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The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
by Kate Moore
496 pages
Sourcebooks

The true story of the Radium Girls, women who worked in radium dial factories in the early 20th century. These “shining girls” hand-painted glow-in-the-dark clock faces, unwittingly poisoning themselves while their bosses, aware of radium’s deadly effects, kept their distance.

From the book description:

The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive ? until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.

But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.

Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…

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The Radium Girls

Radium Girls at work in a US Radium Corporation factory
Women at work in a US Radium Corporation factory

The Radium Girls were a group of female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey around 1917. The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them. Some also painted their fingernails with the glowing substance.

Five of the women challenged their employer in a court case that established the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers.

From 1917 to 1926, U.S. Radium Corporation, originally called the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, was engaged in the extraction and purification of radium from carnotite ore to produce luminous paints, which were marketed under the brand name “Undark.” As a defense contractor, U.S. Radium was a major supplier of radioluminescent watches to the military. Their plant in New Jersey employed over a hundred workers, mainly women, to paint radium-lit watch faces and instruments, believing it to be safe.

The U.S. Radium Corporation hired some 70 women to perform various tasks including the handling of radium, while the owners and the scientists familiar with the effects of radium carefully avoided any exposure to it themselves. Chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks and tongs. US Radium had even distributed literature to the medical community describing the “injurious effects” of radium. The owners and scientists at US Radium, familiar with the real hazards of radioactivity, naturally took extensive precautions to protect themselves.

An estimated 4,000 workers were hired by corporations in the U.S. and Canada to paint watch faces with radium. They mixed glue, water and radium powder, and then used camel hair brushes to apply the glowing paint onto dial numbers. The going rate, for painting 250 dials a day, was about a penny and a half per dial. The brushes would lose shape after a few strokes, so the U.S. Radium supervisors encouraged their workers to point the brushes with their lips, or use their tongues to keep them sharp. For fun, the Radium Girls painted their nails, teeth and faces with the deadly paint produced at the factory.

Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw, a condition now known as radium jaw. It is thought that the x-ray machines used by the medical investigators may have contributed to some of the sickened workers’ ill-health by subjecting them to additional radiation. It turned out at least one of the examinations was a ruse, part of a campaign of disinformation started by the defense contractor. U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium. For some time, doctors, dentists, and researchers complied with requests from the companies not to release their data. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes. Syphilis was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women.

Radium death headline about the Radium Dial Co. of Ottawa, IL
Marked for death at the Radium Dial Co. from the Chicago Daily Times, July 7th, 1937

The story of the abuse perpetrated against the workers is distinguished from most such cases by the fact that the ensuing litigation was covered widely by the media. Plant worker Grace Fryer decided to sue, but it took two years for her to find a lawyer willing to take on U.S. Radium. A total of five factory workers, dubbed the Radium Girls, joined the suit. The litigation and media sensation surrounding the case established legal precedents and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards, including a baseline of “provable suffering.”

The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physics and the labor rights movement. The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades. Nonetheless, management and the US Government were again guilty of lax standards in the handling of asbestos during WWII ship building.

The case was settled in the fall of 1928, before the trial was deliberated by the jury, and the settlement for each of the Radium Girls was $10,000 (the equivalent of $127,589.47 in 2010 dollars) and a $600 per year annuity while they lived, and all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company.

The lawsuit and resulting publicity was a factor in the establishment of occupational disease labor law. Radium dial painters were instructed in proper safety precautions and provided with protective gear. In particular, they no longer shaped paint brushes by lip, and avoided ingesting or breathing the paint. Radium paint was still used in dials as late as the 1950s, but there were no further injuries to dial painters. This served to highlight that the injuries suffered by the Radium Girls were completely preventable.

Robley D. Evans made the first measurements of exhaled radon and radium excretion from a former dial painter in 1933. At MIT he gathered dependable body content measurements from 27 dial painters. This information was used in 1941 by the National Bureau of Standards to establish the tolerance level for radium.

The Center for Human Radiobiology was established at Argonne National Laboratory in 1968. The primary purpose of the Center was providing medical examinations for living dial painters. The project also focused on collection of information, and, in some cases, tissue samples from the radium dial painters. When the project ended in 1993, detailed information of 2,403 cases had been collected. No symptoms were observed in those dial painter cases with less than 1,000 times the natural 226Ra levels found in unexposed individuals, suggesting a threshold for radium-induced malignancies.

Radioactive dials found wide use in military aircraft in World War II, and radium watches were manufactured into the 1950s.

