Ask someone what color they normally associate with radiation and they’ll almost universally answer “green.” From TV shows such as “The Simpsons”, comic books, and even video games, whenever anything radioactive or nuclear is a key plot element, it is almost always incorrectly depicted as an bright, glowing green substance . In reality, elements such as uranium and plutonium are grey or silver, and radiation itself is invisible. So why green? While there’s no “set” answer to the popular depiction of radioactive items as a green, glowing substance (after all, wouldn’t red be more sinister?), the most probable answer can be traced to radium.
Radium was first discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie. Initially, radium had no practical application. However, it was soon discovered that radium, while naturally a grey-brown color, glowed bright green in the dark. Upon this realization, many realized the new potential that radium represented-both in civil and military applications. Pilots could now see their instruments in the dark without any difficulty. Instrument panels on machines no longer needed to be illuminated by electric lights. The average person would now be able to see what time it was at any time of day. In 1917, the U.S. Radium Corporation was founded, which hired young women to paint watches and instrument dials with radium paint, named “Undark” by the company.
In order to paint the detailed designs on porcelain, it was necessary that the tip of the paintbrush be licked to create a fine point. This same procedure was used with radium paint, which caused the workers to ingest massive amounts of radium. Over time, these women began to develop “radium jaw,”- causing their gums to bleed and teeth to fall out. Some workers, unaware of the dangers of radiation, and enticed by its eerie green glow, painted their nails and lips with radium paint as well.
However, as more and more of the “radium girls” fell ill, they soon began to suspect that the radium paint was the culprit, and that their employer, the U.S. Radium Corporation, was concealing the true danger. Initially, their claims of radiation poisoning were dismissed. In an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the workers, the company blamed their sickness on syphilis.
Partially contributing to this dismissive response was the naïve attitude that many Americans held towards radiation during this time. Radium and radiation were viewed as having an unlimited potential. Some predicted that radium could be used to paint the insides of homes, thereby eliminating the need for electric lights. Radium-infused consumer goods, such as patent medicines, hair tonics, and even toothpastes were rampant, and while it is debatable if all of these items actually contained radium or not, the idea of the curative properties of radiation still remained.
In 1928, however, this attitude drastically changed. Grace Fryer, an employee of U.S. Radium, finally managed to find a lawyer who was willing to take on her case. At the start of the trial in January, the five workers who joined Fryer were so ill that they were not able to raise their arms to swear an oath in court. Finally, by the autumn, the “Radium Girls” won their case. Each worker was paid $10,000 ($138,000 in 2015), along with $600 ($8,300 in 2015) per year. In addition, U.S. Radium would pay for all legal and medical expenses incurred.
The lawsuit against U.S. Radium illustrated to many members of the public that radium and radiation was not a “cure-all” that they had been led to believe. Many of the radium-based consumer goods were taken off the shelves and radiation began to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, rather than a cure.
This fearful attitude towards radiation remains to this day, along with the depiction of radioactive elements and radiation as green. While this depiction is incorrect, the association of “radiation = green” is one that shall remain in popular culture for years to come.
 Royal Society of Chemistry, “Radium,” Accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/88/radium.
 Denise Grady, “A Glow in the Dark and a Lesson in Science,” New York Times, October 6, 1998, accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/06/science/a-glow-in-the-dark-and-a-lesson-in-scientific-peril.html?pagewanted=all.
 Ross Mullner, Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy (Washington, D.C: American Public Health Association, 1999), 20.
 Jean Matricon and Georges Waysand, The Cold Wars: A History of Superconductivity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 113.
 “Newark Pathologist Shows Part of Miss Maggia’s Jaw,” Star Eagle, October 18, 1927.