The “Radium Girls” refers to the name given to the numerous female factory workers in the late 1910s and 1920s who ended up suffering and dying from radiation poisoning due to painting watch dials with radium-laden paint. This most notably took place in two factories. One was owned by the United States Radium Corporation located in Orange, New Jersey. The other was owned by Radium Dial Corporation and located in Ottawa, Illinois.
All of the women working in the factories has been informed that the self-luminous paint they used, which was created from a combination of powdered radium, gum arabic, and water, was completely safe. This led to them ingesting lethal doses of radium after they were told to put their camel hair brushes against their lips or use their tongue to keep the tip from losing its fine point. This was done because using cloths or water was seen as a waste of too much material and time. Some women even painted their fingernails, face, and teeth with the glowing paint for fun as they were kept in the dark about the true dangers that radium possessed.
Radium dust also covered the factory they worked in and causing the workers to be nicknamed “The Ghost Girls” by some as they glowed ethereally when they walked home at night. In contrast, the owners at the factories were careful to keep themselves from being exposed to the radium. The chemists who worked there used lead masks and screens, as well as tongs, to protect themselves.
Deaths at the Factories
From 1917 until 1926, U.S. Radium Corporation was involved in the extraction and purification of radium from carnotite ore from mines in Colorado and Utah. They then produced luminous paints that were marketed under the brand name “Undark.” As a defense contractor for the military, the company was a major supplier for making them radioluminescent watches.
Radium Corp's New Jersey factory employed over 100 people, mostly women. By 1925 there was a number of similar deaths at the factory involving several female employees and the company's chief chemist Dr. Edwin E. Leman. This caused an investigation into the factory by the Newark County Physician, which would eventually led to lawsuits and trials.
Meanwhile, Radium Dial Corporation was founded in 1922 and they also painted dials for various client companies. They hired women to do the job using the same materials and methods as the U.S. Radium Corporation. In 1926, workers at the company started to display telltale signs of radium poisoning. The leadership at the company then authorized physicals to determine the levels of radium in it its employees. However, they never make those results known to them.
Management then tried to institute glass pens that featured a fine point, but employees soon went back to using normal brushes. This was because these new pens impeded their productivity and their pay was based on the amount of dials they did. When word finally reached Illinois about the lawsuits in New Jersey, the women were informed that radium was harmless and those working at U.S. Radium Corporation were suffering from viral infections. They then went back to work thinking radium was still safe.
Lawsuits and Trials
Many of the women working at these factories started to suffer from radium jaw and also anemia. However, U.S. Radium Corporation and other watch-dial companies refuted any claims this was due to exposure to radium. These companies pressured medical professionals and researchers to not release their findings on employees health. Many worker deaths were blamed on syphilis, which was sometimes done on purpose in an effort to besmirch the women's reputations.
Factory worker Grace Fryer decided to sue U.S. Radium, pressing on despite taking two years to find a lawyer to take the case and the slow-moving courts that held until out until January 1928. She was joined in the suit by sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice, as well as Edna Hussman and Katherine Schaub. The group was dubbed the “Radium Girls” by the press.
Despite the two-year statute of limitations at the time on challenging an employer over an occupational disease, the women managed to successfully settle out of court in autumn of 1928. They were aided when the inventor of radium dial paint, Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky, offered to help them in court after suffering from radium in his hands. In November 1928, he became the 16th known person to die from poisoning by radium dial paint.
The case was settled before going in front of a jury, with each women receiving $10,000 (equivalent to about $140,000 in 2017). They also got a $600 per year annuity and received $12 a week for the rest of their lives. Finally, all medical and legal expenses were also to be paid for by U.S. Radium Corporation. Unfortunately, all five women died within a few years of the settlement. At the time of the trial, two were bedridden and all five were so weak that they could not raise their hands in order to swear by oath.
At Radiant Dial Company, workers asked for compensation for their mounting dental and medical bills, which dragged on for over a decade. In 1937, a small group of former employees finally found a lawyer willing represent them before the Illinois Industrial Commission (IIC) following a lawsuit. At this point the company had closed but the IIC did have a $10,000 deposit left by the company. The following year the ICC ruled in favor of the women and gave them that money.
Fallout from the Lawsuit
The resulting publicity from the media over the case of the “Radium Girls” was a big factor in establishing better occupational disease labor law and it was one of the first cases in America in which an employer was held accountable for the health of its employees. It also helped to establish the right of individual workers to sue for damages due to labor abuse. Lastly, it led to formal safety measures being established and protective gear being given to radium dial painters until the 1960s when radium paint was finally banned.
Physicist Robley Evans (1907-95) worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he was able to collect accurate body content assessments from almost 30 former dial painters starting in the 1930s. His data was then used by the National Bureau of Standards, who managed to establish what the human tolerance level was for radium in 1941.
Starting in the late 1960s and running until 1993, the Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Human Radiobiology started a project to collect medical information from former dial painters who were still alive. This led to the book Radium in Humans: A Review of U.S. Studies, which was able to contrast the effects that different strands of radium had on humans.