Hello, Lovelies! Welcome to this week’s blog post featuring the story of the Radium Girls! Bellow you’ll find information on this week’s drink break, Rebecca’s notes on the subject, and her references (including a link to the book recommendation on Amazon) at the end.
This week’s drink break is brought to you by the podcast, Fatalities! Fataliteas is a podcast where host, Alysa Lucas, explores true crime cases over tea with the help of her friends because without tea, friends, and good conversation, there is nothing but darkness and chaos. Click on her logo to check out the show!
In 1916, a factory in New Jersey started producing a new fad: watches with glow-in-the-dark dials that always shone and didn’t require recharging by the sun.
This new technology was extremely useful to soldiers, who would be able to read their watches at night or while fighting in the trenches of WWI
This factory hired the first 70 of thousands of women who were paid nearly 3 times the average working girl’s wages to do this glamorous job
Girls that landed this job were ranked in the top 5% of female workers nationally, which gave the girls s financial freedom many didn’t have
The girls were tasked with painting thin layers of this white paint that glowed onto the watch dials
The job was glamorous (and not just because of the high wages) because critical elements in their paint cost up to $2.2 / gram in today’s money and the girls would be listed as “artists” in their town’s directory
This caused many girls to encourage their sisters and friends to seek employment at this new factory
As the girls worked, they were instructed to use their lips or lick the ends of their delicate brushes to bring the bristles to a point
When first starting, many girls asked if the paint was toxic, to which they were told that no and that the paint was quite safe
At the end of a work day, the girls would literally glow, partially due to the fact that when mixing the powder into the paint it would get into the air and land on the girl’s clothes, causing them to earn the nickname “The Ghost Girls”
Some girls would wear their good dresses to work, making them shine on the dance floor later
Others would paint their nails, sometimes even their teeth to give their kisses an extra little something
By the 1920s, there was a peak of 300 girls painting watch faces with this magical substance
In 1922, Mollie Maggia (then 22 years old), had to quit her job when she started falling ill
It started as an aching tooth, that was pulled out easily enough by a dentist. However, soon after the next tooth had to be extracted
Where the teeth used to be were agonizing ulcers that wouldn’t heal and seeped with blood and pus (this obviously made her breath fowl)
Soon after, her limbs started to ache, and it was at this point she had to leave her job. Thinking it was rheumatism, a doctor gave her some aspirin and sent her home
The ulcers spread, and by May of 1922, Mollie had lost most of her teeth and the infection covered her jaw, the roof of her mouth, and even parts of her ears
Her Dentist (some sources say Doctor) thought that Mollie had a fast-growing abscess on her jaw that needed to be removed immediately
When her dentist/doctor opens up her gums, he poked at her jaw which crumbled immediately under his fingertips
The doctor ended up pulling out most her jaw that day with his hands, and removed the rest of her jaw and part of her inner ear later that summer
By September of 1922, a tumor had cut into Mollie’s jugular vein and flooded her throat with blood as she choked in her bed
Mollie’s death certificate identified her cause of death as syphilis
Mollie wasn’t the only girl who was suffering from what seems random health issues.
Grace Fryer’s spine collapse because her vertebra were in the same condition Mollie’s jaw was in and had to wear a steal back brace
One girl’s jaw was eaten away to a stump
Others had their legs shorten and spontaneously fracture
Others developed skin cancer, tumors, cataracts, and hair loss
One interesting fact was it was noticed that the girl’s bones would glow
The company the girls were working for was the United States Radium Corporation, and they were painting watch faces with paint that was laced with the radioactive element radium
What is Radium?
Radium is an element, with the only stable isotope being radium-226 and has a half-life of 1600 years
Radium was discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, and they immediately recognized the potency of the element they were working with
Marie had given herself unpleasant burns working with the element, and Pierre once stated that he wasn’t able to bear the thought of being in a room with even a kilogram of the stuff, saying he was afraid it would blind him and burn off his skin
This is due to the fact that radium emits alpha particles in all directions (there are a couple types of radiation particles, including beta and gamma), a particle that, when outside the body and in small doses, is essentially harmless
To put this is perspective, the average American is exposed to 620 millirem (mrem) of radiation per year (unsure how much of that is alpha particles)
- Roughly half is from background radiation
- The rest is typically from medical x rays (with industrial sources being a distant second)
If you ate one banana per day, you’d receive a dose of 2.6 mrem / year
At the time of its discovery, it was believed that Radium had many health benefits (this stemmed from the discovery that radium salts, when applied to a tumor, could help shrink the tumor)
In the short term, radium actually stimulates the red blood cells, giving the illusion of radiating health and thus making the girls think they were getting healthier with each brush stroke
This caused news outlets to rave about this magical element, an element that was added to everything, from swimming pools, to tonics, to candy, and eventually glowing watch faces
However, once inside the body, these tiny glowing radium isotopes that emit alpha particles can wreak havoc
Think of radium like a tiny battery
- This battery gets charged up by the sun, with the atom’s outer electrons gaining energy and speeding up
- Once the sun goes away, these electrons slow down, but this energy needs somewhere to go, therefore, they start emitting light
- However, this “light” is like a tiny machine gun, and once inside the body, mutating and killing the cells that surround it
Chemically speaking, radium behaves like calcium when ingested in the body, thus the bodys of the Radium Girl’s started storing radium in their bones, causing radiation-induced bone necrosis and bone cancers
Remember what they were told when they asked if the paint they were working with was harmful?
It was believed, that radium in low doses wasn’t harmful and even good for you. That being said, the male engineers at the factory wore lead aprons while handling large amounts of the element
The girls, because they used their mouths to point their brushes, ended up ingesting large amounts of radium over time, causing them to fall ill to radiation sickness
The United States Radium Corporation (USRC) held on to the belief that Mollie died of syphilis, although more and more girls were falling ill
In 1924, an independent study determined that the paint that was being ingested by the girls is not harmless,which wass what was told to the girls, but instead very hazardous
The USRC retaliated by paying for their own study, which (surprise) showing that swallowing the radioactive paint was actually good for you
In 1925, Grace Fryer decided to sue, and, after facing many lawyers who either disbelieved the claims of the girls or who were fearful of the radium corporations, she finally found a Raymond Barry in 1927 who would help her and four coworkers file a case
One fact that made the girl’s case difficult was that symptoms typically took 5 years to manifest and, at the time, the statute of limitations dictated that victims of occupational poison had 2 years to bring their cases forward.
That didn’t stop Grace Fryer, who commented “”It is not for myself I care. I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example.”
By 1927, however, time for the girls was running out, some of the only given a handful of months to live. This forced them to eventually settle out of court, but, as Grace planned, this raised the profile of radium poisoning into the public eye.
News spread fast of the Radium girls, causing riots at other plants that girls worked as dial painters
Still, other corporations, such as the Illinois based firm, Radium Dial, flat out denied responsibility, with Radium Dial going as far as to steal the radium-riddled bones in an attempt to cover up the situation
In 1938, Catherine Wolfe (Donohue after mairrage), after also losing her teeth (her jaw also fell out, and she had to hold a handkerchief to her mouth to absorb the ever present pus) and developing a grapefruit sized tumor on her hip, gave a testimony from her deathbed (against her doctor’s wishes)
This, with the help of her lawyer, Leonard Grossman, who works pro bono, finally won justice for herself and all other dial painters
What Happened Next?
The Radium Girls’ case was one of the first cases where the employer was made responsible for the health of their employees
This lead to life-saving regulation and, eventually the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Before OSHA was set up, 14,000 people died on the job every year; today, it is just over 4,500.
For more information, you can purchase the book from Amazon Here.