It was great work for good pay! At least that was how the girls looked at it when they started working for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in New Jersey just before World War I in 1917. The young girls loved the camaraderie that emerged in the work room where they would bend over the faces of watches and other dials and painted them with the magical seeming luminous paint that held that wonderful element that had only recently been discovered: radium!
While the girls worked, they would take their paint brushes and put them in their mouths to get a nice fine point on the tip because painting the numbers with the luminous paint was precision work. Each girl was paid per dial they painted, so speed was of the essence. They were mostly young girls, some as young as 14, and making money they could spend on nice dresses and fancy clothes, while others took their wages home to help out their families. What none of the girls knew was that radium was a silent, but deadly killer and each time they put the paint brush in their mouth, they were letting the killer into their bodies. The girls were completely unconcerned with the paint – although some didn’t like the gritty taste – because their employers told them the paint was completely harmless to them. What the girls and women didn’t know was that radium had been known to cause harm and that had been documented as early as 1901. What was worse, their company soon realized that the radium wasn’t good for the women, but kept it a secret from them – going as far as to out right lie to them. However the company felt the amount of radium in the paint was so minuscule as to be almost not there. So what if the girls literally glowed from the dust that got on their clothes when they were in a dark room. It made it all more exciting for them!
After a few years of working, some of the women began to notice problems. Many of them had jaw pain and their teeth began to get loose. Some of them went to have them extracted, but the spot where the tooth had been removed didn’t heal. In fact, it seemed to make the problem worse, and more teeth needed to come out. One woman, Mollie, went to the dentist and when he gently probed her jaw, a piece of her bone broke off in his hand! He was appalled! He’d never seen something like this. And it didn’t stop there for poor Mollie. The bones in her mouth continued to disintegrate and then she got an infection which went down her throat. In the end she died a horrible death. Mollie was only 24 years old at the time.
She was not the only woman suffering. Others had terrible leg and hip pain and almost all had some form of anemia. The doctors were mystified – especially when they asked after their work environment. Because many of the women had moved on from painting at the dial company and were either home as mothers, or working in other places it didn’t seem this could be caused from work. Doctors had never seen anything like this. What could possible be causing this horrible decline in these young women?
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore is a fascinating story of how several companies in different places in America duped the women working for them, and how the law tried to bring some justice to the women who were suffering.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in reading the history of this tragic time in our country’s past and how the repercussions are still being felt today.