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A Marie, A Springs And Watch Dials

Leasburg Dam State Park, New Mexico

March 4, 2020 The town of Radium Springs, New Mexico is located on state route 185 west of the Rio Grande and across from Fort Selden State Monument and the ruins of a 19th-century army outpost Fort Selden. The community owes its name to the mineral hot springs that were often frequented by soldiers from nearby Fort Selden. When the post office was established in the early 20th Century, “a mineral analysis of the water showed enough "millimicrocuries" of radium per liter of water that the town could use the word "radium" in its name.“. In the 1920s the Radium Springs Resort Hotel was built with bathhouses connected to the wells. It attracted many people who felt the water was beneficial for arthritis, nerve problems and other ills.  As stated in a blog about the town, “It flourished for almost 50 years, then fell from favor, and was even once used as a women's prison and also an art center.” I found the juxtapisition of “women’s prison” and “arts center” to be humorous. 🤪

Another feature of Radium Springs is the Leasburg Dam. Constructed in 1908, it is one of the oldest diversion dams in New Mexico; it was constructed to divert the Rio Grande into a system of canals for use by nearby farms. (Chinatown - what a great movie.) The park offers year-round camping, picnicking, and bird watching. And has good, clean hot showers.

Remember how you learned about radium in your nuclear physics course in college?  You will recall that radium is an element with the symbol “Ra” and atomic number 88. It is the sixth element in group 2 of the periodic table, also known as the alkaline earth metals. Pure radium is silvery-white, but it readily reacts with nitrogen on exposure to air, forming a black surface layer of radium nitride. All isotopes (remember this word as it will come up again in my post about Albuquerque) of radium are highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope being radium-226, which has a half-life of 1600 years and decays into radon gas (specifically the isotope radon-222). When radium decays, ionizing radiation is a product, which can excite fluorescent chemicals and cause radioluminescence.

Radium, in the form of radium chloride, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. They extracted the radium compound from uraninite.  Radium was isolated in its metallic state by Marie Curie through the electrolysis of radium chloride in 1911.

The radioluminescence property of radium formed the basis of fluorescent watch dials.. The  Radium Girls were female workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint containing radium.  Painting was done by women at three different U.S. factories: one in Orange, New Jersey, beginning around 1917; one in Ottawa, Illinois, beginning in the early 1920s; and a third facility in Waterbury, Connecticut.

The women in each facility were told the paint was harmless (bad assumption) and subsequently ingested deadly amounts of radium after being instructed to "point" their brushes on their lips in order to give them a fine tip; some also painted their fingernails, face and teeth with the glowing substance. The women were instructed to point their brushes because using rags, or a water rinse, caused them to waste too much time and waste too much of the material made from powdered radium, gum arabic and water.

Five of the women in New Jersey challenged their employer in a case over the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers under New Jersey's occupational injuries law, which at the time had a two-year statute of limitations, but settled out of court in 1928. Five women in Illinois who were employees of the Radium Dial Company sued their employer under Illinois law, winning damages in 1938.

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