By Michelle Coutu
Before OSHA, NIOSH, MSHA, before the Walsh Healy Act, and the Commission of Industrial Relations. There was the Radium Girls.
At the turn of the century radium was all the rage, this new material was praised for its luminous qualities and supposed ‘medicinal purposes.’ The United States Radium Corporation (USRC) employed hundreds of girls to paint watch and instrument dials using this newly discovered material starting in 1917 in Orange, New Jersey. The girls were instructed to point their brushes with their lips before applying paint to the dials, this was to ensure their productivity and quality was high. “Lip, Dip, Paint.” Life was good, friendships were forged in studios where girls spent the days painting dials and getting paid by the piece.
However, the good times slowly started to fade. What the girls did not know was that radium was a poison. Ingesting radium from lip pointing was exposing the girls to unprecedented levels of radium, which we now know to produce alpha and gamma radiation as it decays. Local dentists were baffled at the girls who were arriving at their offices with pain, abscesses, missing teeth, and necrotic jaws. The girls’ health continued to rapidly decline and their lives began to fall apart. Many lost their entire jaw, were unable to eat, had limbs amputated, lost their physical mobility, were unable to heal from cuts and abscesses, and to top it all off they fell in to crippling debt due to their escalating medical expenses. When USRC was confronted with these cases of industrial poisoning by radium and asked to be accountable for them, they did everything in their power to hide, deny, and deflect responsibility. Even going as far as to blatantly lying about the safety of radium.
It wasn’t until 1928, almost 10 years later, that the radium girls in New Jersey were able to take USRC to court, spear headed by the tenacious Grace Fryer. Their litigation was followed in 1937 by another cohort of radium girls in Ottawa, Illinois. The impact of their suffering was not in vain yet, like most minorities in history their sacrifice and misery was eroded to a footnote over time. Their unprecedented legal actions lead to accelerated reforms in US Labor laws (however, at the time many of the girls were unable to take advantage of the expanded laws due to the strict statute of limitations in place at the time of their diagnosis). Their dire situation pushed scientists to develop the first instrument to measure radioactive body burdens, and in time their exposure and epidemiological data was used to establish the Center of Human Radiobiology at Argonne National Laboratory in 1968, which was critical in establishing the first exposure limits for radioactive compounds.
Kate Moore does a fantastic job of weaving history and narrative to deliver the often untold story of the Radium Girls. She does not shy away from the tragedy the girls’ experiences or the unscrupulous actions of the organizations involved. This is a must read for all industrial/occupational hygienists with a curiosity for the history of our profession and for those looking to reaffirm their commitment to worker health.