The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting radium dials, watch dials and hands with self-luminous paint.
The women were hired to paint dials and came to be known as “ghost girls” because the radium dust to which they were exposed daily made their clothes and bodies glow in the dark.
The women were told that radium was safe and even beneficial to their health, and they were encouraged to put the paintbrushes in their mouths to create a fine point.
However, radium is a highly radioactive element, and the women were ingesting it with every brushstroke.
The first Radium Girl to experience symptoms was Amelia (“Mollie”) Maggia, who painted watches for the Radium Luminous Materials Corp. in Orange, New Jersey.
Her first symptom was a toothache, which required the removal of the tooth. Soon the tooth next to it also had to be extracted.
Painful ulcers, bleeding and full of pus, developed where the teeth had been.
In growing numbers, other Radium Girls became deathly ill, experiencing many of the same agonizing symptoms as Maggia.
For two years, their employer denied any connection between the girls’ deaths and their work.
Facing a downturn in business because of the growing controversy, the company finally commissioned an independent study of the matter, which concluded that the painters had died from the effects of radium exposure:
The Radium Girls took their employer to court and asked for $250,000 in compensation for medical expenses and pain.
The newspapers followed the twists and turns in the case, particularly the suffering of the women, the disappearing hope for a cure and the company’s defense.
In spite of the sensationalism, a moment arrived in the case when the “Radium Girls” needed a champion.
Their physical condition was deteriorating, and their financial situation was pitiful.
The task of getting sympathetic publicity fell to Alice Hamilton, who had carefully laid out a strategy in the previous.
The legacy of the Radium Girls is that their case led to new laws that forever changed work safety practices and saved thousands of lives.
The story is told in various forms, including Kate Moore’s non-fiction book The Radium Girls, Eleanor Swanson’s poem “Radium Girls,” and historian Claudia Clark’s account of the case and its wider historical implications.
Did the Radium Girls glow?
The Radium Girls were young women who worked in clock factories during World War I, painting watch and clock dials with glow-in-the-dark radium paint.
The radium paint they used contained a radioactive element that emitted a faint glow, giving the girls a luminous appearance.
They would even paint their nails and teeth with the radium paint to make themselves glow in the dark.
The girls believed that radium was safe and were even told that it would give them rosy cheeks.
However, the radium paint was highly toxic, and the girls’ exposure to it led to severe health consequences.
The radioactive particles emitted by the radium paint caused radiation poisoning and led to various illnesses, including bone cancer and anemia.
The girls began to experience symptoms such as fatigue, pain and deteriorating health.
Unfortunately, the glowing effect that the radium paint had on the girls was a visible sign of the harm it was causing to their bodies.
As their health deteriorated, the glow became a haunting reminder of their tragic fate. The radium was literally killing them.
The story of the Radium Girls gained attention when they took their employer to court, seeking compensation for their medical expenses and pain.
Their case shed light on the dangers of radium and led to new laws and regulations that improved work safety practices and saved lives.
What was the radium used for in the Radium Girls’ work?
In the work of the Radium Girls, radium was used for painting watch and clock dials with self-luminous paint.
The girls would mix radium powder with water and adhesive to create a luminescent green paste called Undark.
They would then use tiny paintbrushes to painstakingly paint the numbers on the faces of watches.
The radium paint made the dials glow in the dark, allowing people to easily read the time at night.
The girls considered their proximity to radium as a dream, as it was a highly valuable substance that cost $120,000 a gram.
They felt lucky to have the opportunity to work with radium and earn good money from it.
The glowing effect of radium was seen as a perk, and the girls would even wear their best dresses to work so that they would shine.
They were unaware of the dangers of radium and were assured by their employers that it was harmless.
Unfortunately, the radium paint they worked with was highly toxic and led to severe health consequences.
The girls suffered from radiation poisoning, which caused various illnesses such as bone cancer and anemia.
The glowing effect of the radium paint on their bodies became a haunting reminder of the harm it was causing to their health.