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IN THE TRAGEDY Powered By Docstoc
IN                THE

   By Laura Lee Carter
Fatally poisoned by the glowing paint they used on the job,
the ‘Radium Girls’ challenged workplace safety rules and
helped shed light on the unseen dangers of radioactivity

                             hen Grace Fryer landed a                              physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen had discovered

                             job at the United States                              X-rays in 1895, and their initial diagnostic value—as
                             Radium Corporation factory                            well as the fact that the rays could not be felt by the
                             in Orange, New Jersey, in                             senses and there seemed to be no immediate effect on
                             1917, she must have felt spe-                         exposed skin—led to the general consensus that X-rays
                             cial and very lucky. Along                            were harmless.
with 70 other young women hired at the plant that                                     There were, however, reports of X–ray related injuries
spring, Fryer would be earning more than triple the                                as early as 1896, including the case of Thomas Edison’s
average factory-floor wage to apply a newly formulated                             assistant, Clarence Dally, who suffered from severe
luminescent paint to watches, clocks, compasses and an                             radiodermatitis that resulted in the amputation of his
assortment of military instruments. Upon the United                                arm and his subsequent death in 1904. By the late
States entry into World War I in April, there developed                            1890s, there were numerous reports in scientific litera-
a demand for a wide variety of devices to be coated with                           ture of radiation skin burns and loss of hair, testimony
the glowing radium-treated paint, trade named Undark.                              to the apparent cavalier attitudes and the large doses
U.S. Radium needed hundreds of new workers to fulfill                              being used. Ironically, those reports of radiation injury
its lucrative contracts and found young women to be                                led physicians to recognize the possible therapeutic
ideally suited for the intense concentration and nimble                            value of the rays in treating inoperable cancers.
handwork that dial painting required. It was comfort-                                 Within weeks of Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays,
able and pleasant compared to most factory work of the                             Henri Becquerel identified radioactivity, and in 1898
time, and the dial painters had no reason to believe this                          Marie and Pierre Curie reported the discovery of the
amazing new substance called radium wasn’t perfectly                               chemical element radium, found in trace amounts in ura-
safe to work with.                                                                 nium ores. The Curies were amazed and delighted that
   As has often been repeated in the past century and a                            their new element glowed in the dark. Soon radium was
half of quantum leaps in science, industry and medicine,                           being hailed as the wonder substance of the new 20th
overexuberance to adopt the latest discoveries has some-                           century, and was ascribed the power to cure everything
times surpassed our ability to completely understand of                            from arthritis to cancer. The potential of radium seemed
their potential negative effects. One striking example of                          infinite but the hazards of working directly with radioac-
this is the case of the “Radium Girls”—five women who                              tivity were not yet widely recognized, and many scientists,
contributed significantly to expanding the legal protec-                           including the Curies, suffered skin lesions—often from
tions afforded American workers and increasing public                              carrying samples of radioactive materials in their pockets.
awareness of the dangers of radioactivity.                                            In 1902 radium was isolated into pure metal by Marie
   Radioactivity was a relatively new and poorly under-                            Curie and André-Louis Debierne. Soon after that the
stood phenomenon in the early 20th century. German                                 American electrical engineer William J. Hammer con-

Grace Fryer (top) was one of five women who sued U.S. Radium Corporation in 1927 for debilitating illness caused by her
prolonged exposure to radium. During World War I, Fryer and the other “Radium Girls” applied luminescent radium-
based paint to clock dials (center), compasses and airplane dials for the U.S. military. Skilled dial painters (bottom) could
paint hundreds of dials a day and earn up to three times more than the average factory wage at the time.

