* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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.
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.
I was proud to be part of the program last Friday. Please go to Illinois Labor History.org 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.
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.