Radium is a naturally-occurring silvery white radioactive metal that can exist in several forms called isotopes. It is formed when uranium and thorium (two other natural radioactive substances) decay (break down) in the environment. Radium has been found at very low levels in soil, water, rocks, coal, plants, and food. For example, a typical amount might be one picogram of radium per gram of soil or rock. This would be about one part of radium in one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) parts of soil or rock. These levels are not expected to change with time.
Some of the radiation from radium is constantly being released into the environment. It is this release of radiation that causes concern about the safety of radium and all other radioactive substances. Each isotope of radium releases radiation at its own rate. One isotope, radium-224 for example, releases half of its radiation in about three and a half days; whereas another isotope, radium-226, releases half of its radiation in about 1,600 years.
When radium decays it divides into two parts. One part is called radiation, and the second part is called a daughter. The daughter, like radium, is not stable; and it also divides into radiation and another daughter. The dividing continues until a stable, nonradioactive daughter is formed. During the decay process, alpha, beta, and gamma radiations are released. Alpha particles can travel only a short distance and cannot travel through your skin. Beta particles can penetrate through your skin, but they cannot go all the way through your body. Gamma radiation, however, can go all the way through your body. Thus, there are several types of decay products that result from radium decay.
Because radium is present, usually at very low levels, in the surrounding environment, you are always exposed to it and to the small amounts of radiation that it releases to its surroundings. You may be exposed to higher levels of radium if you live in an area where it is released into the air from the burning of coal or other fuels, or if your drinking water is taken from a source that is high in natural radium, such as a deep well, or from a source near a radioactive waste disposal site.
Levels of radium in public drinking water are usually less than one picocurie per liter of water (about one quart), although higher levels (more than 5 picocuries per liter) have been found. A picocurie (pCi) is a very small amount of radioactivity, and it is associated with about a trillionth of a gram (a picogram) of radium. (There are approximately 28 grams in an ounce.) No information is available about the amounts of radium that are generally present in food and air. You may also be exposed to higher levels of radium if you work in a uranium mine or in a plant that processes uranium ores.
Pathways in the body
Radium can enter the body when it is breathed in or swallowed. It is not known if it can be taken in through the skin. If you breathe radium into your lungs, some may remain there for months; but it will gradually enter the blood stream and be carried to all parts of the body, especially the bones.
For months after exposure, very small amounts leave the body daily through the feces and urine. If radium is swallowed in water or with food, most of it (about 80%) will promptly leave the body in the feces. The other 20% will enter the blood stream and be carried to all parts of the body, especially the bones. Some of this radium will then be excreted in the feces and urine on a daily basis.
There is no clear evidence that long-term exposure to radium at the levels that are normally present in the environment (for example, 1 pCi of radium per gram of soil) is likely to result in harmful health effects. However, exposure to higher levels of radium over a long period of time may result in harmful effects including anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, cancer (especially bone cancer), and death. Some of these effects may take years to develop and are mostly due to gamma radiation. Radium gives off gamma radiation, which can travel fairly long distances through air. Therefore, just being near radium at the high levels that may be found at some hazardous waste sites may be dangerous to your health.
Radium has been shown to cause adverse health effects such as anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, cancer and death. The relationship between the amount of radium that you are exposed to and the amount of time necessary to produce these effects is not known. Although there is some uncertainty as to how much exposure to radium increases your chances of developing a harmful health effect, the greater the total amount of your exposure to radium, the more likely you are to develop one of these diseases.
There are few medical tests to determine if you have been exposed to radium. There is a urine test to determine if you have been exposed to a source of radioactivity such as radium. There is also a test to measure the amount of radon, a breakdown product of radium, when it is exhaled. These tests require special equipment and cannot be done in a doctor's office. Another test can measure the total amount of radioactivity in the body; however, this test is not used except in special cases of high exposure.
Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.