Tales from the Nuclear Age:
Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire
Sept. 13, 2010
The Radium Girls
Founded by two physicians, the United States Radium Corporation appeared in Orange New Jersey in the year 1921. The
company had started up six years earlier in Newark, as the Radium Luminous Material Corporation. U.S. Radium used a process invented in 1902 by William J. Hammer, to create a radioactive paint which glowed in the dark. Hammer mixed radium with zinc sulfide, and the radiation caused the sulfide to fluoresce. Sadly, he did not patent his process. U.S. Radium saw success selling painted products to the Army.
The product was called UNDARK. It was painted onto the dials of watches and later, clocks and aircraft instruments; the military in World War I found the glow-in-the-dark watches very useful for soldiers in combat. The company hired workers to do the precise manual work of painting the tiny letters and numbers by hand onto a watch face using a small paintbrush. UNDARK at first didn’t move into the U.S. civilian market, but it proved extremely popular as a European product, especially in Switzerland, maker of the world’s clocks. Quoting one world traveler named Ross Mullner,
“There were so many radium painters in that country that it was common to recognize them on the streets even on the darkest nights because of the glow around them; their hair sparkled almost like a halo.”
So by 1921, U.S. Radium was hiring over a hundred workers to hand-paint UNDARK onto the clock faces of their products. The workers were mostly women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, since it was said they adapted well to the precise nature of the work. No safety precautions were taken when the workers handled their individual paint pots and brushes. The wages were rather good, workers were paid 1.5 cents each if they painted 250 dials per day.
It is not clear whether the dangers of radiation were known to the general population when dial painting began during the war. This was a time when radioactive materials were moving into many products on the market, and conventional wisdom seemed to be that “Radiation is good for you”.
The small size of numbers being painted on a watch face required a fine point on the paintbrush. The women were trained to create a fine tip by twirling the brush in their mouth, and shaping the point with their lips. This was needed to be done every few brushstrokes. In the process, a small amount of paint was swallowed. Women were told it was harmless and encouraged to experiment with the material for fun. Girls painted their fingernails with the product and on their lips as a lipstick. Some painted it onto their front teeth to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out. It was later noted that management of U.S. Radium and corporate scientists did take precautions to isolate themselves from handling the product. They wore masks, used lead screens, tongs and gloves when working with the radium paint. Workers were not given these precautions.
Within a few years, some of the women began to show what appeared at first to be unrelated medical problems. Aplastic anemia, broken bones, tooth loss and necrosis of the jaw (now known as “Radium Jaw”) were diagnosed. U.S. Radium denied there was any harm caused by the paint. The company requested doctors and dentists not to release any information on these diagnoses, particularly to the press. In at least one occurrence, a girl worker went to a “physician” who examined her and then declared her to be perfectly healthy. An observer “physician” present in the room agreed with the conclusions. He was later revealed to be a Vice President of U.S. Radium Corporation. The examining “doctor”, only a toxicologist, later was shown to have no medical credentials.
Workers began to die. The company denied all responsibility and conducted a campaign of dis-information. Deaths were attributed to other causes. Rumors were spread that some of the women were dying from Syphilis in order to discredit them.
Finally a former dial painter named Grace Fryer became alarmed. She had worked for the company from 1917 to 1920, then moved on to a better job in a bank. She thought it was rather odd when she blew her nose that the handkerchief glowed in the dark. Two years later her teeth began falling out. Serious abscesses and pain in her jaw led to an X-ray which showed her jawbone was badly decayed. Many doctors could not identify the cause, until finally one suggested it might be her Radium work. By 1925, she decided to sue her former employer, but searched for two more years to find a lawyer who was willing to challenge U.S. Radium in court. Meanwhile more were dying, others were given a prognosis of “one year remaining to live”.
Four factory workers with similar problems decided to join Grace in her lawsuit. The press later dubbed them “The Radium Girls”. There was almost no legal precedent in the labor laws at this time defining worker rights when abused by an employer. Adding to the confusion, the still little known effects of radiation were under dispute by the medical community. Governing labor safety standards were rather vague and did not provide a strong standard to show “provable suffering”. But what became different about this case was that the media took an interest, perhaps out of sensationalism, and began to follow and report in detail on the proceedings.
In the early ‘20s, U.S. Radium actually requested a Harvard physiology professor, Cecil Drinker, to study the working conditions in the New Jersey plant. He did so, and found almost all the workers had unusual blood conditions. Radium contamination was widespread in the area and on bodies of some of the workers. He also diagnosed advanced radium necrosis in a few. He talked with the corporation chemist, Ed Lehman, noticing his handling of radium was careless, and the man had lesions on both his hands. Drinker said the chemist
“…scoffed at the possibility of future damage…The attitude was characteristic of those in authority throughout the plant. There seemed to be an utter lack of realization of the dangers inherent in the material being manufactured…”.
Lehman died the following year.
When Drinker went to publish his report, recommending changes in safety procedures, he was legally enjoined by the president of U.S. Radium, Arthur Roeder, who claimed Drinker had agreed to confidentiality. Roeder, while prohibiting Drinker from publishing, said he had a copy of Drinker’s report which claimed “every girl is in perfect condition”. When Drinker finally did publish, his report stated
“… Dust samples collected in the workroom from various locations and from chairs not used by the workers were all luminous in the dark room. Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous. One of the girls showed luminous spots on her legs and thighs. The back of another was luminous almost to the waist…”
In 1925 the chief medical examiner of Essex County, New Jersey finally issued a report. The report cited the radioactive material ingested by the women as causative for bone cancer, aplastic anemia, jawbone infections and other effects of radiation.
Finally in the spring of 1927, Grace Fryer’s attorney filed suite in New Jersey, asking $250,000 compensation on her behalf. When the Radium girls appeared in court, most were too weak to raise their arms to take the oath…
(to be continued …)