Tribuna Article
Pubblicato: 2022-02-15

When the word “radioactive” was in fashion. The case of the Radium Girls

Caporedattore di Tabaccologia; Medico Pneumologo, Bologna; Giornalista medico-scientifico
Centro Antifumo Zona Valdera, Azienda USL Toscana Nord Ovest
Fisico, Iscrizione Albo Chimici e Fisici Settore Fisica - Sezione A - n. A1911
Presidente Società Italiana di Tabaccologia (SITAB) Dipartimento di Sanità Pubblica e Malattie Infettive, La Sapienza Università di Roma
Radium Radium Girls intoxication tobacco industries

Abstract

In the 1920s in the United States, the “Radium Girls”, female workers who worked using radioactive luminescent paints used as dial paint in watch factories, suffered severe and often fatal radiation poisoning from radium, victims of the economic benefits of industry after the shortly before discovery of radioactivity by Pierre and Marie Curie. Two industries in the US had conquered the market by colouring the dials of “luminous clocks” with a radioactive paint capable of lighting up at night. The workers who painted the dials began to show the first symptoms of poisoning for no apparent reason. Between 1917 and 1926, the industry hired about 70 women from Essex County, New Jersey, and in 1927, over 50 of these women died from radioactive paint poisoning. The most alarming thing about radioactive products has been the awareness of mass poisoning by the industry and its scientists. When the workers suspected that the work environment was causing these problems, medical and toxicological investigations were carried out. The women finally reached an out-of-court settlement from the industries that included $ 100,000 in compensation, paid legal and medical bills, and an allowance of $ 600 per year for all remaining (short) life. The lives of those girls had been sacrificed, but all the workers in the Western world owe something to those girls who died of radioactive poisoning. Years later, the tobacco industry re-proposed the same scenario by hiding and denying the health hazards of tobacco cigarette smoke, against all scientific evidence that denounced the presence of harmful and carcinogenic substances in it. Also in this case, the connivance of some medical-scientific sectors helped to strengthen the impenetrable cord of silence, fortunately torn down in the late 1990s thanks to the testimony of an insider Dr. Jeff Wigand, at that time an employee of Brown & Williamson Company.

Introduction

What we are about to tell you has something incredible and disturbing, unknown to most but not to those who cynically benefited from it. It was the very first years of the 1900s which were greeted by a great discovery that would mark, for better or for worse, the years to come of humanity: the discovery of radioactivity. This discovery was thanks to the work of Marie and Pierre Curie which earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. For the finding of Radium and Polonium, Madame Curie, meanwhile widowed, also won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911 [1-4].

The double face of radioactivity that could be exploited in a useful and virtuous way for Mankind (in Medicine, for energy production, etc.) or devastating or even criminal (Atomic bomb, etc.), always tormented Madame Curie. Nevertheless, she never wanted to patent the discovery of radioactivity for the benefit of all humanity for diagnostic radiology, radiotherapy for tumours). But soon people would make an insane use of it. How bewildering were the uses that were made of the discovery of radium at the turn of the 1920’s, for its property of radioluminescence.

The story of the radioactive products that conquered the market during the 1920’s is enquiring and incongruous, but not many people know about it, obscured by often conniving information. Two Radium Companies monopolised the market in the United States: the U.S. Radium Corporation founded in 1917 and the Radium Dial Company founded in 1922.

The case of the “Radium Girls”

It all began in New Jersey (USA), a few years after the Curies had discovered radioactivity, just before the 1920s. A local factory was dedicated to colouring the dials of radioluminescent “luminous clocks”, the latest US Army gadget, that used a radioactive paint able to lighting up at night. The term “Radium Girls” indicated female workers who suffered severe radio radiation poisoning, contained in the radioluminescent paint used as dial paint in the United States Radium Corporation’s watch factory, which operated with three plants: one in Orange, New Jersey, which was the first to start in 1917; one in Ottawa, Illinois, from the early 1920s; and a third plant in Waterbury, Connecticut [5].