The Radioactive Death of Eben Byers

Radium-based radioactive cure-all Radithor c.1928

Radioactive cure-all Radithor c.1928

In 1903 J.J. Thompson, the discoverer of the electron, wrote a letter to the journal Nature describing his remarkable discovery of the presence of radioactivity in well water. This led to the discovery by others that the waters in many of the world’s most famous health springs were also radioactive, due to the presence of radium emanation – what we now call radon gas – produced by the radium that is present in the ground through which the waters flow.

It became quickly accepted that the radioactivity must be the reason for the curative properties of the springs.

Besides being touted as a cure-all for everything from chronic diarrhea to insanity, it was also believed that radioactivity “rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”

Professor Bertram Boltwood of Yale explained the scientific basis for the cures in the following way: The radioactivity was “carrying electrical energy into the depths of the body and there subjecting the juices, protoplasm, and nuclei of the cells to an immediate bombardment by explosions of electrical atoms,” and that it stimulated “cell activity, arousing all secretory and excretory organs . . . causing the system to throw off waste products,” and that it was “an agent for the destruction of bacteria.”

Radon was believed to be so important to water that it was considered its life element. Without it, water was dead. Radon was to water what oxygen was to air.

Unfortunately, Radium decayed very quickly from the spring water. The water had to be consumed at the spring to receive the healing properties. This lead to the creation of devices for use in the home to add radioactivity to tap water, such as the first and most popular Revigator in 1912.

The Revigator was a jar made of radium-containing ore which held several gallons of water and came with these instructions: “Fill jar every night. Drink freely . . . when thirsty and upon arising and retiring, average six or more glasses daily.”

Many more radium-emanating products hit the market, many of which were cheaper, smaller and mobile so you could take your personal, perpetual health spring with you on the road or at home.

To prevent scams, the American Medical Association established guidelines (in effect from 1916 to 1929) that emanators seeking AMA approval had to generate more than 2 µCi of radon per liter of water in a 24-hour period.

In the 1920s and early 1930s it was possible to purchase radium-containing salves, beauty creams, toothpaste (radon was thought to fight dental decay and improve digestion), ear plugs, chocolate bars, butter, soap, suppositories, and even contraceptives.

Eben Byers

Eben Byers

Born April 12, 1880, Eben Byers was educated at St. Paul’s School and Yale College, where he earned a reputation as an athlete and ladies’ man. He was the U.S. Amateur Golf Champion of 1906, after finishing runner-up in 1902 and 1903. Byers eventually became the chairman of the Girard Iron Company, which had been created by his father, Alexander Byers.

In 1927, while returning via chartered train from the annual Harvard-Yale football game, Byers fell from his berth and injured his arm. He complained of persistent pain and a doctor suggested that he take Radithor, a patent medicine manufactured by William J. A. Bailey. Bailey was a Harvard University dropout who falsely claimed to be a doctor of medicine and became rich from the sale of Radithor. Bailey created Radithor by dissolving radium in water to high concentrations, claiming it could cure many ailments by stimulating the endocrine system. He offered physicians a 17% rebate on the prescription of each dose of Radithor.

Byers began taking enormous doses of Radithor, which he believed had greatly improved his health, drinking 3 bottles a day – nearly 1400 bottles total. In the process, he subjected himself to more than three times the acute lethal radiation dose. By 1930, when Byers stopped taking the remedy, he had accumulated significant amounts of radium in his bones resulting in the loss of most of his jaw. Byers’ brain was also abscessed and holes were forming in his skull. He died from radium poisoning on March 31, 1932. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a lead-lined coffin.

Due to Byers’ prominence, his death received much publicity. The Wall Street Journal ran a headline reading “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off” after his death. His illness and eventual death also led to a heightened awareness of the dangers of radiation poisoning, and to the adoption of laws that increased the powers of the FDA.

William Bailey was never tried for Byers’ death, although the Federal Trade Commission issued an order against his business. However this did not stop Bailey from trading in radioactive products. He later founded a new company – “Radium Institute”, in New York – and marketed a radioactive belt-clip, a radioactive paperweight, and a mechanism which made water radioactive.

The death of Eben Byers, along with the plight of the Radium Girls getting sick from the radium-based glow-in-the-dark paint they applied to watch dials at the United States Radium factory, enlightened the public to the dangers of radium.

Radium-based products were still sold into the 1980s, including the Lifestone Cigarette Holder in the 1960s which was said to “protect users from lung cancer, promise them beautiful faces, and excellent health.”

Radioactive health springs are still in operation today.