                                                                                                            OCTOBER 2007 AMERICAN HISTORY 33
             ‘    For fun, the women would paint their finger nails and teeth
                     with the glowing mixt ure and then tur n off the lights
cocted a radium paint that could be used on sci-
entific instruments to make them visible in the
                                                                                      work, coining the term “radium jaw” in a 1924
                                                                                      article in the Journal of the American Dental
dark. At that time, however, the mining and                                           Association.
extraction of radium was very expensive. But                                             Grace Fryer would later testify against U.S.
with the onset of World War I, its application                                        Radium in court: “Our instructors told us to
to military instruments and watches drove an                                          point [our brushes] with our lips. I think I point-
ever-burgeoning demand.                                                               ed mine with my lips about six times to every
   Between 1917 and 1929, hundreds of young                                           watch dial. It didn’t taste funny. It didn’t have any
women were employed applying radium-acti-                                             taste, and I didn’t think it was harmful.” Fryer
vated paint to watches, aircraft controls, clocks                                     left the dial factory after about three years, in
and compass faces in factories in Illinois, New                                       1920, for a better job as a bank teller. About two
Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island, N.Y.                                            years later, her teeth started falling out and her
Painting an average of 250 dials per day and                                         jaw developed a painful abscess. She consulted a
getting about a penny and a half per dial, the                                       number of dentists and doctors, but none had
women at Radium Dial’s Ottawa, Ill., plant                                           ever seen such serious bone decay. Finally in
could earn about $18 a week, compared to the                                         1925, one doctor suggested that the problems
$5 they would likely earn in other factory jobs.                                     might be caused by her years as a dial painter.
   Working with a mixture of glue, water and                                             Fryer probably would have remained just
radium powder, the dial painters used camel’s-                                       another unknown victim of radiation poisoning
hair brushes to apply the glowing paint to racks                                     if the National Consumers League and noted
of dials. For fun, the young women would                                             newspaperman Walter Lippmann hadn’t cham-
sometimes paint their fingernails and teeth                                          pioned her cause. Formed in 1899, the
with the glowing mixture and then turn off the                                       Consumers League fought for safe workplaces,
lights. At times, with the factories often full of                                   reasonable minimum wages and decent working
radium dust, it was reported that the women’s                                        hours for women and children.
skin and hair sometimes glowed by the time                                               It was at the request of an Orange city health
they left work. One worker noted that when Wristwatches from World War I             department official that the New Jersey branch
she blew her nose, her handkerchief glowed in (top) may still contain danger-        of the league began investigating the suspicious
the dark.                                          ous levels of radium. Former      deaths of four radium factory workers between
   Tracing the tiny numbers on watches and dial painters suffered disfigur-          1922 and 1924. The deaths had been attributed
compasses required precision brush strokes, ing cancers (above) and other            to phosphorous poisoning, mouth ulcers and
and the women were encouraged by their terrible ailments. As their physi- syphilis. The New Jersey Consumers League
supervisors to use their lips to help make a fine cal conditions worsened, many      chairwoman, Katherine Wiley, brought in statis-
point on their brushes. Reassuring them that were known as “living dead.”            tical experts and Alice Hamilton, a Harvard
the glowing substance in the paint was not                                           University authority on workers’ health issues, to
dangerous, women later quoted their bosses                                           investigate the mysterious injuries and deaths
telling them, “Not to worry if you swallow any radium, it’ll make among former dial painters.
your cheeks rosy.” In spite of those assurances to the young            Fryer decided to sue U.S. Radium in 1925, but it took her two
workers, however, factory owners and scientists carefully avoided years to find an attorney willing to take the case. In May 1927,
overexposure themselves, wearing protective masks and using Fryer and four other former dial painters—Edna Hussman,
lead screens and tongs when handling the radium.                      Albina Larice, Quinta McDonald and Katherine Schaub—filed
   Over time, the factory workers absorbed substantial amounts suit in the New Jersey State Supreme Court for $250,000 each
of radium into their bodies, and by the early 1920s, dial painters in compensation for medical expenses and pain. The case quick-
were falling ill with mysterious symptoms. Many developed ly grew into a media phenomenon and the press dubbed the five
problems with their teeth, and their jawbones appeared to be dis- young women the “Radium Girls.” The crusading journalist
integrating. They frequently suffered from severe anemia and Lippmann wrote a number of stories concerning the Radium
debilitating joint pain as well. Dr. Theodor Blum, a dentist in Girls in the New York World, arguably the most influential news-
New York, was the first to link the painters’ symptoms to their paper in the country at the time.

