Readers’ Forum

Aug. 1, 2009

To submit letters to the editor, send to:
RDH, P.O. Box 3408, Tulsa, OK 74101; [email protected]; or (918) 831-9804 (fax).

Dear RDH:

I read your article (June 2009 issue) comparing the osteonecrosis of the jawbones of the workers in matchstick factories across Europe in the 1800s. You mentioned that today’s IV and oral bisphosphonate medications represent a second epidemic of bisphosphonate-induced osteonecrosis of the jaw. Another epidemic of osteonecrosis of the jawbone occurred during the 1920s. This one was caused by radium.

The December 2008/January 2009 edition of ASRT Scanner magazine (American Society of Radiologic Technologists) contains an article titled “Wristwatch Martyrs: The Radium Girls.” On May 30, 1925, The New York Times published an article about five women who died and 10 who were stricken with a new disease. Dr. F.L. Hoffman of New York presented a paper describing their illness and injuries at the close of a public health section of the American Medical Association meeting in New York.

The 15 women had unknowingly been exposed to the disease on the job. The company was called U.S. Radium Corp., in East Orange, N.J. The workers painted watch dials with a mixture of dry radium paint powder, zinc sulfide, and paint thinner — a combination that made watch numbers glow in the dark.The women would wet the brush between their lips to create a sharp tip before they dipped it into the paint so they could create tiny numbers.

Amelia Maggia was 21 years old when she started as a dial painter. After tooth trouble in 1921 that led to an extraction, Amelia’s problems worsened. Her gums never healed after the extraction and her lower jawbone deteriorated to the point that her dentist eventually lifted it out of her mouth. In 1922, she quit her job and died later that year.

The company not only assured the dial painters that the paint was harmless, but for years radium was touted nationwide for its medical benefits. The dial painters decorated their buttons, belts, fingernails, or teeth with the radium paint to “glow in the dark” for fun after work.

Dr. Walter Barry, a local oral surgeon, began treating many young women with similar symptoms. He also noticed that each of them worked as a dial painter. The U.S. Department of Labor ordered an investigation into the New Jersey plant and other dial painting plants to determine whether radium was the cause of what Dr. Hoffman called “radium necrosis.” As more women became ill, U.S. Radium Corp. announced it did not believe radium was the cause but that the substance was “helpful rather than injurious to the human system.” The Radium Girls, a group of five women, sued the company in 1928. They were too weak to raise their arms to take the oath in court. “They settled with their former employer and each died a slow death.”

Read more about the Radium Girls in Claudia Clark’s “Radium Girls, Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935” (1997, University of North Carolina Press).

Considering all of the news on bisphosphonates and necrosis of the jawbone, I thought you might be just as interested in what happened to the Radium Girls as I was.

Giovanna Becker, RDH
Charleston, South Carolina

Dear RDH:

I enjoyed the article about oral piercings in the March 2006 issue. One thing I’d like to add is to monitor lower anteriors for bone loss when you see tongue piercings. I practice in a military setting where the majority of the patients are 18- to 25-year-old males, and we see quite the variety of previous piercings.

My colleagues and I (there are 16 dental hygienists on the base) have noticed varying degrees of mobility and bone loss depending on several factors. The larger the bell, how far forward it is, and whether it is metal or plastic can make a big difference. Periapical radiographs are often indicated.

I also work in the private sector where I rarely see piercings, but I’m glad my experience at the base has helped me know what to look for. I always look for evidence of piercings when I do my oral cancer screenings because many people remove their piercings when they come to the office. Thanks again for the very thorough article,

Vicki Cherco, RDH, BA
Libertyville, Illinois