Back in the early 20th century, people claimed to not know that radiation was both cumulative and harmful. In fact, a lot of companies (and people) just thought it was a pretty sweet way to make things glow in the dark – even your penis, if you were so inclined to grab a pack of these radioactive condoms.
It didn’t stop there. Companies hocked all sorts of radium-laced products, and people gobbled them up – from radioactive chocolate bars, to face creams, toothpastes, and even sweaters for children.
But all this fun consumerism had a downside.
Take the story of the so-called Radium Girls, a group of poor, young women who took jobs at a United States Radium Corporation factory painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch and clock faces.
It was common practice for the girls to wet the tips of their brushes in their mouths to create finer points between swipes, a habit no one at the company suggested they break until long after it was too late. Since they were paid per watch-face they painted, the unlucky ladies did as many as they could in a workday…consequently exposing themselves to more and more radium.
The Radium Girls were so contaminated that if you stood over their graves with a Geiger counter TODAY, the radiation levels would cause the needles to jump, almost 100 years later.
There were about 70 girls working at the factory originally (many of whom used Undark, the radioactive paint they worked with, to paint their nails, cheeks, and eyelids in their spare time), and by the early 1920s, they were all experiencing the effects of radiation poisoning – their jaws began to swell and deteriorate, and their teeth fell out for no reason.
There was a horrific report of one woman who went to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, and ended up with an entire piece of her jaw being accidentally removed.
The only connection between the girls with the strange symptoms was their employer, but as the victims began to explore legal recourse, the company hired doctors, lawyers, and dentists to cover it up. One of the girls, Grace Fryer, was even declared to be in fine health by two medical experts. These “experts” were later found to be not doctors at all, but one of the vice-presidents of US Radium and a toxicologist on the company payroll.
The girls finally found a lawyer that would take on the US Radium Corporation, but as the trial dragged on, the women got so ill they couldn’t raise their arms to take the oath, or even sit in the courtroom. They would go on to settle out of court because none of them expected to live to see a trial outcome. The Radium Girls were awarded the equivalent of $100k each (in today’s money), and $600/year until the end of their lives.
Most of the Radium Girls died shortly after the trial, and only one girl managed to survive for two more years.
After the lawsuit, the US Radium Corporation implemented new safety rules and standards, and there was never another report of radium poisoning from their factory again, which is further proof of how easily the girls’ deaths could have been prevented.
Even if civilians didn’t realize radiation was harmful, it’s almost certain that the suits and scientists behind the US Radium Corporation did. Aware that Undark’s key ingredient was one million times more active than uranium, they were careful to avoid exposing themselves.
While their young female factory workers were literally encouraged to swallow radium on a daily basis, the owners and chemists were using lead screens, masks and tongs to handle the radium. Even the scientist who actually invented Undark died of radiation poisoning.
The story does have an ending that, if not happy, is at least productive.
Because of the lawsuit filed and won by the Radium Girls (the ones who lived long enough, anyway), individual workers won the right to sue corporations for damages due to labor abuse. So at least there’s that.
The real question is, what “miracle invention” that we use today is waiting in the wings, biding its time before it silently kills us?
And will we discover the lethal power of this product or gadget before it’s too late?
Only time will tell…