34 AMERICAN HISTORY OCTOBER 2007                                                                                         TOP: OAK RIDGE ASSOCIATED UNIVERSITIES;
                                                                                BOTTOM: COURTESY OF ROSS MULLNER, DEADLY GLOW: THE RADIUM DIAL WORKER TRAGEDY;
                  Catherine Wolf
                  Donahue, a former
                  dial painter in
                  Ottawa, Ill., faints at
                  a 1938 legal hearing.
                  A doctor had just
                  testified that
                  Donahue would die
                  of radium poisoning.

Radioactive Cure-alls

W      illiam J.A. Bailey
       grew rich from his
radium-laced patent
                                 Byers consumed three
                              bottles a day for two
                              years and was so
                                                            excepting two front
                                                            teeth, and most of his
                                                            lower jaw had been
                                                                                         include a Japanese-made
medicine Radithor, until      impressed with the            removed. All the remain-     Deodorizer” that was
it killed leading business-   effects of Radithor that      ing bone tissue of his       sold or given away to
man, sportsman and            he enthusiastically sent      body was slowly disinte-     some 20,000 unsuspect-
socialite Eben M. Byers in    cases of it to his friends.   grating, and holes were      ing consumers in Kansas
March 1932. The scandal          Then, in 1930, Byers’      actually forming in his      in the early 1980s before
helped usher in the mod-      teeth started falling out     skull.” Byers’ death at      the U.S. Nuclear
ern regulation of radio-      and his general health        age 51 alerted the public    Regulatory Commission
active materials.             rapidly declined. His         to the harmful effects of    stopped them. The radia-
   When Byers, a one-time     bones were deteriorat-        “radium therapy.” His        tion emitted by the plas-
U.S. national amateur         ing. Byers was eventually     doctor denied all respon-    tic device contained high
golf champion, injured his    diagnosed with radium         sibility.                    levels of thorium, whose
arm in 1928, his doctor       poisoning by Frederick          Radithor was not the       10 billion year half-life
recommended he begin          Flinn, who had examined       only radioactive product     makes it truly an “end-
drinking Radithor, a half-    Grace Fryer for U.S.          on the market. There         less” deodorizer.
ounce concoction of dis-      Radium in 1925.               were radium healing             The fascinating story of
tilled water, radium and         A Federal Trade            pads to relieve pain and     quack cures, as well as a
mesothorium. An adver-        Commission lawyer who         bath salts to ease stress    history of radiation tech-
tisement for Radithor         was pursuing fraud            and insomnia. Some           nology, is told at the
made the astounding           claims against Bailey said    products claimed to have     Health Physics Historical
claim: “In this bottle        of Byers in 1931: “We dis-    an invigorating effect,      Instrumentation Museum
reposes the greatest          covered him in a condi-       such as the suppositories    Collection in Oak Ridge,
therapeutic force             tion which beggars            that promised to restore     Tenn. (
known to mankind—             description....He had         “joyous vitality” to “dis-   ptp/collection/quack
radioactivity.”               undergone two succes-         couraged” men. More          cures/quackcures.htm).
                              sive operations in which      recent examples of              —L.L.C.
                              his whole upper jaw,          radioactive products

                                                                                                            Bath salts to
                                                                                                            ease nervous

                                  Radium tablets to treat gout,
                                  neuralgia and rheumatism, 1925.

                              Radithor, the         toothpaste from
                              most popular          Germany, 1940.
                              cure-all of its
                              day, 1928.