Women in each industrial unit ingested deadly amounts of radium after being instructed to “point” brushes at their lips to give them a fine tip; some even painted their fingernails, faces and teeth with the radioactive luminous substance. The women were instructed to point their brushes in this way because using rags or a brush rinse with water made them take more time and material, as the rinse was composed of powdered radium, Arabic gum, and water. The workers who painted the self-luminescent dials earned 0.27 dollars a piece, and were able to make about 250 pieces each day, with a factory manager’s earnings for the time.

Between 1917 and 1926 the U.S. Radium Corporation hired about 70 Essex County women and, by 1927, over 50 of those women had died from radioactive paint poisoning. The “UnDark” watches were selling like hot cakes, so there was no shortage of work and income. In the down time some of these girls painted their nails with radioactive paint, increasing their exposure significantly.

At the beginning of the 1920s, the workforce to paint the clocks was made up of about 4,000 workers. But in a few years radium began to show its most devastating power on health. The inventor of the paint, Dr. von Sochocky, died in 1928 from exposure to radioactive material. To date, the number of deaths from radiation exposure is unknown [6].

On the other hand, the historical period did not allow the understanding of the dangers of radioactivity yet, and Radium was seen as a new miraculous “ingredient” to be associated with any product. The most alarming thing about radioactive products was not so much the lack of knowledge by the general public of the deadly effects of radioactivity, as, on the contrary, the perfect awareness of mass poisoning by the U.S. Radium Corporation and its scientists. The upper echelons of the U.S. Radium Corporation perfectly knew about the deadly effects of radioactivity, and they didn’t stop this absurd mass poisoning so as not to lose the market. The U.S. Radium Corporation had actually distributed a number of publications to the medical community describing some negative effects related to radiation but, amazingly, doctors at the time were prescribing radium for everything, both to treat a common cold and to treat cancer.

The legal disputes of the “Radium Girls”

In the early 1920s, the girls who painted the dials began to show the first symptoms of poisoning. The jaws swelled and the teeth fell out for no apparent reason. When the workers began to suspect that it was the working environment that had caused these problems, several specialists were called for medical and toxicological investigations. With the onset of the first symptoms, complaints from the workers also arrived. Famous is the case of Grace Fryer, who was declared in good health by two experienced doctors. However, the two were later recognised as U.S. Radium Corporation employed toxicologists and as one of the vice presidents of the same company. With the help of doctors and dentists on the payroll, the company was able to deny the accusations and made the environment seem idyllic, an ideal workplace without any kind of health risk. Inexplicably, the medical community was conniving with the company, which therefore operated in peace for a long time.

It took Grace Fryer two years to find a lawyer willing to go against the U.S. Radium and the process dragged on for months. The woman was joined by four other workers, Katherine Schaub, Edna Hussman, Quinta and Albina Maggie, and the media renamed the legal case that of the “Radium Girls”. Their health had deteriorated so badly when they first appeared in court that no one could raise their arms in the oath. During the second court hearing they were all so ill that they could not attend, and therefore the case was suspended for several months. The women eventually reached an out-of-court settlement that included $ 100,000 in compensation, paid legal and medical bills, and a check for $ 600 per year throughout their (short) remaining life. If today the value may seem small, at the time it was enormous, comparable to several millions of dollars today. Five women from Illinois, who were employees of the Radium Dial Company (which was not affiliated with the United States Radium Corporation) also sued their employer under the Illinois State Law, claiming damages in 1938 [7].

Almost all of the women died after a short while, but they marked a fundamental step for workers’ rights within the workplace, which, before that episode, was absolutely unthinkable.

U.S. Radium Company continued to produce luminous clocks and other objects with radioactive paint for a long time, but there were no cases of radiation poisoning after the introduction of the new worker safety laws. The lives of those girls had been sacrificed, but it was not a vain sacrifice, and all the workers of the Western World owe something to those ladies who died of radioactive poisoning.

