Radium is a naturally radioactive, silvery-white metal when freshly cut. It blackens on exposure to air. Purified radium and some radium compounds glow in the dark (luminesce). The radiation emitted by radium can also cause certain materials, called “phosphors” to emit light. Mixtures of radium salts and appropriate phosphors were widely used for clock dials and gauges before the risks of radium exposure were understood. Metallic radium is highly chemically reactive. It forms compounds that are very similar to barium compounds, making separation of the two elements difficult. The various isotopes of radium originate from the radioactive decay of uranium or thorium. Radium-226 is found in the uranium-238 decay series, and radium-228 and -224 are found in the thorium-232 decay series. Radium-226, the most common isotope, is an alpha emitter, with accompanying gamma radiation, and has a half-life of about 1600 years. Radium-228, is principally a beta emitter and has a half-life of 5.76 years. Radium-224, an alpha emitter, has a half life of 3.66 days. Radium decays to form isotopes of the radioactive gas radon, which is not chemically reactive. Stable lead is the final product of this lengthy radioactive decay series.
Radium is a radiation source in some industrial radiography devices, a technology similar to x-ray imaging used in industry to inspect for flaws in metal parts. When radium is mixed with beryllium it becomes a good source of neutrons, useful in well logging devices and research. Radium also has been added to the tips of lightening rods, improving their effectiveness by ionizing the air around it.
Radium emits several different kinds of radiation, in particular, alpha particles and gamma rays. Alpha particles are generally only harmful if emitted inside the body. However, both internal and external exposure to gamma radiation is harmful. Gamma rays can penetrate the body, so gamma emitters like radium can result in exposures even when the source is a distance away. Long-term exposure to radium increases the risk of developing several diseases. Inhaled or ingested radium increases the risk of developing such diseases as lymphoma, bone cancer, and diseases that affect the formation of blood, such as leukemia and aplastic anemia. These effects usually take years to develop. External exposure to radium’s gamma radiation increases the risk of cancer to varying degrees in all tissues and organs.