The Radium Girls were so contaminated that if you stood over their graves today with a Geiger counter, the radiation levels would still cause the needles to jump more than 80 years later. They were small-town girls from New Jersey who had been hired by a local factory to paint the clock faces of luminous watches, the latest new army gadget used by American soldiers. The women were told that the glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint was harmless, and so they painted 250 dials a day, licking their brushes every few strokes with their lips and tongue to give them a fine point.
They were paid the modern equivalent of $0.27 per watch dial, so the harder they worked, unknowingly swallowing deadly amounts of poison each time to make a few extra pennies, the faster death would approach. In their downtime, some even messed about painting their nails, teeth and faces with the luminous paint, marketed under the brand name “UnDark”.
Between 1917 and 1926, the U.S. Radium Corporation hired around 70 women from Essex County, NJ, and by 1927, more than 50 of those women had died as a direct result of radium paint poisoning that was eating their bones from the inside, to put it simply. At the dawn of the 1920s, an estimated total of 4,000 workers were hired by corporations in the U.S. and Canada alone to paint watch faces after the initial success in developing a glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint. The inventor of the paint, Dr. von Sochocky, died himself in 1928 from his exposure to the radioactive material. It’s still unknown how many died from exposure to radiation but it’s clear how many could have been saved.
It was a time in history when the dangers of radiation were not well understood by the general public. At the dawn of the 20th century, radium was America’s favourite new miracle ingredient, and radium-based household commercial products had become the norm, from cold remedies and toothpaste to wool for babies, children’s toys and even drinking water.
(The advertisement fails to mention a common side effect of your urine glowing in the dark).
Even products that didn’t actually contain the medical “cure-all” ingredient tried to fraudulently market their products to imply they were somehow radio-active.
In Paris, a cosmetic range called Tho-Radia became all the rage, developed by Dr. Alfred Curie (who was no relation to Marie Curie, but his name sold French women on the idea of radioactive make-up), subsequently setting the trend over in America too.
The line included lip-sticks, face cream, soap, powder, and toothpaste containing thorium and radium. Thorium is predicted to be able to replace uranium in nuclear reactors and can be used as a source of nuclear power. It is about three times as abundant as uranium.
But the most baffling part about this story is not the fact that the general public had no idea that radium was so dangerous, but the fact that some people most certainly did! And yet, they sat back and watched as everyone around them was poisoning themselves. The suits and scientists behind the U.S. Radium Corporation were probably the worst. Knowing very well that UnDark’s key ingredient was approximately one million times more active than uranium, they were careful to avoid any exposure to it themselves. While their young female factory workers fresh out of high school were literally encouraged to swallow radium on a daily basis, the owners and chemists were using lead screens, masks and tongs to handle the radium.
But negligence to share the knowledge of the dangers of radium didn’t stop there. The US Radium Corporation had actually distributed literature to the medical community describing its “injurious effects”. But of course, doctors at the time had been prescribing it to treat everything from colds to cancer. Radium had also quickly become a veritable marketing force the world over and US Radium was a defence contractor with influential contacts and deep pockets to protect its interests. All of this meant that not only were certain people not jumping at the chance to expose the dangers of radium to the public, but they were going to do everything in their power to keep it a secret.
In the early 1920s, the radium girls started to experience the first symptoms of their demise. Their jaws began to swell and deteriorate, their teeth falling out for no reason. There was a horrific report of one woman going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled and ending up with an entire piece of her jaw being accidentally removed. A local dentist began to investigate the mysterious phenomenon of deteriorating jawbones among women in his town and soon enough discovered the link that they had all worked for the US Radium plant, licking radio-active paintbrushes at one time or another.
When the women began exploring the possibility that their factory jobs had contributed to their illnesses, university “specialists” requested to examine them. Former factory girl Grace Fryer was declared to be in fine health by two medical experts. It would later be revealed that the two experts who had examined her were not doctors at all but a toxicologist on the US Radium payroll and one of the vice-presidents of US Radium.
Studies had also been conducted to evaluate the factory’s health conditions, which had reported nearly all surfaces sparkling with radioluminescence and unusual blood conditions in virtually everyone who worked there. Those reports were doctored to state that the girls were the picture of health.
With the help of doctors and dentists on their payroll, the company rejected claims that their workers were sick from radium exposure. They tried to pin the girls’ deaths on syphilis to smear the reputations of the young unmarried women who had come to work for them. Inexplicably, the medical community went along with all of it, fully cooperating with the powerful companies.
It took two years for Grace Fryer to find a lawyer who would go up against U.S. Radium and the trial was dragged on for months. Four other factory girls joined the suit and the media took an interest in the case, sensationally nicknaming them, “the Radium Girls”. But at their first court appearance, their health had so rapidly deteriorated that none could even raise their arms to take the oath. By the second hearing, all were too ill to attend and the case was adjourned for several months because several US Radium witnesses were summering in Europe. Not expecting to live much longer, the women eventually settled out of court each receiving the equivalent of about $100,000 today, and all of their medical and legal expenses paid. They would also receive a $600 per year annuity for as long as they lived. The last of the girls only lived two years after the settlement was agreed.
In a pre Erin Brockovich style victory however, the girls were able to make a significant historical impact on industrial safety standards. The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was also established as a direct result of the Radium Girls case.
US Radium continued making luminous watches and other materials using radium paint for the army but after the new worker safety laws were introduced, not a single factory worker ever suffered from radium sickness at their plant again. That’s how easily these girls’ lives could have been saved.
In the 1980s, the abandoned factory was designated a Superfund Site to clean up radiation resulted from 1,600 tons of material dumped on the site.
The Second River flows past the former factory site at 422 Alden Street, Orange, Essex County, NJ.
A shameful and terrifying tale they probably didn’t tell you about in history class, like so many cover-ups that get swept under the carpet. One of my most elementary thoughts on this was also: why hasn’t Hollywood at least told us the story of the Radium Girls? It seems like a script for Meryl Streep.
Hollywood material or not, the bravery of those women and the injustice they suffered is a cautionary tale worth telling and a lesson worth learning.