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Backgrounder on Radium

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Radium was one of the first radioactive elements ever discovered. Marie and Pierre Curie unlocked the atom’s secrets in 1898, opening the door for important innovations using radioactivity in medicine and industry. Radiation quickly became a consumer and medical sensation and radium was the posterchild. Experts concluded radiation was a lifesaver after finding it reduced tumor growth and was present in the waters at some health spas. Soon there were many radium products on the market that purported to improve health and vitality. But tragic stories began to emerge of the health impacts. Perhaps the most well-known is the “radium girls,” who painted watch faces with glow-in-the-dark radium paint and developed infections and jaw cancer from licking their brushes into fine points.

Early regulation

When evidence of harm began to emerge in the early 1900s, the states each made their own decisions about how to regulate. Courts also took varying approaches on victim compensation. The federal government took action to guard against false advertising and regulate mail shipments, conducted studies, and organized some voluntary protections.

As radioactive materials became more widely available following World War II, they remained largely under state control. Radium use declined in medical and consumer products in favor of other safer materials.

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Regulation today

Work on securing radioactive materials took on new urgency following the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001. Those attacks prompted the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop a code of conduct in 2004 to limit the potential for malicious acts. That code places one form of radium, known as radium-226, and other radioactive materials into categories based on their quantity and potential hazard.

The NRC has specific security requirements tied to these categories. As support for the IAEA code grew, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act in 2005, giving the NRC authority over radium-226. This law marked the first time the federal government had a comprehensive role in ensuring the safe use of radium-226.

Many states had developed strong programs for regulating radium and other naturally-occurring radioactive materials and it took time to transition authority. The NRC had regulations in place and fully assumed oversight in 2009. Initially, NRC staff worked exclusively with the military to identify sites where radium might be present. These discussions made clear that the NRC’s role would include ensuring that sites where radium was used are maintained in a way that protects public health and safety.

In 2016, the NRC and Department of Defense signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) describing roles in the cleanup of radium and other unlicensed radioactive materials at military sites.  The MOU and a Regulatory Issue Summary clarify NRC's jurisdiction over military radium. In late 2016, the NRC began monitoring two sites under the MOU: Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

In 2013, the agency learned of two commercial sites where radium-226 had been found and other federal agencies had gotten involved. The Environmental Protection Agency was overseeing portions of the Waterbury Clock Company in Connecticut. The National Park Service was overseeing Great Kills Park in New York.

NRC staff is working with the current owner of the Waterbury Clock Company site. Contaminated areas of the site are under EPA oversight through its Brownfields Program, which provides assistance to clean up contaminated properties. NRC staff is working with EPA to clarify oversight roles and responsibilities under that program.

In 2016, NRC staff began developing an MOU with the National Park Service that will also clarify the NRC’s jurisdiction over radium at Great Kills Park. The NRC is monitoring cleanup activities that the Park Service is implementing under Superfund, more formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Those projects prompted a search to identify sites in NRC’s jurisdiction where radium was used, and to find out how much, if any, cleanup was done. This search was not a result of any known health and safety issues. Rather, because of its mandate to protect public health and safety, the NRC wanted to be sure there were no additional sites that might pose a risk.

With the help of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the NRC began to develop a fuller picture of commercial radium use. The lab produced a catalog of the various products developed and sold to the public in the early 20th century. By reviewing publicly available records, Oak Ridge identified sites where radium may have been used to make consumer goods. Then the lab looked for any cleanup records. Oak Ridge transmitted the results to the NRC in November 2015. Since that time, the agency has been working on plans to gather more information about those sites.

The NRC is working with state and local governments to identify any additional records that may help clarify whether any site cleanup has taken place. We are also reaching out to site owners. The goal is to ensure that public health and safety is adequately protected at these sites. More information about this program can be found on the NRC's radium website.

October 2016

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Tuesday, July 07, 2020