Radium Girls

Radium Girls

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The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning
Radiation poisoning
Acute radiation syndrome also known as radiation poisoning, radiation sickness or radiation toxicity, is a constellation of health effects which occur within several months of exposure to high amounts of ionizing radiation...

 from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark
Radioluminescence
Radioluminescence is the phenomenon by which luminescence is produced in a material by the bombardment of ionizing radiation such as beta particles.-Tritium:...

 paint at the United States Radium
United States Radium Corporation
The United States Radium Corporation was a company, most notorious for its operations between the years 1917 to 1926 in Orange, New Jersey, in the United States that led to stronger worker protection laws...

 factory in Orange, New Jersey
Orange, New Jersey
The City of Orange is a city and township in Essex County, New Jersey, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, the township population was 30,134...

 around 1917.
The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium
Radium
Radium is a chemical element with atomic number 88, represented by the symbol Ra. Radium is an almost pure-white alkaline earth metal, but it readily oxidizes on exposure to air, becoming black in color. All isotopes of radium are highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope being radium-226,...

 by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them; some also painted their fingernails and teeth with the glowing substance.

Five of the women challenged their employer in a court case that established the right of individual workers who contract occupational disease
Occupational disease
An occupational disease is any chronic ailment that occurs as a result of work or occupational activity. It is an aspect of occupational safety and health. An occupational disease is typically identified when it is shown that it is more prevalent in a given body of workers than in the general...

s to sue their employers.

United States Radium Corporation


From 1917 to 1926, U.S. Radium Corporation, originally called the Radium Luminous Material Corporation  was engaged in the extraction and purification of radium
Radium
Radium is a chemical element with atomic number 88, represented by the symbol Ra. Radium is an almost pure-white alkaline earth metal, but it readily oxidizes on exposure to air, becoming black in color. All isotopes of radium are highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope being radium-226,...

 from carnotite
Carnotite
Carnotite is a potassium uranium vanadate radioactive mineral with chemical formula: K222·3H2O. The water content can vary and small amounts of calcium, barium, magnesium, iron, and sodium are often present.-Occurrence:...

 ore to produce luminous paint
Luminous paint
Luminous paint or luminescent paint is paint that exhibits luminescence. In other words, it gives off visible light through fluorescence, phosphorescence, or radioluminescence.-Fluorescent paint:...

s, which were marketed under the brand name 'Undark
Undark
Undark was a trade name for luminous paint made with a mixture of radioactive radium and zinc sulfide, as produced by the U.S. Radium Corporation between 1917 and 1938. It was used primarily in watch dials...

'. As a defense contractor
Defense contractor
A defense contractor is a business organization or individual that provides products or services to a military department of a government. Products typically include military aircraft, ships, vehicles, weaponry, and electronic systems...

, U.S. Radium was a major supplier of radioluminescent
Radioluminescence
Radioluminescence is the phenomenon by which luminescence is produced in a material by the bombardment of ionizing radiation such as beta particles.-Tritium:...

 watches to the military. Their plant in New Jersey
New Jersey
New Jersey is a state in the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic regions of the United States. , its population was 8,791,894. It is bordered on the north and east by the state of New York, on the southeast and south by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by Pennsylvania and on the southwest by Delaware...

 employed over a hundred workers, mainly women, to paint radium-lit watch faces and instruments, believing it to be safe.

Radiation exposure


The U.S. Radium Corporation hired some 70 women to perform various tasks including the handling of radium, while the owners and the scientists familiar with the effects of radium carefully avoided any exposure to it themselves; chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks and tongs. US Radium had even distributed literature to the medical community describing the “injurious effects” of radium. The owners and scientists at US Radium, familiar with the real hazards of radioactivity, naturally took extensive precautions to protect themselves.

An estimated 4,000 workers were hired by corporations in the U.S. and Canada to paint watch faces with radium.
They mixed glue, water and radium powder, and then used camel hair
Camel hair
Camel hair is, variously, the hair of a camel; a type of cloth made from camel hair; or a substitute for authentic camel hair; and is classified as a specialty hair fibre. When woven into haircloth, using the outer protective fur called guard hair, camel hair is coarse and inflexible...

 brushes to apply the glowing paint onto dials. The then-current rate of pay, for painting 250 dials a day, was about a penny and a half per dial ($ per dial in today's terms). The brushes would lose shape after a few strokes, so the U.S. Radium supervisors encouraged their workers to point the brushes with their lips, or use their tongues to keep them sharp. For fun, the Radium Girls painted their nails, teeth and faces with the deadly paint produced at the factory. Many of the workers became sick. It is unknown how many died from exposure to radiation. The American factory sites became Superfund
Superfund
Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 , a United States federal law designed to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances...

 cleanup sites.

Radiation sickness


Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia
Anemia
Anemia is a decrease in number of red blood cells or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin in the blood. However, it can include decreased oxygen-binding ability of each hemoglobin molecule due to deformity or lack in numerical development as in some other types of hemoglobin...

