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Radiation Poisoning

In December 1895 mankind discovers its first type of radiation. Opening the radiation pandora’s box of things to come. But for now, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen has discovered X-rays. Just a year later Henri Becquerel discovered uranium salts emit strange uranium rays. By this time the physicist power couple Peire and Marie Curie had started their investigation. They discovered how to measure the intensity of radioactivity and even coined the term radioactivity itself. Along with this, they discovered the radioactive elements thorium, polonium, and radium. The age of radium was here.

As soon as radium was discovered in the 1900’s it became fashionable, a wonder item. Its glow in the dark was assigned many wonderous health properties by salesmen. Radium was added to everything from foods, water, makeup, condoms, corsets, and golf balls. But most of all watches. The glow-in-the-dark dials meant you could read the time at night. These dials had to be painted on by hand. The workers that did this often licked their brushes to get them to a fine point.

The Radium Girls and Radiation Poisoning

The radiation girls were some of the first people to die of radiation poisoning. their work began in 1917, by 1923 the first clock dial painter died. The radiation poisoning started slowly.

First with tooth pain, then tooth loss, leading to legions and ulcers then forming in the mouth. Later this turned into necrosis of the jaw leading to the term radium jaw. At the same time, the women began to develop anaemia and bone fractures. By 1924 a dozen women had died and 50 were ill. It was not just the radium girls that died of exposure, several physicists including Marie Curie would die from exposure. Marie Curie was so exposed to radiation that she was buried in a lead-lined coffin and her remains are said to remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

How does Radiation Kill?

When we think about radiation poisoning, we often think of a sudden large exposure. When this is the case, we refer to it as acute radiation sickness. Radiation sickness acts in different ways depending on the dose absorbed. We measure this dose in Gray (Gy) which is the absorbed energy per unit mass of tissue. If the exposure is between 0.7-10Gy then haematopoietic syndrome or bone marrow syndrome will occur. The radiation damages DNA and triggers cell death. The survival rate of this syndrome decreases with an increasing dose. Death is caused by the destruction of the bone marrow leading to infection or haemorrhaging. Doses of 0.75 and higher were recorded in the city of Pripyat surrounding the Chornobyl power plant.

If the exposure is around 10Gy, Gastrointestinal syndrome will develop. Cell death and DNA damage lead to damage beyond repair to the bone marrow and the Gastrointestinal tract. Vomiting and diarrhoea cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Infection rages and death occurs within two weeks. This dose was recorded in some of the remains of people who died following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From 20Gy and above Cardiovascular and Central nervous system syndrome occur. Death occurs within 3 days. The radiation triggers cell death and DNA damage leading to the collapse of the circulatory system. Increased fluid is seen inside the skull resulting in a build-up of pressure eventually crushing the brainstem. The fluid arises from oedema, vasculitis and meningitis. Firefighters responding to the Chornobyl accident were exposed to this dose. Alexander Litvinenko the former Russian spy was poisoned with a similar dose of Polonium 210.

Long term exposure

Smaller and long-term exposures lead more to cancers from DNA damage. Particularly the bone marrow and thyroid are prone to it. Following the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. It was found women exposed were 70% more likely to develop thyroid cancer and 6% more likely to develop breast cancer. Men were found to be 7% more likely to develop leukaemia.

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