The poisoner next door
Recently, a story broke that a radioactive hotspot had been found in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.
As everyone went nuts (a similar story having broken in Yokohama), it took less than a day for the story to take a different turn.
Yes, there was radioactivity, but not from Fukushima. It turned out to be from a bunch of bottles stored under the floorboard of some guy’s house for 50 years, presumably filled with radium powder.
Immediately, I began thinking how ironic it was that although radioactive cesium hadn’t rained down on Tokyo, it opened, in my mind at least, the possibility that thousands of creepy “oyaji” could have some of the most bizarre substances locked up in their storage sheds in rusty old tins and apothecary jars ... all waiting to break or leak and possibly kill us all.
The story also reminded me of an incredible book I read about a year ago, called “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” by Pulitzer award winning science writer Deborah Blum. The book describes the early age of forensic science in the 1920s, the quest for the perfect crime – and great medical foils in which the key evidence is often found 6 feet under ground, dug up, and with a little toxicological brilliance and innovation, the case is solved.
Each chapter is dedicated to a single poison (or family of poisons) and reads like a historical thriller, murder mystery and the coolest (yet most morbid) science lesson ever. Blum first rose to fame as an award-winning environmental journalist. Naturally, I had to interview her.
My first question was if she could speculate what a guy would be doing with 50-year-old bottles containing radium powder.
Blum: “People really do bring strange things home from medical offices and hospitals. About 50 years ago, some doctors would still implant radium material directly into the body – they’d place it near to a tumor, for instance, to try to shrink it. They did store it in jars and tubes (which were supposed to be lead shielded). But – surprise – not everyone was so careful. And radium does produce a lovely blue-green light – one reason that someone might bring some home. Marie Curie, the co-discoverer of this element, used to keep tubes in her pockets just to watch the glow.”
But was it normal years ago for people to have radioactive substances laying around the house? I asked Blum if she would hypothesize that other radioactive isotopes might be laying around people’s houses or stored in the most harmless of places, even here in Tokyo as well.
Blum: “Well, I’d say jars of radium would probably be pretty rare. You’d need a medical supply source or something like that. But in the early to mid-20th century, people were much more casual about radioactivity. There was a period in the United States where shoe stores had X-ray machines. They’d image children’s feet as part of the shoe fitting process. So crazy. And you can find old ceramic dishes, such as Fiestaware, in which some of the glazes were radioactive. Orange Fiestaware from the 1930s will still set off a Geiger counter.
And, believe it or not there’s uranium glass - a somewhat iridescent green glass - which literally had uranium mixed into it. Also from the same time period - you can still pick pieces up on places like eBay. It’s also sometimes called Vasoline glass and if you put it under a black light, it glows in the dark. In other words, a lot of old collectibles can be slightly radioactive.
Bear in mind, that we’re exposed to radiation all the time - from ultraviolet light, from naturally occurring radioactive elements in soil and sea water, and countless other sources. Whether it’s a health risk has a lot to do with the type of radiation and the dose of radiation, as you know. For instance, radium primarily emits alpha particles which are not very good at penetrating skin. It’s much more dangerous when inhaled or swallowed or if a doctor implants it. Some of the cesium isotopes, which can be released in a nuclear power accident and were in the case of Fukushima, are more dangerous out in the environment.”
“The Poisoner’s Handbook,” as I mentioned, includes an entire chapter devoted to radium. I told Blum I didn’t want to ruin it for anyone, but the way she described it made it seem like it was the femme fatale of radioactive isotopes. I asked her if she could briefly talk about the popularity radium had at one time and what was eventually found out about it.
Blum: “Yes, I love the story of radium because it’s such a perfect example of the way we can be awestruck by a new scientific discovery and then shocked when reality sets in. This was an element, discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie (for which they shared in a Nobel Prize) and which was rapidly discovered to be useful in treating cancer. At the same time, there was a sense of wonder that Earth contained such living rocks, sparking with radiation. I described it like the belief that we were excavating tiny suns, aglitter with healing power. Radium went into health drinks, candy, cosmetics…and, of course, it was used to make luminous paints for watches, and clocks, and military instruments.
“It was really the latter that led to the realization of how dangerous it was, not any organized effort by science. The young factory workers who painted these dial faces were taught to lip point their brushes in order to make the fine, lacy numbers and designs. And they ended up swallowing radium-based paint every day. We can look back and see that they ended up being guinea pigs in an experiment. They fell ill with radiation illnesses never seen before. The body updates radium as it does calcium and the element went to their bones. Their bones crumbled. They developed bone-marrow related illnesses like aplastic anemia. Of course, no one had really seen this before and it took nearly a decade to draw the right conclusion. One of my favorite stories from this terribly sad tale of the dial painters - sometimes called the Radium Girls - is when a forensic scientist is checking their breathing and discovers that they are exhaling radon gas.”
Finally I wanted to know about people finding hotspots in Tokyo. Is it possible that many of these hotspots might not even be related to Fukushima – or, might it rather be a sign that (if verifiable) the situation has gotten out of control?
Blum: “As your radium example shows, a lot depends on what we know about the specific isotopes. There is occasional illegal disposal of medical supplies, as you know, and it’s possible that you could find some more such hotspots related to that. But I wouldn’t expect to find too many and the examples I gave of things like Vasoline glass wouldn’t produce enough radiation to qualify. But if it was shown that these hotspots were, for instance, mostly cesium-137, which is a byproduct of nuclear fission, then I think Fukushima would be a very logical suspect.”
“The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” by Deborah Blum is published by Penguin.