be a pure white metal which demonstrates luminescence in the dark. Radium reacts quickly with the air, turning black when it is exposed, and it also interacts with the containers it is stored in, making it difficult to safely handle. The element has an atomic number of 88, and it is identified with the symbol Ra on the periodic table of elements.

The discovery of radium is credited to Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, who discovered radium and polonium while researching uranium in Curie's native Poland in the 1880s. By 1911, Curie had successfully isolated the element, after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her work; she received another in 1911 for her isolation of radium. Curie was a truly remarkable women for the time in which she worked; she was an accomplished chemist and physicist, and her contributions to the sciences are honored by the element curium and the Curie, a unit of radiation.

Curie named the element radium for the Latin radius, or “ray,” in a reference to the element's radioactive properties. Commercially, the element was used in a wide range of luminescent products, especially paints, until the scientific community realized that these uses were dangerous. During the period of time in which radium was used commercially, numerous workers got sick as a result of their exposure, and some lobbied for better worker protections in the hopes of preventing more cases of work-related illnesses in the future.

In research, radium is used as a source of neutrons in laboratories, and it is also researched by scientists who are interested in learning more about it and its isotopes. Radium is also sometimes used in treatment for cancers and in medical imaging. Some antiques like watches with luminescent dials contain radium, a testimony to the element's once widespread commercial use.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon357733 — On Dec 06, 2013

What is in radium?

By anon337222 — On Jun 03, 2013

This was full of satisfactory facts about this mineral, but where was radium found, for example, in the earth's layers?

By anon337221 — On Jun 03, 2013

Can someone tell me how they processed these products into a form where it was able to be formed into a usable product?

By rosoph — On Mar 24, 2011

If you were to come across an antique item, like a watch, that has radium in it, would it still be luminescent after all this time? And, would radiation be coming off of the watch?

It sounds like these antiques could be dangerous. What other kinds of products was radium put in?

By heath925 — On Mar 23, 2011

I can't believe that Radium used to be put into personal care products! That is so crazy! I feel sorry for all of the people that suffered because of the lack of knowledge of how very harmful radiation is.

Think of it this way -- when you have to be in the room with someone who is getting an x-ray, you are given a big vest to wear to protect you, but people used to put radium-infused products directly onto their skin!

It's just like smoking. People used to do it so much because no one knew how bad it was for you. I recently heard someone talking about how their high school even had a smoking area! But now we know how very bad it is for you.

It makes me wonder what kinds of things we use today that we believe are completely harmless, but could actually be doing us significant damage.

By anon58570 — On Jan 02, 2010

in the interests of science can some one tell me: If a spent or decaying uranium neutron is the heart of atomic energy, does this process pertain to hydrogen molecules as well?

If so, is this pertinent to the way the sun creates energy at the atomic level?

It would be very useful to know this might be the answer to the world's energy problems. It might be worth looking into. Maybe it already has been?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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