Published: 03 December 2013

BBC Four ‘Hidden Killers’ series films at Surrey

Professor Paddy Regan, NPL-Surrey Chair of Radionuclide Metrology, is soon to appear on a BBC Four programme examining the widespread use of radium in Edwardian households.

Radium is known to be one of the most powerful and dangerous materials on earth, but in Edwardian times it could be found around the home in paint, pottery glazes and illuminating the hands of clock faces. Focusing on this subject for the forthcoming ‘New Hidden Killers: the Edwardian Home’ programme, well-known historian Dr Susannah Lipscomb and a film crew from Modern TV descended on campus on 5 September to film Professor Paddy Regan in the University’s radiation lab.

As the UK’s foremost radiation teaching university, housing the largest nuclear physics research group, Surrey was judged by the programme’s makers to be the perfect location for filming the ‘scientific’ segment of the radium feature.

Showcasing the University’s state-of-the-art radiation detection laboratory, Professor Regan explained to Dr Lipscomb how today’s advanced equipment enables experts to measure the energies of each particle of radium, giving a ‘characteristic fingerprint’ that shows where the radium is present. He was then filmed demonstrating the technique on old luminous paint, antique watches and also geological rock samples containing naturally-occurring radium.

While it seems incredible today that Edwardians used radium in household objects, this has to be put in perspective, according to Professor Regan. “Radium was discovered and studied by the leading scientists of the day – Pierre and Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford – at the end of the 19th Century. At that time, we didn’t even know the structure of an atom, so the idea that an element could change into another form must have seemed almost like magic. It’s easy to see how radium, with its ability to generate a huge amount of energy, was a very exciting discovery.”

Seen as a health-giving material because of its energy properties, radium was used not only in household objects but also in bath salts, toothpaste, and even taken as a tonic. It wasn’t until around 30 years later that a connection was made between radium and cancer when clock dial painters – who habitually licked their brushes – were found to have a high incidence of oral cancer.

Professor Regan says: “Just as it did in Edwardian times, radium has many modern day implications and obviously it’s had a hugely positive impact in the treatment of cancer and other diseases. Taking part in this programme was a great opportunity for us, as experts in nuclear physics, to demonstrate to the public the importance of the science we do every day here at Surrey.”

Due to air on BBC Four on 17 December 2013, ‘New Hidden Killers: the Edwardian Home’ is the second of two documentaries – the first one (to be shown on 10 December), looking once again at the Victorian home, following on from the success of the first ‘Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home’ shown in 2012.  Each programme will focus on a number of household items, examining how scientific breakthroughs fed into the ordinary middle class home and – in the days before health and safety regulations – the dangers these often presented to inhabitants.

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