USS Kawishiwi AO-146 Quarter Deck - 1972
Did you ever hear about the "radiological survey" that the navy did of all the ships home ported in Pearl Harbor (this must have been around 1977). The survey was primarily designed to ensure that warships capable of carrying "special weapons" were not experiencing any increased levels of radio active exposure to personnel. As a mere formality, the survey was extended to all ships in port. Well. . . the guys with the Geiger counters show up at the Kawishiwi, expecting, I'm sure, to wave them around for 5 minutes and depart. Big Surprise. . . it turns out that many of our sound powered telephone stations (of WW II vintage) had directory plaques that were treated with Radium so that they would glow in the dark. Lots of Radium! These guys got real excited when their instruments virtually pegged. Of special concern were the stations beside the beds of the CO, XO, Chief Engineer and Ops Boss (about 18 inches from their pillows).
folks were (and had been for 20+ years) been exposed to
higher levels of radiation than anyone was getting on a nuclear
anywhere else in the navy). The next day a team of guys in yellow
and 55 gallon HAZMAT drums descended on the Kawishiwi to "cleanse"
the offending radium laced plaques. There was never a dull day on
Best wishes, Lary Harris LTJG 75-78 6-19-2004
Pre WW2, most people would only have come across radioactive substances in the form of Radium dials on clocks and watches. Radium itself does not emit light, it causes other chemicals to glow when exposed to them (primarily by reacting to beta particles, which are simply high-energy electrons). Ironically even before it had been named as an element Uranium was used to colour ceramics; it makes one of the best yellow glazes, but they don't glow. Radium is no longer used because as well as being a beta emitter it is also a strong gamma source, however it has a modern replacement in the betalight, which uses Tritium (a hydrogen isotope) as a beta emitter, and can be thought of as a flourescent tube without requiring electricity (usually green as that gives strongest light intensity). They are used when it would be inconvenient to have an electrical supply, and have the added benefit of been permanently lit. Past uses have been telephone dials and watches; currently the major use is in Emergency Exit signs, especially in aircraft.
the dangers of radioactivity
was known, it was common to use
non-luminous radiative elements as quack medicine, for example you
fizzy drinks with Radon bubbles!!
In the 1920s, paint used to inscribe the numbers on watch dials was composed of a luminescent (glow-in-the-dark) mixture. The powdered-paint base was a mixture of radium salts and zinc sulfide. As the paint was mixed, the powdered base became airborne and drifted throughout the workroom causing the contents of the workroom, including the painters’ clothes and bodies, to glow in the dark. The paint is luminescent because radiation from the radium salts strikes a scintillator. A scintillator is a material that emits visible light in response to ionizing radiation. In watch-dial paint, zinc sulfide acts as the scintillator. Radium present in the radium salts decomposes spontaneously, emitting alpha particles. These particles can cause damage to the body when they enter human tissue. Alpha particles are especially harmful to the blood, liver, lungs, and spleen because they can alter genetic information in the cells. Radium can be deposited in the bones because it substitutes for calcium
In 1910, the medical community was using radioactive radium extensively for therapy. Radium was also used industrially, to make glow-in-the-dark watch dials, dolls' eyes, fish bait, gun sights and other items. However, in the mid-1920s it became clear that many young women painting radium onto watch dials were dying. Their employer, U.S. Radium in West Orange, N.J., insisted the young women were dying because of poor personal hygiene, but studies of the workplace concluded in 1924 and 1925 that all workers were being exposed to excessive radiation. Thus humans learned by trial and error that alpha and gamma radiation from radium can be extremely dangerous even in small quantities.
Another story: David, a boy scout, held a series of after-school
jobs at fast-food joints, grocery stores and furniture warehouses, but
merely a means of financing his experiments. Never an
student, he fell behind in school, scoring poorly on state math and
tests (he did, however, ace the test in science). Wanting radium
new gun, David began visiting junkyards and antique stores in search of
radium-coated clocks. He'd chip paint from them and collect
was slow going until one day, while driving through Clinton Township,
he says he came across an old table clock in an antique shop. In
of the clock he discovered a vial of radium paint. He bought the
for $10. Next he concentrated the radium and dried it into a salt
form. Whether he fully realised it or not, he was putting himself
Go To Stories Page