The twentieth century was the century of the atom. The discovery of atomic power launched many of the technological leaps–directly or indirectly–that defined the most tumultuous century in human history. Atomic power led to the development of weapons that could destroy an entire city in one fell swoop. It defined the course of the Cold War and powered the biggest man-made explosion in history.
These days radioactive materials are viewed as toxic substances that should be handled with extreme caution in controlled environments. This was not always the case. In the early days of the twentieth century, radioactive elements were seen as quasi-magical wonder materials that could perform amazing feats, including provide miracle cures to daily ailments. Another quality of radioactive materials, in this case radium, was that they could glow in the dark. This provided obvious benefits to watch-makers, whose product became rather harder to use at night. Radioactive glow in the dark watches were used by American soldiers in the trenches of World War I. After the war, America fell in love with the high tech time pieces, which glowed with a bluish light thanks to the radium laden paint used to outline the time piece. This fad led to an important but often forgotten chapter in the history of atomic power and labor alike–the Radium Girls.
A great job for girls
Outlining the faces of the glow in the dark watches required keen eyesight and precise hand work. Women and girls were seen as perfect candidates for the job for that reason. When the fad hit America full force, watch companies around the country employed about 4000 women and girls–some as young as fifteen–in their factories for the task. They were paid a cent and a half for each dial they painted, and they worked five and a half days a week. An average dial painter would paint 250 a day, while the really skillful ones would double that. They worked in studios where they mixed the paint from various powders containing radium.
Until the 1920s, the girls were encouraged to put their paint brushes in their mouth to shape the tip into a fine point. Creatively called lip pointing, the technique allowed them to paint the tiny digits onto the watch dials more precisely and quickly. it also coated their mouths and lips with radioactive radium. Some of the women found their mouths would glow blue after a shift at the factory. Many saw the glow as a novelty, and had no problem painting their lips, shirt buttons, eyelids, and fingernails with the deadly solution.
While this is horrifying to modern readers, steeped in decades of knowledge of just how nasty radiation can be (nasty enough that our own government became body snatchers to study its effects), it should be born in mind that the effects of radiation were not as well understood back then. Well, among the general public. Scientists were starting to understand the health effects of radiation, and the higher ups at the watch making companies almost certainly knew. The public would begin to get an inkling in the twenties, when mysterious illnesses began to plague the Radium Girls.
The first signs that something was terribly wrong came when some of the women began to suffer from anemia, fatigue, and tooth troubles. Dentists who tried to extract the problem teeth found that whole chunks of the jawbone would come along with them. Infection would set into the extraction site. Without modern antibiotics, those afflicted with “radium jaw”, as it came to be known, would soon die. By 1923, five young women in New Jersey were dead, and more were starting to show similar symptoms in other states. Meanwhile, other painters developed bone cancer.
While the epidemic of disease left doctors at the time baffled, we now know how radium works its deadly magic in the body. It turns out that radium has some chemical properties similar to calcium, enough that the body can mistake the radioactive element for the necessary mineral and incorporate it into bones. When the radium is fixed into bones, it continues to release radiation, killing or mutating nearby cells. It turned out that this property of the element was the cause of the illnesses among the Radium Girls. Many of the girls’ bodies became radioactive enough that the government would later disinter the remains and study them (along with their still living counterparts) to figure out how much radiation a person could safely absorb before it started to have negative effects.
It has been tough to figure out just how many women were injured or killed by radium ingested on the factory floor. At least 30 died in Connecticut, while 35 died in Illinois and 41 in New Jersey. Incidences of breast cancer and other cancers among the population of Radium Girls could not be directly linked to the radium exposure.
The deadly practice of lip pointing was abolished and painters were given protective gear. Incidences of cancers among painters dropped dramatically by the late 1920s. It was too little too late for those who had died or had their health ruined by radium, though. Several families pursued legal action against the watch companies, but results were a mixed bag. Some received settlements, including payments for damages and ongoing financial support for health issues stemming from exposure, while others received a fat lot of nothing. All of this, to produce $1 novelty watches.
Nowadays the Radium Girls are largely forgotten. Most have passed on, whether due to illness or simply the ravages of time. But their impact on the world of work and health will remain. theirs was the first instance where radioactive elements were linked to severe health impacts. Their suffering changed how industry, medicine, and government viewed the supposed miracle substances and helped pave the way toward the health and safety policies of the modern world.
Grady, Denise. “A Glow in the Dark, and a Lesson in Scientific Peril.” NYTimes.com. October 6, 1998. The New York Times. May 24, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/06/science/a-glow-in-the-dark-and-a-lesson-in-scientific-peril.html?pagewanted=all
Quigley, Ann. “After Glow–90 Years Ago Workers at the Waterbury Clock Company Began Dying after Painting Radium on Clock Dials.” WaterburyObserver.org. October 30, 2011. The Waterbury Observer. May 24, 2014. http://www.waterburyobserver.org/node/586