When radium killed women for profits

October 19, 2017

The Radium Girls
Kate Moore
Simon & Schuster, 2016
465 pages

Those smirking denigrators of the “nanny-state” who gripe about “occupational health and safety gone mad” would do well to read Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls. It details a time when a nasty industrial poison, unregulated by business-friendly governments, destroyed countless US women’s lives.

Discovered in 1898, radium’s spectacular luminescence made it a popular craze. It could, said its promoters, not only make you glow in the dark, but cure cancer (it did destroy tumorous cells) and all manner of human ailments.

US business entrepreneurs cashed in. At their head was the watch dial industry, whose profits rose by the bucketload from government contracts for night-time illumination of military instrumentation during World War I.

Because of their nimble fingers, teenage and young women (and girls, some as young as 11) were employed by the thousands for the intricate work of painting tiny dials. They embraced their new jobs.

Paid on a piece-work basis, the more dials (and thus more radioactive radium) they handled, the better their earnings.  The most efficient and profitable (and dangerous) way to apply the radium-paint was “lip-pointing”, where moistened lips were used to bring paint-brush bristles to a fine taper.

The continual, close oral contact with bone-loving radium meant that the jaw was the first to go from radiation-induced necrosis (bone decay), after all the teeth were lost. This was followed by other crumbling bones, severe anaemia from destruction of red blood cell production in bone marrow, and cancer of the bone.

The radium-painters had been assured that radium was safe. This was despite management being aware of its dangers and even introducing some safety standards for their technical and scientific laboratory workers. As the radium-painters fell sick and died, however, they continued to be lied to, and blamed for their ill health. Their health issues were blamed on “improper diets”, syphilis from sexual promiscuity, pre-existing health conditions, and workers’ compensation fraud.

Management’s allies included pro-business government bureaucracies, state legislatures, company doctors and radium researchers, most of whom either worked for radium companies or for prestigious university departments funded by the industry.

The radium-painters could only rely on a few conscience-troubled defectors from the above ranks. These included some lawyers (acting from a mix of sympathy and the lure of their standard 30-40% cut of successful compensation claims), and the Consumers League that campaigned for better working conditions for women.

Trade unions, especially the conservative, male-dominated American Federation of Labor, were absent.

Out-of-court settlements in front of business-linked judges cut the companies’ compensation losses while exempting them from any precedent-setting legal guilt. It took two decades before a jury vindicated the women as victims of industrial poisoning by radiation.

The real turning point for the radium industry, however, wasn’t so much the women workers but a wealthy male industrialist who died from drinking Radithor (a radium-infused tonic water) to treat an injury. “The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off”, read a newspaper headline.

Radium medicines were banned and safety standards introduced for all workers handling radium and other radioactive substances.

With a half-life of 1600 years, radium’s legacy still endures. The contaminated factory and waste landfill sites remain a radioactive source for above-average community cancer rates. Government clean-ups cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The intimate human drama of the radium-painters monopolises most of Moore’s attention — she is a theatre director, not a historian — but the narrative reveals an early, grim chapter in the real cost of the nuclear industry.

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