If you caught “Weekend Edition” on NPR this morning, you heard a fascinating, but tragic interview with Kate Moore about her new book “Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women” .
In the early days of the 20th century, the United States Radium Corporation had factories in New Jersey and Illinois, where they employed mostly women to paint watch and clock faces with their luminous radium paint. The paint got everywhere — hair, hands, clothes, and mouths.
They were called the shining girls, because they quite literally glowed in the dark. And they were dying.
Radium girls — as young as 11 years old — were the women (girls) in the early part of the last century who painted radioactive radium to make watch and clock faces and other items glow in the dark. They were taught to “lip-point — so, to put their brushes between their lips to make a fine point for the detailed handiwork.”
The problem is the radium was killing them, slowly disintegrating their bones. Another book, The Poisoners Handbook, discussed the health effects that the Radium Girls were suffering:
“There was one woman who the dentist went to pull a tooth and he pulled her entire jaw out when he did it. Their legs broke underneath them. Their spines collapsed. Dozens of women died.”
And, of course, we have the cover-ups that we’ve become so accustomed to, from asbestos to smoking to every other chemical hazard: Moore discusses “Mae Cubberley, who’s one of the Radium Girls that I write about in the book, she said “The first thing we said was, ‘Does this stuff hurt you?'” And their managers said no.” But the cover-up went beyond the managers:
When the Radium Girls started to get sick, about five years after they started dial painting, the radium firms were determined that they would not link this insidious disease that was taking so long to show itself — and that was one of the problems the girls had.
It would start quite innocently, actually — it would start perhaps with an aching limb, or a bad tooth … but as the sickness developed and set in with the women, it got a lot more gruesome. All of their teeth would fall out, sometimes replaced by ulcers that would then seep pus constantly. And that aching limb would actually start to spontaneously fracture. And it might not be a limb, it might be their spine, it might be a jawbone.
Ironically, research done on the health effects that the Radium Girls had suffered led to protections for those working on the atomic bomb during World War II. Today’s interview is here and more on the Radium Girls here.
You can order the book here: