Often in the early 20th century, new innovations and technology came onto the market without fully knowing the risks. This was the case with a radioactive metal valued for its luminous glow.
Radium was the new craze in 1917, sold as a cure-all for many ailments. Radium companies published misleading research touting its benefits and fueling this popular belief. Radium was in products as diverse as creams, water bottles, chocolates and toothpastes. In 1917, the United States entered World War I and soldiers needed watches and compasses they could use at night. Radium provided the solution.
Photo: Radium dial painters working in a factory, ca. 1922
Factories started opening, including the U.S. Radium Corporation. They mainly hired teen girls for the delicate work of painting the dials and faces of watches and compasses with radium. These “radium girls” were paid $20 a week, making radium painters one of the best paying jobs for women.
To keep their tiny brushes accurate, workers used a technique called lip pointing. After mixing radium powder, gum arabic paste and water to create the paint, they put the brush tip between their lips to create a fine point. They ingested a small amount of radium each time. Management lied to workers, saying radium was safe and offering no protections, even though it was known to be dangerous. The company’s own chemists used lead screens and tongs for protection. In contrast, the girls, including 18-year-old Grace Fryer, wore their best dresses to work so that the radium would make them glow in the dance halls that night. Some girls even painted their nails, faces and teeth with radium.
In 1922, Mollie Maggia, a radium girl, became severely ill. It started with a toothache and quickly spread. As fast as her dentist pulled one tooth, another started hurting and needed to be pulled. The strange illness kept spreading to her jaw, roof of her mouth, and even her ears. When the dentist went to examine her, he accidentally broke her jawbone simply by gently touching it. Many of the other girls had similar symptoms. Mollie died when her strange infection reached her throat. She was just 24 years old. Many of her colleagues soon followed.
The company denied any responsibility, claiming the girls’ allegedly immoral lives caused their deaths. In 1924, an independent study linked the radium to the girls’ deaths. The U.S. Department of Labor began an investigation, but the company lied to officials and paid for opposing research.
These workers had to prove the link between their illness and the radium, which they still used and ingested every day. They couldn’t afford to quit such a well-paying job, even if it made them sick. It wasn’t until 1925, when Dr. Harrison Martland created a test, proving that the radium was settling in their bodies. This caused tumors and “honeycombed” their bones, causing them to fracture spontaneously. Martland found that there was no way to remove the radium, and that the poisoning was fatal.
With proof of the link, the radium girls fought against the industry’s attempts to discredit them. At that time, radium poisoning was not a compensable occupational disease. After several years of legal battles, the U.S. Radium Corporation eventually settled, giving the surviving girls both cash and medical care for life.
The case of the radium girls was the first time an employer was held accountable for the health of their employees. Several class-action lawsuits for workplace injuries or illnesses have followed in the years since. Today, radium is only used in a few specialized industries and stringent regulations help protect workers around radioactive material.
In the weeks leading to Labor Day on September 2, we take a look at five historical cases of unsafe working conditions that helped contribute to improvements in workplace safety we all benefit from today. Stay tuned for part five in the series: The Chehalis Dynamite Factory Fire.
Read the first part of the series: Blood, sweat, and trees... How L&I came to be
Part two of the series: The fire that ignited change - the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
Part three of the series: The Breaker Boys