Radium's dangerous past
Deadly sunshine: the history and fatal legacy of radium
Stroud, UK: Tempus Publishing | 2005 | 288pp | £12.99 (SB) | ISBN 0752433954
Reviewed by Stuart Williams
Deadly Sunshineis the result of the author's long-standing fascination with radium, a material discovered just over 100 years ago with an early history filled with wild speculation and astounding expectation. That radium seems consigned to the history books is likely a result of our steady increase in knowledge regarding the effects of radiation on the environment and ourselves. No one today can read this book without a thought for those unknowingly exposed to radium's short but volatile time in the limelight.
The author returns to the very start, with the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie in Paris during their studies on radioactive materials in ores. The accounts of the chemical processing that they undertook are detailed and include extracts from Marie Curie's own notebooks and doctoral thesis. No modern chemist could fail to feel sympathetic, if not a little stunned, by the methods used in their early experiments. The accounts of dial painters and workers in industrial plants extracting radium are no less shocking by today's standards than the methods employed by prominent scientists of the day.
This book is detailed and is scattered with extracts from relevant texts. It does not pull any punches when discussing the methods used by some companies in the early 20th century to conceal and deny any link between radium and ill health.
The benefits of radium, both direct and indirect, are not ignored. Radium was instrumental in the development of radiotherapies for cancers. Arguably these treatments would not have developed as rapidly, nor been so effective, without radium. This is predominantly a tale of scientific endeavour, excitement and excess. For those with a fascination for detail, this book supplies more than enough to please. Casual readers be warned; this book is not for the faint hearted.