In the 1980s, the abandoned factory was subjected to decontamination for reclamation, and about 1,600 tons of radioactive waste material were found.

Everything had to be radioactive

The word “Radioactive” was the key to selling any kind of product, even medicines. Even products that did not actually contain Radium were marked with slogans as “Radioactive”, in order to be more easily sailable. Radio-based commercial goods had become the norm, from toothpaste to wool for babies, from toys for children to drinking water.

In Paris, a cosmetic line called Tho-Radia was created, which became fashionable and was developed by Doctor Alfred Curie (who had no relationship with Pierre and Marie Curie, but with this name he sold the idea of a radioactive makeup to French women). The line included lipsticks, face creams, soap, powders and toothpastes containing thorium and radium. Thorium was used as a radioactive metal, which could be used inside nuclear power plants.

Conclusion

The story of the Radium Girls and the unstoppable radioactive fashion untethered in the 1920s teaches us that unfortunately then, as today, there is “nothing new under the sun”. In fact, just as those industries, in those days, deliberately concealed the perniciousness of radioactive substances used for their businesses, so did the tobacco multinational industries, in the second half of the last century, by hiding and denying the danger of smoking tobacco cigarettes on health against any scientific evidence that denounced the presence of carcinogens, including polonium 210, in tobacco smoke.

Also in this case, unfortunately, the connivance of some medical and scientific sectors helped to strengthen this impenetrable cord of silence, which was then fortunately torn down at the end of 1990, thanks to the testimonies of an insider, Jeff Wigand, at that time an employee of the Brown & Williamson Company [8-10].

References

  1. MLA style: Marie and Pierre Curie and the discovery of polonium and radium. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. 2021. Publisher Full Text
  2. Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity. Marie Curie: her story in brief.Publisher Full Text
  3. Curie P, Curie M. Sur une substance nouvelle radio-active contenue dans la pechblende. C R Acad Sci Gen. 1898; 127:175-8.
  4. Curie P, Curie M, Bémont G. Sur une nouvelle substance fortement radioactive contenue dans la pechblende. C R Acad Sci Gen. 1898; 127:1215-18.
  5. New York Times. To begin two suits against Radium co.. Newark attorneys say two women died after using luminous paint on watch dials. Says chemist was well Dr. Leman’s widow denies husband would have died sooner in another occupation. 1925. Publisher Full Text
  6. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. US Starts Probe of Radium Poison Deaths in Jersey. 1925. Publisher Full Text
  7. Moore K. The Radium Girls. The dark story of America’s shining women. Sourcebooks Inc Naperville. 2018.
  8. Wigand JS. Dalla conoscenza all’azione: elaborazioni di una coscienza morale all’interno dell’industria del tabacco (I parte). Tabaccologia. 2009; VII(4):14-9.
  9. Wigand JS. Dalla conoscenza all’azione: scacco matto a Big Tobacco (II parte). Tabaccologia. 2010; VIII(1):17-25.
  10. Cattaruzza MS, Mohamud Ali H, De Angelis F, Marani A, Mangiaracina G. Gli studenti di medicina intervistano Jeffrey Wigand, protagonista della lotta al tabacco. Tabaccologia. 2010; VIII(2):10-3.

Affiliazioni

Vincenzo Zagà

Caporedattore di Tabaccologia
Medico Pneumologo, Bologna
Giornalista medico-scientifico

Daniel L. Amram

Centro Antifumo Zona Valdera, Azienda USL Toscana Nord Ovest

Mattia Taroni

Fisico, Iscrizione Albo Chimici e Fisici Settore Fisica - Sezione A - n. A1911

Maria Sofia Cattaruzza

Presidente Società Italiana di Tabaccologia (SITAB) Dipartimento di Sanità Pubblica e Malattie Infettive, La Sapienza Università di Roma

Copyright

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