The intoxication by radium of a group of women in 1917 in Orange, New Jersey, titled this story. This is the story of Radium Girls. Not many people know it and they should because we owe them a lot. That is the reason for publishing this new post with the story of these American girls who changed the world of work forever. They did not do it at a low price precisely.
This is a dramatic story that finally led to the current occupational risk prevention system after numerous struggles against the American justice and medical society of the time. With human sacrifices too. All of that started in the middle of World War I when thousands of employees went to work in the luminescent watches factories. Watches that the soldiers in the front needed to see the time even in the dark nights …
This factory of death was called United States Radium Corporation and in many ways it resembled our own death factory: the FUA. In that place the young employees worked by painting with their brushes the numbers and hands of the dial spheres. The painting they used contained radium to give luminescence to these watches and a sense of the company’s slogan: “Made possible by the magic of radium!”. Oblivious to danger, since no one informed them of it, the workers came to paint their nails, their teeth or their faces with the deadly paint. Moreover, they worked daily with the paint without any protection or information.
The paint used was known as Undark and it was composed of radium salts, glue and zinc sulphide with a formula invented by William J. Hammer. Years before, Pierre and Marie Curie provided him samples of the element they had discovered in 1898. When Zinc sulfide receives light or heat it has photoluminescent properties. In this case the heat radiated by the radium 226. It is true that in the Curie era the adverse effects of radioactivity were unknown but when the US Radium Corporation began using these paintings the problems caused by these elements were already known.
Watches were not only popular at the front. They also spread among the civilian population and in the face of recent discoveries, the company ensured that their watches were safe for military and civilian use. They insisted that the paint they used was totally innocuous. The first was true. They were not a problem for the users of the watches, but it was not so for the exposed workers. In addition to this the company hired young workers because they could be paid a lower salary than male labor …. Even the young girls were instructed to dip the brush in the paint and then put it between their lips to sharpen the tip and get a better result.
People were surprised by the luminescence that came out of their mouths, but it would not be the only thing that would stand out. The first health problems would begin to appear soon. One of the first was Grace Fryer who began to see how his teeth fell out. She began to suffer terrible pain in his jaw due to osteorsarcoma maxilla. When trying to relate these ailments to her old job in the factory, Grace tried to locate her former partners. She only located three of them because the rest had already died or were seriously ill with severe anemia, tumors, bone fractures, necrosis, etc.
The survivors took the case to court in 1920, but the company used its power to curtail the judiciary. The company created false reports, and even bribed doctors to testify on their behalf, denying that radium and radioactivity were related to those health problems. The company said that the cause derived from syphilis because of the “promiscuity” of the young girls. The judges, due to the pressures, tried to delay the case as much as possible. The women were getting weaker or even died before seeing a resolution. Finally, they reached the Supreme Court and an agreement to compensate the only 5 that were still alive. Money that they would have to use in the care they needed or in their own funerals that were not long in coming.
In the end, due to the seriousness of the matter and the great impact on society because of the media nature of this case, the United States Congress voted for a resolution in favor of establishing a series of rights for employees who contracted occupational diseases due to exposure in their work. Besides the resolution included the creation of safety bases for the prevention of these risks.