Radium-226 paint use left widespread cleanup legacy

Work ends at Building 5 where painting began

The Navy has completed the final round of inspections and cleanup of the last traces of the radioactive metal called radium-226 in Building 5 at Alameda Point.  The aircraft hangar complex is where the Navy refurbished its planes, including repainting tiny instrument dials, switches, and markers with glow-in-the-dark paint that contained radium.

Radium is a naturally-occurring element found in miniscule amounts in soil and water posing no health risk.  Its risk comes from ingesting the element regularly, such as in industrial settings.

The procedures for handling and disposing of the paint waste during the 1950s and 1960s led to costly and seemingly interminable cleanup projects once the base closed in 1997.  This affected at least five other areas at Alameda Point.

During the summer, the Navy’s contractor scanned floors, walls and ceilings to detect paint residue and radium dust.  The potentially affected areas were confined to a small part at the center of the 910,000-square-foot complex.  This was a follow-up to the 2010 scanning and removal work.

Worker scanning a wall for radiation in Building 5, Alameda Point, with another worker at computer module. Scanning also underway in background. Navy photo.

Using scanning bars, varying in length from three to five feet and wired to a computer, data was mapped centimeter by centimeter.  Ventilation duct work, insulation, drop ceiling, lighting, drain pipes, paint booth walls, office walls and a brick wall were removed.

Pockets of the concrete floor were removed with a grinder down to a depth of one inch and refilled.  The Navy set a conservative threshold for clearance to meet residential standards, even though only commercial and light industrial is planned for the building.

Scanning floor where concrete had been removed. Navy photo.

Last year the Navy re-routed about a dozen interior roof drains, which used to connect to lines under the building, to a new storm drain connection outside the building. The Navy chose to reroute these roof drains, instead of cutting through the floor slab and removing existing drain lines that were likely contaminated with radium paint waste.  It was feared that cutting the floor open would undermine the structural integrity of the building.  The under-slab drain lines were filled with masonry grout.

Up until passage of the federal Clean Water Act of the early 1970s it was standard practice, not just in the military but nationwide, to dump industrial waste material down the drain.  In this case, two heavily-used drain lines led from Building 5 to the Seaplane Lagoon.

Seven years ago the Navy removed and replaced more than a mile of radium-contaminated storm drains from Building 5 to the Seaplane Lagoon.

Five years ago the Navy completed the dredging of the Seaplane Lagoon near the areas where two storm drains discharged water contaminated with a host of toxic chemicals, among those being radium-226.

The ramifications from the paint use doesn’t stop in the hangar area.  In 2018 the Navy will begin remediation of the last cleanup site where radium-226 is a concern.  Site 32 is located on the airfield west of where the Antiques Faire is held.  The area is next to the location of the old underground dump, known as Site 1, where radium paint waste materials were disposed of.  Radium waste is believed to have entered the Site 32 area when the runway was extended over the old dump in the mid-1950s.  Bulldozing and grading of the land spread some of the material around.  Site 32, like Site 1, will be covered with three feet of clean soil.

Partial view of Site 32 where small amounts of radium-226 were detected in the soil. Port of Oakland in the background.

The dire health effects of workers ingesting Radium-226 were well-established in the early 20th century.  Between 1917 and 1926, three American watch factories hired women to paint watch dials with radium paint.

The women, later known as “Radium Girls,” would lick the paint brush tips containing the radium to produce a fine point.  This made them extremely ill.  They sued the watch companies and won. Their story led to the first occupational health laws.  Thanks to the “Radium Girls,” the workers at Building 5 had to follow safety procedures to prevent ingestion of radium.

Little did the Building 5 radium paint workers know the environmental cleanup legacy of their work that was to come.  It wasn’t until a half-century after the experiences of the “Radium Girls” that scientific consensus established the health effects of chemical waste that was spewed into the environment.

Based on the small overall volume of radium paint in comparison to the contamination caused by solvents and petroleum products at the naval air station, radium cleanup has been by far the costliest on a per-pound basis.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

Historical Background:  Story from December 14, 1951, edition of The Carrier newspaper (reprinted below):

“Radium Painting Poisonous”                                                                         Great Care Must Be Taken In Handling

The work-a-day life of the 20 dial painters in the instrument repair shop of O&R* is a meticulous one necessitated by the hazards involved with radium.

Caution is of the utmost concern to all hands who work with or near the radioactive luminous compound used on airplane instrument dials.

The subject of radium poisoning is particularly timely, due to the fact that the last known survivor of the poisoning in 1918 in East Orange, N.J., died less than two weeks ago.

The Associated Press carried a story of the death of Mrs. Florence Casier, 51, of East Orange, who with at least 27 other women, was poisoned with radium in 1918 while painting the luminous faces on watches and clocks.  The women had made a practice of wetting their paint brushes in the mouths.  By 1933, 23 of the women were dead, and in 1938 the 27th victim died.  As far as is known, Mrs. Casier was the last to die of cancer of bone, caused by the radon gas from radium paint.

Dr. Harrison Martland, noted authority on radium poisoning, of East Orange, had observed the effects of radium poisoning since 1914.


The duties of the department include the disassembling of the dials as well as repainting.  The danger involved while stripping and cleaning is just as great as when handling new compound, according to James Hunt, leading-man in charge of the painters.  John Andrew, special leadingman, also is over the paint crew as well as other departments.

The volume of this work has been cut down since 1949, according to Hunt because at that time the use of radium on all but the bank and turn indicator was stopped.  Before then it was used on all navigation instruments.

A fluorescent paint that reacts to black light only has been substituted.

Hunt explains that even though dials come into the shop with markings of the new paint, they too must be handled as if they were marked with the radioactive material.

The danger of particles being embedded in the metal necessitate the thorough cleaning and painting of a primer coat of zinc chromate to act as the insulator.


All work is done in a small shop equipped with safety devices.  The work benches are designed with air ducts the same length and a powerful suction fan drawing the air, which may contain injurious dust, from the room.

A specially designed vacuum cleaner is also part of the shop equipment as is a lead lined vault for storage of the paint.  A black light is used for examination of the workers when the day’s work is completed.

The rules of the shop call for all dial painters to take turns at working in the radium room for three-day periods.  They must wear smocks, head coverings and rubber gloves.  All work is done behind a glass shield.

The workers are subject to periodical physical examination and tests.  While working in the radium room they are compelled to carry a small piece of unexposed x-ray film, which at the end of their three-day working period is processed to show the amount of radioactivity that has reached their body.

*O&R = Overhaul and Repair, later to become known as the Naval Air Rework Facility.

Waste bins for radiologically impacted surfaces that were removed in Building 5. Navy photo.

Author: richard94501

My blog is Alameda Point Environmental Report covering environmental issues from wildlife to cleanup at the former Navy base in Alameda now called Alameda Point. Articles on my blog are frequently printed in the Alameda Sun newspaper. I also host a Twitter site and a Flickr photo site. I hope you find my stories and photos of interest. Richard Bangert Alameda, California

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