radium [Lat. radius=ray], radioactive metallic chemical element; symbol Ra; at. no. 88; at. wt. 226.0254; m.p. 700°C;; b.p. 1,140°C;; sp. gr. about 6.0; valence +2. Radium is a lustrous white radioactive metal. It is an alkaline-earth metal; in its chemical properties it closely resembles barium, the element above it in Group 2 of the periodic table. When it is exposed to air, a black coating of nitride rapidly forms. It combines directly with water to form the hydroxide. It reacts with acids to form the commercially important chloride and bromide. The most important property of radium and its compounds is their radioactivity; radiotherapy is used in medicine in the treatment of cancer. Mixed with a phosphor such as zinc sulfide, radium compounds are used in luminous paints. Radium is also used as a neutron source (mixed with beryllium) and as a gamma-ray source. Sixteen isotopes of radium are known, but only radium-226 (half-life 1,620 years), the most stable of the isotopes, is used commercially. It is a product in the radioactive decay series of uranium-238; it is immediately preceded in this series by thorium-230 and followed by radon-222 (a gas formerly called radium emanation). In its radioactive decay radium emits alpha, beta, and gamma rays and also produces heat (about 1,000 calories per gram per year). The curie is a unit of radioactivity defined as that amount of any radioactive substance that has the same disintegration rate as 1 gram of radium-226, i.e., 3.7×1010 disintegrations per sec. Radium decreases in radioactivity about 1% in 25 years. Radium is a rare metal. Its compounds are found in uranium ores; there is usually about 1 part of radium to 3 million parts of uranium in these ores. Although some radium is obtained from carnotite from Colorado, the chief sources are carnotite from Congo (Kinshasa) and pitchblende from W Canada. Radium is present in all uranium minerals and is widely distributed in small amounts. Radium is usually obtained (with barium impurities) in residues from the production of uranium. It is recovered as the bromide by an involved chemical process. The small amount of the element present in any ore and the difficulty of extraction make it expensive. Other radioisotopes (e.g., cobalt-60) are often used in its place when they are less expensive, more powerful, or safer to use. Radium is a dangerous material; prolonged exposure to even small amounts may cause cancer, anemia, or other disorders. Radium was discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie in pitchblende given them by Austria after the uranium salts had been removed for use in glass manufacture. They had earlier found polonium in a similar sample. Metallic radium was isolated by electrolysis in 1910 by Marie Curie and André Debierne; they first formed a mercury-radium amalgam by electrolysis and then removed the mercury by distillation.

Radium is a radioactive chemical element which has the symbol Ra and atomic number 88. Its appearance is almost pure white, but it readily oxidizes on exposure to air, turning black. Radium is an alkaline earth metal that is found in trace amounts in uranium ores. It is extremely radioactive. Its most stable isotope, , has a half-life of 1602 years and decays into radon gas.


The heaviest of the alkaline earth metals, radium is intensely radioactive and resembles barium in its chemical behavior. This metal is found in tiny quantities in the uranium ore pitchblende, and various other uranium minerals. Radium preparations are remarkable for maintaining themselves at a higher temperature than their surroundings, and for their radiations, which are of three kinds: alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. Radium also produces neutrons when mixed with beryllium.

When freshly prepared, pure radium metal is brilliant white, but blackens when exposed to air (probably due to nitride formation). Radium is luminescent (giving a faint blue color), reacts violently with water and oil to form radium hydroxide and is slightly more volatile than barium. The normal phase of radium is a solid.


Some of the few practical uses of radium are derived from its radioactive properties. More recently discovered radioisotopes, such as and , are replacing radium in even these limited uses because several of these isotopes are more powerful emitters, safer to handle, and available in more concentrated form.

When mixed with beryllium it is a neutron source for physics experiments.

Historical uses

Radium was formerly used in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. More than 100 former watch dial painters who used their lips to shape the paintbrush died from the radiation from the radium that had become stored in their bones. Soon afterward, the adverse effects of radioactivity became widely known. Radium was still used in dials as late as the 1950s. Although tritium's beta radiation is potentially dangerous if ingested, it has replaced radium in these applications.

During the 1930s it was found that workers' exposure to radium by handling luminescent paints caused serious health effects which included sores, anemia and bone cancer. This use of radium was stopped soon afterward. This is because radium is treated as calcium by the body, and deposited in the bones, where radioactivity degrades marrow and can mutate bone cells. The litigation and ultimate deaths of five "Radium Girl" employees who had used radium-based luminous paints on the dials of watches and clocks had a significant impact on the formulation of occupational disease labor law.

