The Radium Girls: A Fluorescent Death
By Dre’An Johnson
It’s undoubtable that the early 1900s gave rise to a plethora of discoveries and inventions, many of which that we use today such as the television, pilotable helicopters, and (my personal favorite) crayons. It is also no secret, however, that this time period had more than a fair share of questionable beliefs, unsafe workplace practices, and much less regulation on consumer products. Well, what if I were to tell you that there is a story that incorporates both the wonder of new discoveries and the tragedy behind lack of proper product regulation? A story about a group of factory workers called The Radium Girls.
In 1898, Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and their assistant, G. Bémont, discovered radium when extracting uranium out of pitchblende (a primary mineral ore of uranium with some other elements mixed in). When separated, it was shockingly discovered that the pitchblende was 4 or 5 times more radioactive than the pure uranium. This was much more radioactivity than what could be explained away by the radioactive polonium present in the ore.
They went to work trying to find out what this mystery material was that was causing the large amount of radioactivity and found that it acted a lot like barium (which in hindsight makes sense because they are in the same column on the periodic table). A key difference between it and barium, however, is that it didn’t dissolve as well in water when bonded to chlorine atoms. Using this information, they were able to separate pure radium chloride by 1902, and in 1910, they successfully isolated the pure metal.
Fast forward to about 1917 and the excitement behind radiation was at an all-time high. Companies were putting radium and other radioactive materials in just about anything that they could get their hands on, stating that the radioactivity had some sorts of miracle “cure-all” powers.
These so-called miracle substances were advertised in cosmetic beauty products like Tho-Radia which contained mixtures of thorium and radium, a wide range of health products such as Radithor radium water and Doramad radioactive toothpaste, cancer treatments, and even Radium Brand butter (though this is likely one of the many products at the time that used the word “radium” in their product name despite not really containing it, similar to how we add “platinum” or “titanium” to product names today).
Likely the most well-known usage of radium was the self-luminating paint formed by the ionizing radioactive radium and fluorescent chemical phosphor (a chemical mixture, typically zinc sulfide, that glows when excited with energy). This paint became widely used in both the military, where it was used to paint instrument panels and other equipment needed to be seen in the dark, and everyday home use, where It would be used to paint anything from light switches, to house numbers, to nails, and even teeth.
The most notorious usage of this luminous paint was on watch dials, painted by the US Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey between the years 1917 and 1926. It is here that the story of the Radium Girls takes place.
The “Radium Girls” is the name given to a group of five dial painters who sued US Radium Corp. because of their high levels of radiation exposure and misinformation given to them about the dangers of radioactivity while on the job. They were commonly instructed to use their mouths to point the tips of the brushes, as they needed to be sharp and accurate when painting the small numbers on the dials of watches. This wasn’t too out of the ordinary as, as explained earlier, radium was advertised as harmless and even beneficial to health. The thing is, the higher-ups at US Radium Corp. knew about the dangers of the radioactivity, making sure to protect themselves from the harmful material but purposefully hid it from the workers and the public as their company depended on the sales of the paint.
The problems started to become apparent when multiple local young women were going to doctors complaining about weakness, jaw pains, and loss of teeth. One brief investigation later and it was found that the girls all worked at US Radium Corp. This correlation led doctors to suggest that the company did a thorough investigation to find the cause of the strange injuries.
The company sent a specialist to check the girls’ health who reassured them that they were in good condition. It was later discovered that this specialist that they hired was no specialist at all, in fact, they weren’t even a doctor, they were a toxicologist that was already working for US Radium Corp.
By this time the conditions of the girls were worsening, and they were developing serious bone problems. I mentioned earlier when explaining the history of radium that due to them being in the same column on the periodic table, barium and radium act very similarly to one another. Well, what other, more essential element is also found in that column? Calcium. The element that’s well known for making up a large majority of our bones and teeth.
Calcium enters our body when Vitamin D attaches to cells, increasing the absorption of calcium from our diets. From there, the calcium travels through our bloodstream until it is used in bodily processes or deposited into our bones. It is natural for calcium to leave the bone when the body needs to use it and replace it with new calcium from the diet.
When radium enters the body, it follows the same path that calcium would, depositing directly onto the bones and, in doing so, mutating the bones and body from the inside out with its radioactive radiation. This causes a variety of problems within the body including bone cancer and anemia from the disruption of red blood cells. This is especially bad as there is no way to quickly remove it once it is in your body. Even today, the only true anti-radiation cure that we have is Prussian blue, an oxidized ferrous ferrocyanide salt that can bond to and remove radioactive isotopes of thallium and cesium, neither of which are present in the case of the Radium Girls.
The girls were getting much worse and some were starting to die due to the radiation poisoning. The company covered these deaths up by blaming them on syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease which, especially in this time period, was very looked down upon) in order to tarnish the girls’ reputations. What’s worse is that even doctors were roped into this corruption, diagnosing these women with syphilis.
A woman suffering from “radium jaw”
To try and smother any remaining doubts about the safety of radium, US Radium Corp. hired a well renowned physiology professor to study the working conditions of the factory. The professor went about reporting on the conditions of the factory and the women working in it, stating that the entire factory was contaminated and glowing, including the women’s clothing and bodies, and that every woman’s blood who worked there was in abnormal conditions.
US Radium Corp. got this report back from the professor and completely rewrote many of the sections, replacing them with sections explaining how the women were completely fine. One of the professor’s colleagues noticed the false information within the report and brought it to the attention of the professor, urging him to publish the real report, which he did despite great pushback from US Radium Corp.
One of the bed-ridden dial painters
Despite all of this evidence that clearly shows that US Radium Corp. was intentionally misleading both their own workers and the public, it was difficult to take any action against them as they had numerous connections and lots of power. It took 2 years for the Radium Girls to find a lawyer who would take on the case, which in a race with the almost guaranteed death of these girls, is time that they can hardly afford to lose.
They finally got to trial in 1928 and at this point, their bodies were very decayed, and their health was declining. None of the girls were even able to raise their hands to be sworn in. Many months of trials went by, and many trials were delayed for long periods of time for frivolous reasons such as witnesses going on vacation. US Radium Corp. was trying to run the clock down and wait out the limited amount of time that the girls had left to live, and often the court would allow these delays as the judge was found to hold stocks in US Radium Corp.
News paper headline of Radium Girls trial
Eventually, backlash against US Radium Corp. was starting to spread throughout different news medias and the public, and they agreed to come to a settlement out of court. The girls were each paid $10,000 and would get $600 each year for the rest of their lives, though sadly, not many of them got the $600 compensation. All five of the women who went to trial died not to long after the case, and seeing as the radium isotope used in the paint has a half-life of 1,600 years, their bodies are still radioactive to this day.
This case can really serve as a reminder that we are lucky to be living in a time when regulations and proper testing is a must-have for any product that wants to make it onto the shelves, especially if it is a new chemical meant to be ingested. It can be really easy to take for granted how much goes into making sure the products that we use are safe and up to standard. So, while it may be a bit annoying to have to get everything approved before selling a product or a bit confusing on why every small object has to have a choking hazard warning (even when it is visibly obvious that the object is small enough to be swallowed and perhaps choked on), I feel that it is much better than the alternative that can be seen in the early 1900s.