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Radium Girls, victims of immorality Wednesday, 20 August, 2008

Posted by Farbod in Features.
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Press TV – Radium Girls, victims of immorality.

Mon, 18 Aug 2008 10:36:35 GMT
By Ashkan Kazemian, Press TV, Tehran

Workers at a radium factory.

The Radium Girls may seem a name in forgotten past, but it is worth remembering that the efforts of one woman against her neglectful employers led to the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards in the US.

Grace Fryer was one of the Radium Girls, the name given to women exposed to radiation at the United States Radium Corporation factory, in Orange, New Jersey, which supplied the US military with glow-in-the-dark watches during World War I. There were also radium plants in Ottawa, Ill.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Long Island, N.Y.

The owners of the factory (and most probably the US Defense Department) were aware of the fatal effects of radium and carefully avoided exposure themselves, while some 70 women, including Fryer, were constantly exposed to radium during their working hours at the factory.

Despite the availability of information on the hazards of radium, it was often seen as a scientific miracle with enormous curative powers. The ‘radium craze’ in America, which began around 1903, familiarized the public with the word ‘radium’.

A radium watch (R) and its most radioactive parts.

“The spectacular properties of this element and its envisioned uses were heralded without restraint in newspapers, magazines and books and by lecturers, poets, novelists, choreographers, bartenders, society matrons, croupiers, physicians and the United States government,” said a historian.

The brushes the factory workers used to paint watch faces with radium would lose shape after a few strokes and the US Radium supervisors encouraged their workers to point the brushes with their lips, or use their tongues to keep them sharp.

“Not to worry,” their bosses told them. “If you swallow any radium, it’ll make your cheeks rosy.”

Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw. Primitive x-ray cameras bombarded some of the sickened workers with additional radiation when they sought medical attention for the many ailments that ensued. Many of them died between 1922 and 1924. The Radium Girls, like many other factory workers at the time, were expendable.

US Radium not only rejected that their sickness was the result of radium exposure, but it also tried to defame these workers by claiming that syphilis was the cause of their deaths. The company owners also forced doctors not to release the patients’ data.

“I’m angry because they knew years before she died that she was full of radium. And then they lied,” says a sister of Peg Looney, a radium plant worker in Ottawa whose family later learned that she tested positive for radioactivity in 1925 and again in 1928 — the year before she died.

A severe instance of ‘radium jaw’ from 1924.

Fryer, one of the factory workers who had risked their lives for a penny and a half per dial, decided to embark on the impossible task of suing the factory. It took her two years to find a lawyer, Raymond Berry, who would risk standing against the US Radium.

She was joined by four other factory workers with severe medical problems. They were Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice. Berry was informed that even the mediator, US District Court Judge William Clark was a stockholder in the US Radium Corporation.

Catherine Wolfe Donahue also brought a case against an Ottawa-based radium plant factory to court in Chicago in 1938. Donahue, who was so ill she had to be carried into the courtroom, died that same year, shortly after the company agreed to pay her a few thousand dollars just as the Radium Girls’ case ended in a settlement of $10,000.

Fryer and many other radium plant workers across North America did not live to see the result of their efforts. They died from radium exposure during the course of litigation in the 1920s and 1930s.

The case resulted in the establishment of the right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse. The US Congress also passed a bill in 1949 which made all occupational diseases compensable, and extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses and make a claim.

This was all due to the efforts of plant workers who earned a penny and a half for each watch they painted, and whose sad fate was sealed when they dipped their paintbrushes into radium paint and sharpened the bristles with their tongues.



1. C - Sunday, 22 November, 2009

I just saw a play about the Radium Girls. It was sad how they were treated and workers still fight for a safe workplace.

2. Mark Foreman - Thursday, 13 October, 2011

The horrible thing is that radium-226 is a very horrible radioisotope, it may well be worse than most plutonium isotopes.

Radium is a calcium mimic which goes into bones

Radium is an alpha emitter

Radium forms a radioactive alpha emitting gas (radon) which then forms solid alpha emitters which attach to dust and smoke, these can then lodge in the lungs

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