France's 20th century radium craze still haunts Paris

Thu Jul 19, 2012 3:56am EDT
 
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By Michel Rose and Marion Douet

CHAVILLE, France (Reuters) - The Belle Epoque, France's golden era at the turn of the last century, bequeathed Paris elegant landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, but also a more sinister legacy of radioactive floors and backyards which the capital is only now addressing.

When the Franco-Polish Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie discovered the radioactive element radium in 1898, she set off a craze for the luminescent metal among Parisians, who started using it for everything from alarm clock dials to lipsticks and even water fountains.

The companies that manufactured these slightly radioactive objects have long gone out of business, but they left small doses of radium between the cracks of some Parisian parquet floors. These doses, after prolonged exposure, could prove toxic though, officials say, they do not pose serious health risks.

"The history of radium started in Paris," said Eric Lanes, head of radioactive decontamination at France's national agency for radioactive waste, ANDRA. "Marie Curie never patented her discoveries so a lot of people rode the radium wave."

After Curie showed that radium could be used to destroy cancerous cells, people assumed that the new element had miraculous healing properties and started putting it in everything from body lotions to cough syrups.

"Cancerous cells are more sensitive to radiation than healthy ones. Curie understood that," said Lanes. "But some people embarked on businesses more akin to charlatans' tricks."

Curie herself died at 66 from her prolonged, unprotected exposure to radium.

ANDRA - in some case using addresses that were written on vintage advertising posters - has identified some 130 sites in France suspected of being at risk. Some 40 of them are set for decontamination, half of those in the Paris area.   Continued...