The Radium Girls

Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic spoke with author Kate Moore in an article entitled The Girls With Radioactive Bones, about the lives of young women who worked in radium-dial factories. Zhang described the women:

They would, quite literally, glow. During World War I and the years thereafter, dozens of teenage girls and young women worked in radium-dial factories, painting glow-in-the-dark numbers onto watches and airplane instruments. The paint got onto their hands, into their hair, and settled on their clothes. And so, they glowed.

The young women had no reason to worry about radium then. The factories assured them it was safe. They were even taught to paint tiny numbers on the dials by licking their paintbrushes to a fine point. Plus, radium was supposed to be good for you. You could buy radium water, radium face cream, radium toothpaste, and even Radium Brand Creamery Butter. These products didn’t actually all contain the expensive and precious element, but the evocation of radium gave them a healthful glow.

Then years later, after they stopped working the factories, the women started getting mysteriously ill. Their teeth started to fall out. Their jaw bones—brittle and degraded—broke at a light touch. Their hips locked into place. Their skin wouldn’t heal.

From the interview with Moore:

Zhang: But not everyone thought that radium was harmless, right? The dial painters were taught to lick their brushes, but the male lab technicians working for the very same company took precautions around radium. Was there a gender or class division at play?

Moore: I absolutely think that’s right. I think they did think the girls were expendable and disposable. The thing that got me was when Arthur Roeder, the president of the United States Radium Corporation, was on the stand, he was asked, “What was the first case that you knew of?” He says, “I don’t remember the name.” Essentially, you’ve killed these people and you can’t remember their name. That for me was stunning.

These “radium girls” revealed the danger of radiation with their lives. Many of these women sued the companies that made them sick, and in the process of fighting for safety standards brought the dangers to light in the Manhattan Project. Moore’s book is The Radium Girls, The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Amazon, Barnes & Noble). You can read an excerpt at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and on GooglePlay Books.