, bone fractures and necrosis
Necrosis
Necrosis is the premature death of cells in living tissue. Necrosis is caused by factors external to the cell or tissue, such as infection, toxins, or trauma. This is in contrast to apoptosis, which is a naturally occurring cause of cellular death...

 of the jaw, a condition now known as radium jaw
Radium jaw
Radium jaw is an occupational disease brought on by the ingestion and subsequent absorption of radium into the bones of radium dial painters. The symptoms are necrosis of the mandible and the maxilla as well as constant bleeding of the gums and after some time, severe distortion due to bone...

. It is thought that the X-ray machines used by the medical investigators may have contributed to some of the sickened workers' ill-health by subjecting them to additional radiation. It turned out at least one of the examinations were a ruse, part of a campaign of disinformation
Disinformation
Disinformation is intentionally false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately. For this reason, it is synonymous with and sometimes called black propaganda. It is an act of deception and false statements to convince someone of untruth...

 started by the defense contractor. U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium. For some time, doctors, dentists, and researchers complied with requests from the companies not to release their data. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes; syphilis
Syphilis
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. The primary route of transmission is through sexual contact; however, it may also be transmitted from mother to fetus during pregnancy or at birth, resulting in congenital syphilis...

 was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women.

Litigation


The story of the abuse perpetrated against the workers is distinguished from most such cases by the fact that the ensuing litigation was covered widely by the media. Plant worker Grace Fryer decided to sue, but it took two years for her to find a lawyer willing to take on U.S. Radium. A total of five factory workers, dubbed the Radium Girls, joined the suit. The litigation and media sensation surrounding the case established legal precedents
Precedent
In common law legal systems, a precedent or authority is a principle or rule established in a legal case that a court or other judicial body may apply when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts...

 and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety
Workplace safety
Workplace safety & health is a category of management responsibility in places of employment.To ensure the safety and health of workers, managers establish a focus on safety that can include elements such as:* management leadership and commitment...

 standards, including a baseline of 'provable suffering'.

Historical impact


The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physics
Health physics
Health physics is a field of science concerned with radiation physics and radiation biology with the goal of providing technical information and proper techniques regarding the safe use of ionizing radiation...

 and the labor rights
Labor rights
Labor rights or workers' rights are a group of legal rights and claimed human rights having to do with labor relations between workers and their employers, usually obtained under labor and employment law. In general, these rights' debates have to do with negotiating workers' pay, benefits, and safe...

 movement. The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades.

The case was settled in the fall of 1928, before the trial was deliberated by the jury, and the settlement for each of the Radium Girls was $10,000 ($ in today's terms) and a $600 per year annuity ($ per year in today's terms) while they lived, and all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company.

The lawsuit and resulting publicity was a factor in the establishment of occupational disease
Occupational disease
An occupational disease is any chronic ailment that occurs as a result of work or occupational activity. It is an aspect of occupational safety and health. An occupational disease is typically identified when it is shown that it is more prevalent in a given body of workers than in the general...

 labor law. Radium dial painters were instructed in proper safety precautions and provided with protective gear; in particular, they no longer shaped paint brushes by lip, and avoided ingesting or breathing the paint. Radium paint was still used in dials as late as the 1960s, but there were no further injuries to dial painters. This served to highlight that the injuries suffered by the Radium Girls were completely preventable.

Scientific impact


Robley D. Evans made the first measurements of exhaled radon
Radon
Radon is a chemical element with symbol Rn and atomic number 86. It is a radioactive, colorless, odorless, tasteless noble gas, occurring naturally as the decay product of uranium or thorium. Its most stable isotope, 222Rn, has a half-life of 3.8 days...

 and radium excretion from a former dial painter in 1933. At MIT he gathered dependable body content measurements from 27 dial painters. This information was used in 1941 by the National Bureau of Standards to establish the tolerance level for radium of 0.1 μCi
Curie
The curie is a unit of radioactivity, defined asThis is roughly the activity of 1 gram of the radium isotope 226Ra, a substance studied by the pioneers of radiology, Marie and Pierre Curie, for whom the unit was named. In addition to the curie, activity can be measured using an SI derived unit,...

 (3.7 kBq
Becquerel
The becquerel is the SI-derived unit of radioactivity. One Bq is defined as the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second. The Bq unit is therefore equivalent to an inverse second, s−1...

).

The Center for Human Radiobiology was established at Argonne National Laboratory
Argonne National Laboratory
Argonne National Laboratory is the first science and engineering research national laboratory in the United States, receiving this designation on July 1, 1946. It is the largest national laboratory by size and scope in the Midwest...

 in 1968. The primary purpose of the Center was providing medical examinations for living dial painters. The project also focused on collection of information, and, in some cases, tissue samples from the radium dial painters. When the project ended in 1993, detailed information of 2,403 cases had been collected. No symptoms were observed in those dial painter cases with less than 1,000 times the natural 226Ra levels found in unexposed individuals, suggesting a threshold
Threshold model
In mathematical or statistical modelling a threshold model is any model where a threshold value, or set of threshold values, is used to distinguish ranges of values where the behaviour predicted by the model differs in some important way...

 for radium-induced malignancies.

