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Luminisers Ltd

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Luminisers Ltd applied the luminous marking to instrument dials, such as those found in aircraft, particularly during World War II. The factory was located in Overburn Road, Bonhill, Dumbarton.

The paint used was radium based, and therefore radioactive, and is considered to be a hazardous material today. The paint was also used on clock faces, most notably for Westclox of Dumbarton.

Little is known of the business or factory, other than the possible original architect, John Archibald Campbell (1859 - 1909), which gives an indication of when it came into existence. Luminisers Ltd survived until the middle of the 1970s, when the factory finally closed. The exact location of Overburn Road, the address given for the factory in records found to date, no longer appears to exist, and may have been lost to later development. The map below shows areas such as Overburn Avenue, and Crescent, which may be located in the same general area.

Dalgety Bay, Fife, has been reported to be the site of recurring radioactive contaminated, said to arise from the radium based luminous paint used on the dials of aircraft maintained and eventually scrapped at the Fleet Air Arm maintenance base sited there, RNAS Donibristle.

The case of the US Radium Corporation, Undark, and the Radium girls

In America, the US Radium Corporation undertook a massive deception not unlike that of the tobacco industry, actively covering up all evidence that its female workers were being made ill by the radiation from its glow-in-the-dark paint, and altering the evidence to show its workers were all healthy, while in reality they were suffering strange illnesses, and ultimately dying from the radiation ingested from the paint they used:

In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer became concerned when her teeth began to loosen and fall out for no discernible reason. Her troubles were compounded when her jaw became swollen and inflamed, so she sought the assistance of a doctor in diagnosing the inexplicable symptoms. Using a primitive X-ray machine, the physician discovered serious bone decay, the likes of which he had never seen. Her jawbone was honeycombed with small holes, in a random pattern reminiscent of moth-eaten fabric.

As a series of doctors attempted to solve Grace’s mysterious ailment, similar cases began to appear throughout her hometown of New Jersey. One dentist in particular took notice of the unusually high number of deteriorated jawbones among local women, and it took very little investigation to discover a common thread; all of the women had been employed by the same watch-painting factory at one time or another.

In 1902, twenty years prior to Grace’s mysterious ailment, inventor William J. Hammer left Paris with a curious souvenir. The famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie had provided him with some samples of their radium salt crystals. Radioactivity was somewhat new to science, so its properties and dangers were not well understood; but the radium’s slight blue-green glow and natural warmth indicated that it was clearly a fascinating material. Hammer went on to combine his radium salt with glue and a compound called zinc sulfide which glowed in the presence of radiation. The result was glow-in-the-dark paint.

Hammer’s recipe was used by the US Radium Corporation during the First World War to produce Undark, a high-tech paint which allowed America’s infantrymen to read their wristwatches and instrument panels at night. They also marketed the pigment for non-military products such as house numbers, pistol sights, light switch plates, and glowing eyes for toy dolls. By this time the dangers of radium were better understood, but US Radium assured the public that their paint used the radioactive element in “such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless.” While this was true of the products themselves, the amount of radium present in the dial-painting factory was much more dangerous, unbeknownst to the workers there.

- Undark and the Radium Girls[1]

Footnote

As a side-note, many aviation museums have stopped allowing visitors any access to the cockpits of wartime aircraft, and have sealed them on the basis of Health & Safety, fearing that the radioactivity emitted from the paint used on the instrumentation could be hazardous to their visitors.

This hysteria is, of course, ridiculous as the paint is behind the instrument glass and particles would need to be ingested, or somehow become lodged in the body to be dangerous.

References

1 Undark and the Radium Girls • Damn Interesting Retrieved 25 May 2017.

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