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The AP whitewashes history

Sunday, Sep 4, 2011

[Comments opened.]

* The Associated Press is infamous for shortening stories to the point where they lose all meaning. Here’s a prime example for Labor Day

A northern Illinois city has paid tribute to former factory employees who worked under dangerous conditions.

The Radium Girls memorial honors the women who worked at watch-painting plants for Radium Dial and Luminous Processes in the early 20th century. The women painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials using radium-laced paint. Many died of radium exposure from using their lips to hone their paintbrushes.

* So, why would the women workers be singled out for this honor? Because, as the LaSalle News-Tribune tells us, the company essentially ordered the workers to kill themselves

Women who worked at Radium Dial applied glow-in-the-dark paint to watch and clock hands and were instructed to lick the brushes to keep the ends pointed for precise painting. It was an instruction that sickened and killed many of Fuller and Mennie’s co-workers.

The female workers were told that licking the brushes would be good for their complexions, even after company officials knew the radium was poisonous…

The Radium Dial and Processes factories were started in 1922. Within three years, company officials learned that radium paint was toxic and threatened the workers — but wouldn’t disclose this.

* This is what happened to the workers

The women were told that the paint—a mixture of glue, water, and radium powder—was harmless. An instructor once made a show of swallowing some just to prove the point. The girls entertained themselves by playing with the “harmless” paint, decorating their nails and teeth with the luminous mixture.

The radium they were using emits low-energy radiation, which bounces harmlessly off the skin. However, if the material is swallowed, it permanently insinuates itself into the skeleton, where it continues to emit radiation for the rest of the victim’s life, and indeed long after she is dead. Investigators would later measure the radioactivity in the bones of long-dead dial painters to prove that they had been poisoned.

As the dial painters ingested more and more paint, their skeletons crumbled from within. Their teeth fell out, their jaws shattered. They suffered from excruciating bone pain from fractures, crippling anemia as the radiation killed blood-forming cells in their bone marrow, and various cancers.

* And when they fell ill, company doctors deliberately lied to them

When women started becoming sick, company doctors said they had syphilis, typhus and pneumonia.

* Yet, this practice continued for many, many years. After the local media took notice, the company shut down, then reopened under a different name

The Ottawa Radium Dial Studio was shut down amid lawsuits in the 1930s, but it re-opened under a new name, Luminous Processes, with some of the same management. Luminous Processes continued to make watch dials with radioactive materials until the 1970s, when it was shut down by nuclear regulators for mishandling tritium.

* The problems remain

Even after the Radium Dial Co. building was demolished, people took bricks from the site to reuse and desks from the factory were donated to area schools, Sack said, spreading the contamination. [Emphasis added]

* The contaminated factory building was even used as a meat packing plant for decades

Between 1930 and 1968, the original Radium Dial building was used as a meat packing plant and was later occupied by Farmers Co-op.

* And the cleanup is still not finished

A contaminated site on the outskirts of town still needs to be remediated, a process that could take up to five years at a cost estimated over $80 million dollars.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study outlining areas where contamination by radium-226 (Ra-226) as well as emissions of radon-222 (Rn-222) are at above normal levels. These areas include homes, public areas, schools, and even a car sales lot that is housed directly over the old Radium Dial Company site.

* The “Radium Girls” case sparked a rise in worker safety and compensation laws throughout the country. It also led to several environmental law changes, both here in Illinois and nationally. It takes a few minutes to get going, but check out a 1987 documentary made about the case

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - bored now - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 7:16 am:

    i watched the video (which came in at 1 hr 45 min), which was fascinating to me. thanks for pointing it out…

  2. - wordslinger - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 8:10 am:

    Here’s another instance where government regulation interferes in the marketplace and stifles the creation of wealth.

    The Radium Girls were working and literally glowing until dat bad ol’gubmint stepped in and ruined the whole laissez faire party.

    Rich, thanks for posting the story. So many people today don’t know or understand their past, and don’t appreciate how sweet they have it, even in bad times.

    They were born on second base and think they were robbed because they didn’t get a triple.

  3. - Lulabell - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 8:12 am:

    And as much as we sometimes don’t like Unions as they are today this was just the type of thing the unions stopped….the deplorable working conditions, etc.

  4. - Cincinnatus - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 8:17 am:


    You may be surprised to find that many would consider this to be an appropriate role of the government.

  5. - wordslinger - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 8:28 am:

    –You may be surprised to find that many would consider this to be an appropriate role of the government.–

    That’s swell.

  6. - Small Town Liberal - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 8:53 am:

    –You may be surprised to find that many would consider this to be an appropriate role of the government.–

    Yeah, hindsight is 20/20 even for the anti-regulation crowd. I bet you would have been on the front line yelling for the government to step in back when this was going down.

  7. - Commonsense in Illinois - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 9:09 am:

    My Great Aunt was one of the Radium Girls at the Elgin Watch Factory. Although she passed on in the mid-1980s, I still recall that the result of her painting radium on watch faces was incredibly severe arthritic joints and bones, paper-thin skin that literally would split open if simply brushed by a finger nail and pain. Regardless, she was one of the most upbeat people I’ve ever met and she was very proud of her (and others’) work.

  8. - Andrew Thomason - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 9:40 am:

    Anyone interested in some further reading on this topic should check out the book “Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum. She has a great tale about the Radium Girls and the role they played in early forensic science.

  9. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 12:45 pm:

    I was proud to be part of the program last Friday. Please go to Illinois Labor to find out more stories about our labor past and the important role workers play in society, but whose stories rarely get told..
    Larry Spivack, President, Illinois Labor History Society.

  10. - D.P. Gumby - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 1:32 pm:

    wordslinger couldn’t have slung it better!

  11. - Indigant in Illinois - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 3:28 pm:

    How dare the AP write a brief! Everyone knows that all news stories must be at least 800 words long or they don’t count. These so-called “journalists” make me sick.

    Here’s an example of how the story should have been told.

  12. - Ivory-billed Woodpecker - Tuesday, Sep 6, 11 @ 4:39 pm:

    In addition to spurring demand for improved worker safety, radium poisoning was significant in driving drug regulation.

    Patent medicines containing radium were appropriate for whatever ailed you. In one notorious case, Eben Byers, a Newport, Rhode Island playboy, began drinking gobs of radium concoction. The account of his decline and death is horrific. And while sickness and death among multiple Illinois factory girls evidently could be dismissed as mere anecdote, Byers’s death gained attention and seems to have persuaded people that radiation may not always be the best thing. More generally, people developed the idea that drugs ought to be proved safe before being sold.

    Also, during World War II, we had people working with a new material, plutonium, that like radium is an alpha particle emitter. Nobody knew what plutonium would do in the body. But with the radium painters’ experience fresh in people’s minds, bomb workers were advised that the plutonium was very dangerous and that they should absolutely avoid ingesting any. Plutonium’s reputation never recovered.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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