Radium jaw is an occupational disease brought on by the ingestion and subsequent absorption of radium into the bones of radium dial painters and those consuming radium-laden patent medicines. The symptoms are necrosis of the mandible (lower jawbone) and the maxilla (upper jaw) as well as constant bleeding of the gums and (usually) after some time, severe distortion due to bone tumours and porosity of the lower jaw.
The condition is similar to phossy jaw, an osteoporitic and osteonecrotic illness of matchgirls, brought on by phosphorus ingestion and absorption. The first written reference to the disease was by a dentist, Dr. Theodor Blum (1924), who described an unusual mandibular osteomyelitis in a dial painter, a condition he called "radium jaw".
The disease was determined by Dr. H.S. Martland in 1924 to be symptomatic of radium paint ingestion, after many female workers from various radium paint companies reported similar dental and mandibular pain. Symptoms were present in the mouth due to use of the lips and tongue, to keep the radium-paint paintbrushes properly shaped. The disease was the main reason for litigation against the United States Radium Corporation by the so-called Radium Girls.
Another prominent example of this condition was the death of Eben Byers, an American industrialist, after taking large doses of a patent medicine containing radium over several years. His illness garnered much publicity, with The Wall Street Journal running a story titled "The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off", and brought the problem of radioactive quack medicines into the public eye.