                                                                                          ALL IMAGES: OAK RIDGE ASSOCIATED UNIVERSITIES
     ‘  As dial worker af ter dial worker fel l il l, U.S. Radium attempted to
       tar nish their reputat ions by c laiming that the y suff ered fr om sy philis
   U.S. Radium denied all charges of knowingly poisoning its
dial painters, and launched a campaign of disinformation. In
1925 the corporation hired Frederick Flinn of the Institute of               Radium Fallout
Public Health at Columbia University to give Fryer a medical
examination. He found her health “as good as my own.” It was
later discovered that Flinn was not a licensed medical doctor, but
an industrial toxicologist on contract with U.S. Radium to try to
                                                                             R       adium was used to paint dials as late
                                                                                     as the 1950s, and those objects may
                                                                             still be dangerous and require careful han-
refute the Harvard health team’s report. As dial worker after dial           dling. Radium has since been replaced by
worker fell ill, U.S. Radium attempted to tarnish the women’s                tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that emits
reputations by claiming that they were suffering from syphilis.              low energy radiation in the form of beta
   However, scientific and medical literature dating back to 1906            rays, or electrons.
contained plenty of information concerning the hazards of                        Safety Light Corporation, the successor
working directly with radium. Even one of U.S. Radium’s own                  to U.S. Radium, has used tritium gas in the
publications contained a section called “Radium Dangers—                     manufacture of self-luminous safety signs
Injurious Effects.” Despite these warnings, radium was still                 under the Isolite trademark since 1982.
widely touted as a scientific miracle with enormous curative                 Glass tubes are coated internally with
power. Newspapers, magazines, books and lectures heralded the                phosphor, filled with tritium gas and her-
spectacular cancer-curing properties of radioactive concoctions              metically sealed. The gas stimulates the phosphor coating to emit
such as Radithor, sold over the counter to unsuspecting cus-                 light. The glow-in-the-dark signs are marketed worldwide as emer-
tomers. It was later found that Radithor contained enough radi-              gency exit signs for use in commercial and industrial buildings.
um to kill the thousands who drank it regularly until 1931, when                 According to Isolite: “The beta emissions from the tritium gas are
the Federal Trade Commission issued a cease-and-desist order                 completely contained within the tubes. There is absolutely no risk of
against the manufacturer.                                                    radiation exposure from normal use of our product.” The safety of
   Legal maneuvering in the Radium Girls’ case delayed the first             these signs is not disputed, but they must be disposed of properly,
hearing until January 1928. By that time it was painfully clear the          following hazardous waste procedures.
five women were seriously ill, and when the defense was granted a                Although U.S. Radium stopped processing radium at its Orange,
five-month adjournment in April, the public outcry was swift and             N.J., facility in 1926, during the 1980s, nearby residents discovered
fierce. Lippmann decried the action as “one of the most damnable             that their homes had high levels of radon, a gas produced by the
travesties on justice that has ever come to our attention.” Even             decay of radium. Further investigation revealed that sand used as
Marie Curie commented on the Radium Girls’ likely fate: “I see               fill for those home sites contained residue from the old U.S. Radium
no hope for them....My experiments with radium convince me                   facility. In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency put the 2-acre
that if the poison is taken internally, it is practically impossible to      plant site on its Superfund National Priorities List. Twenty-three
destroy it.” (Curie herself would die in 1934 of aplastic pernicious         years later, after the removal of 135,000 tons of contaminated soil
anemia caused by long-term exposure to radium.)                              and debris, the EPA declared that the New Jersey site had been
   A trial date was set for June, but just days before it was to             cleaned up and that concerns about contaminated ground-water in
begin, the Radium Girls settled out of court for $10,000 each,               the area had been “effectively addressed.”
plus coverage of medical expenses and a $600 annuity until death.
McDonald died in 1929 at the age of 34; the 34-year-old Fryer
and Schaub, 30, died in 1933, followed by Hussman in 1939 at              setting new radium tolerance levels for researchers and workers.
age 37. Larice, the last of the Radium Girls, died in 1946 at 51.            Perhaps the fate of the Radium Girls was sealed when they
   The perseverance of the Radium Girls and their courage to              first started dipping their brushes into that strange glow-in-the-
challenge U.S. Radium even as they were dying set a precedent             dark paint back in 1917, but in their misfortune the American
in case law for the right of individual workers to sue employers          public would learn an important lesson. The scientific commu-
for damages caused by labor abuse. In the wake of their legal bat-        nity in the early 1900s promoted radioactivity as safe and harm-
tle, industrial safety standards were enhanced by the passage of          less, and nonscientists were reluctant to question or criticize. The
federal laws that made occupational diseases compensable and              Radium Girls challenged the power and claims of a major cor-
extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses           poration and, in doing so, not only warned the public of the
and make claims. Furthermore, data developed from the experi-             deadly effects of radium, but also illuminated the danger of
ences of these unfortunate young women was instrumental in                trusting blindly in new discoveries and technologies.           J

                                                                                                       OCTOBER 2007 AMERICAN HISTORY 37