Radiant and Poisoned: The Heartbreaking Story of the Radium Girls Exposed to Radioactive Paint at Work


In today's world, we are well aware of the dangers of radium and the deadly dangers of radiation. But there was a time when radium was revered as a wonder substance that was believed to have health benefits.

In the early 20th century, radium paint began to be used on many household items without thinking.

However, this changed when factory workers, who were often exposed to radium paint, began falling ill and dying.

These workers, known as the Radium Girls, often became victims of radiation poisoning while others fought against it. Ultimately they won, but had to pay a heavy price for this victory.

When radium was first discovered, it was believed to have health benefits. Radioactive treatments were popular, and the harmful effects of radium were not yet understood.

The dangerous

When the Radium Girls were diagnosed with their disease, they fought bravely against the corporations responsible for their plight.

These women are remembered in history as both heroic and tragic figures, and their bravery led to strict rules that saved countless others from the same fate.

Radium was discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie in 1898.

This discovery was the result of his ongoing research on the properties of uranium, which led him to investigate the residual materials left after the extraction of uranium ore.

They found that these materials were still highly radioactive, indicating the presence of an unknown element.

They named it radium because of its highly radioactive nature, which is derived from the Latin word "radius", meaning ray.

Radium, known for its luminous properties, has found its way into self-luminous paints used in many objects from watches to aircraft switches, clocks and instrument dials.

A tiny particle of radium, about 1 microgram, can make a watch glow in the dark.

One of these patents, a special radium-based paint, was invented by William J. It was done by Hammer.

Hammer's recipe was used by the US Radium Corporation during World War I to produce Undark, a high-tech paint that allowed America's infantrymen to read their wrist watches and instrument panels at night.

They also marketed pigments for non-military products such as house numbers, pistol sights, light switch plates, and glowing eyes for toy dolls.

Despite growing awareness of the dangers of radium, the company reassured the public that their paint contained such a small amount of the radioactive element that it was harmless.

Although this was true of the products themselves, the amount of radium present in the dial-painting factory was far more dangerous, unbeknownst to the workers there.

U.S. The Radium Corporation employed approximately 70 women to perform various tasks involving radium, while the owners and scientists, aware of the effects of radium, took great precautions to avoid exposure.

Chemists at the plant used lead screens, tongs, and masks. The company also distributed literature describing the "harmful effects" of radium to the medical community.

At the USRC, each painter mixed his own paint in a small crucible and then used a camel hair brush to apply the glossy paint to the dial.

The pay rate was about one and a half pennies per dial (equivalent to $0.357 in 2023), giving the girls $3.75 (equivalent to $89.18 in 2023) for painting 250 dials per shift.

Brushes quickly lost their shape, so factory supervisors encouraged their workers to point the brushes with their lips ("lip, dip, paint"), or use their tongues to keep them sharp.

Unaware of the true nature of radium, the Radium Girls also painted their nails, teeth and faces with the deadly paint produced at the factory for fun.

Dentists were among the first to see the dangerous effects of radium exposure on dial painters.

They observed a wide range of problems, from toothache and loose teeth to wounds, ulcers and even improperly healed tooth extractions.

As time passed, these women began to suffer from serious conditions such as anemia, bone fractures, and the dreaded "radium jaw", where the jaw bone wears away.

Women also experienced menstrual interruptions and infertility.

Shockingly, the X-ray machines used by medical investigators to study these conditions may worsen workers' health by exposing them to excess radiation.

Despite these findings, doctors, dentists and researchers complied with requests from the companies not to release their data.

In 1923, the first dial painter died, and before his death, his jaw was separated from his skull. By 1924, 50 women working at the plant were ill, and a dozen had died.

At the companies' insistence, medical professionals attributed the workers' deaths to other causes.

Syphilis, a notorious sexually transmitted infection of the time, was often cited in attempts to tarnish women's reputations.

Plant employee Grace Fryer told the U.S. Made the courageous decision to take legal action against Radium, but finding a lawyer willing to challenge the powerful corporation proved to be a difficult task.

It took two years for Fryer and his colleagues to secure legal representation. Nevertheless, the litigation process proceeded slowly.

When the case finally reached court in January 1928, the harms of radium poisoning were obvious.

Two women were so ill that they were confined to their beds, and neither of them could raise their hands to take the oath.

Five factory workers joined the suit, including Grace Fryer, Edna Haseman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta MacDonald and Albina Laris, who became known as the Radium Girls.

The legal battle, accompanied by intense media scrutiny, established important legal precedents and led to the implementation of regulations governing labor safety standards.

These regulations included the identification of a baseline level of "proven suffering".

Concurrently, in Illinois, five other women employed by the Radium Dial Company (unrelated to the US Radium Corporation) also filed suit against their employer.

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