Monday, November 2, 2009

Radium Girls

From 1917 to 1926 U.S Radium Corporation was engaged in extraction and purification of radium from carnote ore to produce luminous paints, which was marketed under the brand name "Undark". Their plant in New Jersey employed over a hundred workers, mainly women, to paint radium-lit watch faces and instruments. The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physiics and the labor rights movement. The U.S. Radium Corp. hired some 70 women to perform various tasks, including the handling of radium, while the owners and their scientists (familiar with the effects of radium), carefully avoided any exposure to it themselves, chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks and tongs.

They mixed glue, water and radium powder, and used camel hair brushes to apply the glowing paint onto dial numbers. The brushes would lose their shape after a few strokes, so the U.S. Radium supervisiors 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, sometimes to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out. The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them.

Many of the women later begin to suffer from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw, a condition known as radium jaw, the x-rays used by medical investigators may have contributed to the sick workers and subjected them to more radiation. In 1922 Grace Fryer a former employee of the radium corporation had left for a better job at the bank started complaining her teeth began to loosen and fall out for no discernible reason. Her jaw swelled and inflamed, she went to the doctor, he used a primitive x-ray machine, he 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.

A series of doctors attempted to solve Grace's ailment, they took notice of high number of deteriorated jawbones among local women, it took very little investigation to discover these women had been employed by the same watch-painting factory at one time or other. Grace 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 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 standsrds were demonstrably enhanced for many decades. 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,ooo (the equivalent of $124,ooo in 2009 dollars) and a $600 per year annuity while they lived and all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company.

In 1968, the Center for Human Radio biology was established at Argonne National Laboratory. The primary purpose of the center was providing medical examinations for individual dial painters. The five "Radium Girls" died in the 1920s and 1930s . Their sad fate was sealed when they dipped paintbrushes into radium paint and sharpened the brushes with their mouths, many other former factory workers died of radium poisoning without finding justice. Later medical research would determine that radium behaves much like calcium inside the body, causing it to concentrate in the teeth and bones. In 1949 the US Congress passed a bill making all occupational diseases compensated, and extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses and make a claim. Thanks to the Radium Girls success in bringing attention to the deplorable conditions in US factories, industrial safety standards in the US were significantly tightened over the following years, an improvement which definitely spared countless others from similar fates.

The first time I heard about these girls I was watching a show on TV I felt so bad for these women and thought I would tell their story, which does not have a happy ending.


Babli said...

I appreciate for your brillant and lovely post. It is not only interesting but I also learnt lot of things. Thanks for this wonderful post.
Please collect your award from my blog.

Tea said...

This is a very interesting post, but it's just so sad for the victims. Thank you for posting this, Margaret.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

This is such a heart rending story, Margaret...I knew it was going to be something horrendous the minute I saw the word "Radium".....The fact that the company KNEW how dangerous Radium was yet encouraged these women to do all the wrong things--PLUS giving them no protection whatsoever is so deeply appalling that it makes one want to scream and beat ones fists...!
The saddest thing to me is that this is just one example of the things that company's knew what the dangers were---there are any number of other terrible story's like this, involving other dangerous substances that the various company's never shared with any of their workers. That film "SILKWOOD" with Meryl Streep, was about this very kind of thing--it was based on a true story about Karen Silkwood.
Thank you for posting this Margaret. These women were so brave to take that company to task, even though it was such an up hill battle.
It makes one wonder where is the humanity in these situations? How can people be so non-caring? The answer? GREED!

caspersmom said...

This was a very interesting post Margaret. When I was reading it and got to where they sharpened the brushes with their mouth, I thought Oh No. Thanks to the radium girls for bringing it to notice but so sad for everyone working at that factory. I can't understand why some people just don't value human life, but like the Old lady of the hills said..............GREED

A New Beginning said...

Its true the man is mans worst enemy.
Thanks for discussing this on your blog..Whenever I read your blog, I always go back with a brain full of knowledge..keep enlightening all:)Thanks a lot!
Have a great week ahead!

Midlife Mom said...

What an interesting though sad story. So many times this has happened to the unsuspecting person and is a real tragedy. It reminds me of the movie about the lady that took on a huge company when she noticed people around the plant were getting sick and dying. Glad there are people out there that dare to take on the establishment. Great post, as always!

Anonymous said...

It really is a sad thing and the ladies suffered a horrible fate that in those days had no cure and maybe there is none today. And to top it off, I am not sure it is not still happening to other people somewhere in the world. Or worse.

Hawks, and Sharp-shinned and Coopers, will not eat a squirrel or attack one. I suspect they know that teeth that can cut through a walnut shell can cut off toes in one bite. I have seen squirrels change big old female hawks off the fence, just so they could run on past, and I have seen them chase hawks out of trees. But I have seen a hawk capture and eat a chipmunk. So I don't think your squirrels are being eaten by hawks unless you have different hawks. lol Thanks for your visit to my blog about the hawks.

Linda said...

Thank you for writing this fascinating, important and sad piece. It was excellent reading as always.



Whenever I read a post from you I can always guarantee I am going to read something of interest and this one is no exception.
Thanks for writing this I too had never heard about this before.

Have a nice day


Renie Burghardt said...

An interesting, sad and tragic story, Margaret. Those men, that knew how dangerous radium was, and hired the Radium Girls, should have been thrown in prison for life! Thank you for sharing the Radium Girls story.

Have a wonderful Wednesday!


Patty said...

How horrible. We never know what can happen years after we use or are exposed to dangerous things like they were. Interesting ead.

Bhavesh Chhatbar said...

Horrible. How can anyone do such a thing?

Roads of Japan

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