Radium was also put in some foods for taste and as a preservative, but also exposed many people to radiation. Radium was once an additive in products like toothpaste, hair creams, and even food items due to its supposed curative powers. Such products soon fell out of vogue and were prohibited by authorities in many countries, after it was discovered they could have serious adverse health effects. (See for instance Radithor.) Spas featuring radium-rich water are still occasionally touted as beneficial, such as those in Misasa, Tottori, Japan.

Radium (usually in the form of radium chloride) is used in medicine to produce radon gas which in turn is used as a cancer treatment. The isotope is currently under investigation for use in medicine as cancer treatment of bone metastasis.


Radium (Latin radius, ray) was discovered by Marie Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898 in pitchblende from North Bohemia, in the Czech Republic (area around Jáchymov). While studying pitchblende the Curies removed uranium from it and found that the remaining material was still radioactive. They then separated out a radioactive mixture consisting mostly of barium which gave a brilliant green flame color and crimson carmine spectral lines which had never been documented before. The Curies announced their discovery to the French Academy of Sciences on 26 December 1898.

In 1902, radium was isolated as a pure metal by Curie and André-Louis Debierne through the electrolysis of a pure radium chloride solution by using a mercury cathode and distilling in an atmosphere of hydrogen gas.

Historically the decay products of radium were known as radium A, B, C, etc. These are now known to be isotopes of other elements as follows:

Radium emanation 222Rn
Radium A 218Po
Radium B 214Pb
Radium C 214Bi
Radium C1 214Po
Radium C2 210Tl
Radium D 210Pb
Radium E 210Bi
Radium F 210Po

On February 4, 1936 radium E became the first radioactive element to be made synthetically.

One unit for radioactivity, the non-SI curie, is based on the radioactivity of 226Ra (see Radioactivity).


Radium is a decay product of uranium and is therefore found in all uranium-bearing ores. (One metric ton of pitchblende yields 0.0001 grams of radium). Radium was originally acquired from pitchblende ore from Joachimsthal, Bohemia, in the Czech Republic. Carnotite sands in Colorado provide some of the element, but richer ores are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Great Lakes area of Canada, and can also be extracted from uranium processing waste. Large radium-containing uranium deposits are located in Canada (Ontario), the United States (New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia), Australia, and in other places.


Its compounds color flames crimson carmine (rich red or crimson color with a shade of purple) and give a characteristic spectrum. Due to its geologically short half life and intense radioactivity, radium compounds are quite rare, occurring almost exclusively in uranium ores.

See also Radium compounds.


Radium (Ra) has 25 different known isotopes, four of which are found in nature, with 226Ra being the most common. 223Ra, 224Ra, 226Ra and 228Ra are all generated naturally in the decay of either Uranium (U) or Thorium (Th). 226Ra is a product of 238U decay, and is the longest-lived isotope of radium with a half-life of 1602 years; next longest is 228Ra, a product of 232Th breakdown, with a half-life of 6.7 years.


Radium is over one million times more radioactive than the same mass of uranium. Its decay occurs in at least seven stages; the successive main products have been studied and were called radium emanation or exradio (now identified as radon), radium A (polonium), radium B (lead), radium C (bismuth), etc. Radon is a heavy gas and the later products are solids. These products are themselves radioactive elements, each with an atomic weight a little lower than its predecessor.

Radium loses about 1% of its activity in 25 years, being transformed into elements of lower atomic weight with lead being the final product of disintegration.

The SI unit of radioactivity is the becquerel (Bq), equal to one disintegration per second. The curie is a non-SI unit defined as that amount of radioactivity which has the same disintegration rate as 1 gram of Ra-226 (3.7 x 1010 disintegrations per second, or 37 GBq).


Handling of radium has been blamed for Marie Curie's premature death.

  • Radium is highly radioactive and its decay product, radon gas, is also radioactive. Since radium is chemically similar to calcium, it has the potential to cause great harm by replacing it in bones. Inhalation, injection, ingestion or body exposure to radium can cause cancer and other disorders. Stored radium should be ventilated to prevent accumulation of radon.
  • Emitted energy from the decay of radium ionizes gases, affects photographic plates, causes sores on the skin, and produces many other detrimental effects.

Further reading

  • Scientific American (Macklis RM, The great radium scandal. Sci.Am. 1993 Aug: 269(2):94-99)
  • Clark, Claudia. (1987). Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-4640-6.
  • Ken Silverstein, Harper's Magazine, November 1998; The radioactive boy scout: when a teenager attempts to build a breeder reactor - case of David Hahn who managed to secure materials and equipment from businesses and information from government officials to develop an atomic energy radiation project for his Boy Scout merit-badge.
  • Decay chains (with some examples including Radium)
  • Radium Girls


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