Literature and film

  • The story is told in Eleanor Swanson's poem Radium Girls, collected in A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium (2003, ISBN 0-967-18107-0)
  • D. W. Gregory told the story of Grace Fryer in the play Radium Girls, which premiered in 2000 at the Playwrights Theatre in Madison, New Jersey.
  • There is an elaborate reference to the story in the Kurt Vonnegut
    Kurt Vonnegut
    Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was a 20th century American writer. His works such as Cat's Cradle , Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions blend satire, gallows humor and science fiction. He was known for his humanist beliefs and was honorary president of the American Humanist Association.-Early...

     novel Jailbird
    Jailbird
    Jailbird is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, originally published in 1979. Its plot concerns a man recently released from a low security prison after having served time for a minor role in the Watergate scandal. The novel uses a standard memoir format, revealing Walter F...

    (1979, ISBN 0-385-33390-0)
  • Poet Lavinia Greenlaw
    Lavinia Greenlaw
    -Biography:Greenlaw was born in London into a family of doctors and scientists, but spent much of her childhood in a small village in Essex. She began her working life in publishing and arts administration before embarking upon a career as a freelance artist, critic and radio broadcaster. She lives...

     has written on the subject in The Innocence of Radium (Night Photograph, 1994)
  • Historian Claudia Clark wrote an account of the case and its wider historical implications: Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 (published 1997).
  • Ross Mullner's book Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy describes many of the events (1999, ISBN 0-875-53245-4)
  • The story is told by Jo Lawrence in her short animated film "Glow" (2007)
  • The story is referenced in the 2007 film Pu-239
    Pu-239 (film)
    PU-239 is a 2007 film directed by Hollywood producer Scott Z. Burns based on the book PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies written by Ken Kalfus....

  • The Michael A. Martone short story It's Time is told from the perspective of an unnamed Radium Girl
  • A fictionalized version of the story was featured in the Spike TV
    Spike TV
    Spike is an American cable television channel. It launched on March 7, 1983 as The Nashville Network , a joint venture of WSM, Inc...

     show 1000 Ways to Die
    1000 Ways to Die
    1000 Ways to Die is a docufiction anthology television series that premiered on May 14, 2008 on Spike. The program recreates unusual supposed deaths and debunked urban legends and includes interviews with experts who describe the science behind each death...

    (#196)
  • The story of Catherine Donahue's litigation and the girls at the Ottawa, Illinois, Radium Dial plant was the basis of the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich.
  • The Case of the Living Dead Women is a website displaying scans of 180 pages of newspaper clippings of the Ottawa, Illinois radium dial litigation
  • Radium Halos: A Novel about the Radium Dial Painters by Shelley Stout is historical fiction narrated by a sixty-five-year-old mental patient who worked at the factory when she was sixteen (ISBN 978-1448696222).
  • Author Deborah Blum
    Deborah Blum
    Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York....

     referenced the story in her 2010 book, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

See also

  • Occupational disease
    Occupational disease
    An occupational disease is any chronic ailment that occurs as a result of work or occupational activity. It is an aspect of occupational safety and health. An occupational disease is typically identified when it is shown that it is more prevalent in a given body of workers than in the general...

  • Breaker boy
    Breaker boy
    A breaker boy was a coal-mining worker in the United States and United Kingdom whose job was to separate impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker. Although breaker boys were primarily children, elderly coal miners who could no longer work in the mines because of age, disease, or accident were...

  • Labor rights
    Labor rights
    Labor rights or workers' rights are a group of legal rights and claimed human rights having to do with labor relations between workers and their employers, usually obtained under labor and employment law. In general, these rights' debates have to do with negotiating workers' pay, benefits, and safe...

  • Labor history
    Labor history
    Labor history may refer to:* Labor history , a subfield of the discipline of history**Labor history of the United States, describes the history of organized labor, as well as the more general history of working people, in the United States...

  • Labor law
  • Susanne Antonetta
    Susanne Antonetta
    Susanne Antonetta , is an American poet and author. Susanne Antonetta is the pen name for Suzanne Paola, whose best-selling work is Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir . In 2001, Body Toxic received recognition as a 'Notable Book' from the New York Times, and for making Amazon.com's list of top...

  • Radioactive contamination
    Radioactive contamination
    Radioactive contamination, also called radiological contamination, is radioactive substances on surfaces, or within solids, liquids or gases , where their presence is unintended or undesirable, or the process giving rise to their presence in such places...

  • Phossy jaw
    Phossy jaw
    Phossy jaw, formally phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, is an occupational disease of those who work with white phosphorus, also known as yellow phosphorus, without proper safeguards. It was most commonly seen in workers in the match industry in the 19th and early 20th century...