The forgotten story of the Radium Girls and the Toxic Radioactive Products marketed in the 1920s7 min read
In 1917, lot of patriotic young girls counted themselves lucky to have landed war work at a large warehouse complex in Orange, New Jersey.
The pay was fantastic, roughly three times the average working girls’ wage, and the work was light: the main job the young ladies were given was to apply glowing paint to the faces of clocks, instrument gauges, and wristwatches for the United States Radium Company. Once a thin layer of white paint, impregnated with the newly discovered element radium, was layered onto the dials, their hands naturally glowed and made them easier to read at night or in a dark trench in Flanders.
However, It’s probably If you passed a Geiger counter over a grave of one of the “Radium Girls”, the radiation levels still be so high that they would blow needles on the ladder almost 90 years later. The history of the radioactive products that conquered the market during the 1920s is curious and absurd, but not many people know it, because the story was overshadowed by informations.
It all began in New Jersey a few years after the Curie spouses’ discoveries regarding radioactivity, just before the 1920s.
The radium-infused paint was a new invention in 1917. Even if Pierre and Marie Curie had first identified the element in 1898, it wasn’t until 1910 that Marie successfully isolated a sample of it to work with.
Right away, the couple knew their discovery was dangerous, in fact Marie gave herself several unpleasant burns improperly handling radium. The conventional wisdom at the time, however, was that a little bit of the stuff was good for human health. Throughout the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of people drank radium-infused tonic water, brushed their teeth with radium toothpaste, and wore radium cosmetics that gave their skin a bright, cheery glow. Moreover, mixed with the paint, radium would luminesce after exposure to light, a scientific miracles of a very optimistic age.
The United States Radium Company is dedicated to painting the dials of the “luminous clocks”, the last gadget of the US army that used a radioactive paint that lit up at night. The girls who painted the dials earned $ 0.27 a piece, and were able to make about 250 a day, with a gain of a factory manager for the time.
Between 1917 and 1926, the U.S. Radium Corporation hired about 70 women from Essex County and, by 1927, over 50 of those women had died from the radioactive paint poisoning that ate their bones from within. The “UnDark” watches were selling like hot cakes, so there was no lack of work and profit. In the dead times some of these girls painted their nails with radioactive paint, increasing their exposure significantly. Without exception, the “radium girls” were told the paint was safe to handle, and so virtually no precautions were taken while they handled and even ingested countless doses of radioactive poison.
This paint naturally got all over the girls, whose clothes and skin would glow when they got home from work. The girls thought this was great fun, reassured by their supervisors that they were perfectly safe. Some girls even took to wearing their best ball gowns to work on Friday so they would glow at the dance that weekend.
For several years, working at the radium plant was fun and very well-paid, so many of the employees encouraged their sisters, nieces, and sisters-in-law to apply.
In the early 1920s, around 4,000 people worked to paint clocks between the United States and Canada. The inventor of the paint, Dr. von Sochocky, died in 1928 due to exposure to radioactive material, and the exact number of deaths due to exposure to radiation is unknown to date.
Moreover, the historical period did not yet allow to understand the dangers of radiation and Radio was seen as a new miraculous “ingredient” to be associated with any product. Radio-based commercial products had become the norm, from toothpastes to wool for babies, from toys for children to drinking water. Everything had to be radioactive to be more qualitative. Even the products that actually did not contain Radio were marked with the slogans “Radioactive”, in order to be more easily marketable.
In Paris a cosmetic line was created called Tho-Radia, which became trendy and was developed by Dr. Alfred Curie (who had no relationship with Pierre and Marie Curie, but his name sold the idea of a radioactive make-up to French women). The line included lipsticks, face creams, soap, powders and toothpastes containing thorium and radio. Thorium was used as a radioactive metal, which could be used inside nuclear power plants.
The most disconcerting fact about the radioactive products that were put on the market, with the lack of knowledge on the part of the general public of the deadly effects of radioactivity, but also with the perfect awareness of a mass poisoning by the U.S. Radium Corporation and its scientists.
The high places of the U.S. Radium Corporation knew of the effects of radioactivity, and so operated voluntary mass poisoning.
Of course, scientists and company executives avoided any exposure to UnDark and radiation. The young workers just out of high school licked the tips of their brushes and swallowed radios every day, while the chemists and the owners of the company treated the substance behind leaded screens, with masks and protective pliers.
The US Radium Corporation had distributed a series of publications to the medical community to describe the negative effects of radiation but, incredibly, doctors at that time prescribed radium for everything, both to treat a common cold and to treat cancer.
The word “radioactive” was the key to selling each product, even the medicines.
In the early 1920s the girls who painted the dials began to show the first symptoms of poisoning.
In January of 1922, radium girl Mollie Maggia got a toothache. She went to the dentist, who told her the molar needed to come out. A few weeks later, she was back to have the tooth next to that one pulled. Neither wound healed, but they grew together and seeped blood and pus into Mollie’s mouth. More teeth had to come out after that. By May, her dentist thought Mollie needed surgery to remove a fast-growing abscess he’d found on her jaw. When he got the gums open, the bone didn’t look right as it was too ashy and gray, so he gently prodded it with his finger. To his shock and horror, the whole bone crumbled under his fingertip.
By September of 1922, eight months after her first toothache, Mollie Maggia was dead, and of course she wasn’t the only girl this happened to. Radium passes easily through the gums and into the blood, so around the time Maggie got sick, all sorts of odd symptoms were cropping up among the shop girls.
One suffered a total collapse of her vertebrae, as the radiation did to her spine what it had done to Maggie’s jaw. Others developed skin cancer, cataracts, throat cancer, and other symptoms of long-term radiation exposure, such as loose teeth and hair loss.
When the workers began to suspect that it was the work environment that caused these problems, specialists were asked to analyze them. Famous is the case of Grazia Fryer, who was declared in good health by two experienced doctors. However, the two were later recognized as a payroll toxicologist in the U.S. Radium Corporation and one of the vice presidents of the same company.
With the help of doctors and dentists on the payroll, the company rejected the accusations and made the environment seem idyllic, an ideal workplace without any kind of health risk. Inexplicably the medical community was conniving with the company, which therefore operated undisturbed for a long time.
Grazia Fryer took two years to find a lawyer willing to go against U.S. Radium and the process dragged on for months. The woman was joined by four other workers, and the media renamed the “Radium Girls” cause. At the first appearance in court their health was so deteriorated that none could raise their arms for the oath. During the second hearing they were all so sick that they could not attend, and therefore the cause was discontinued for several months. The women finally reached an extra-judicial agreement that included $ 100,000 in compensation, paid legal and medical expenses and a check for $ 600 a year during their entire (short) remaining life. If today it may seem small at the time, the sum was enormous, comparable to several million euros today.
Almost all the women died in a short time, but they marked a fundamental step for workers’ rights in the workplace. Before it was unthinkable for a single worker to sue a company for lack of security, but after the “Radium Girls” it became a common practice of control by employees.
The U.S. Radium continued to produce luminous clocks and other objects with radioactive paint, but after the introduction of the new laws on worker safety there were no cases of radiation poisoning. The lives of those girls had been sacrificed, but it was not a vain sacrifice, and all the workers of the western world owe something to those girls who died of radioactive poisoning.
In the 1980s the abandoned factory was subjected to decontamination, and about 1,600 tons of radioactive waste material were found.