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The Story of Radium Girls, Poisoned by Radioactive Paint at Work

Radium Girls

Today there are numerous books, films and plays inspired by their dramatic history, which dates back almost one hundred years. Yet, not everyone knows about radium girls, also known as ghost girls.

Who Are Radium Girls?

This tragic story involved hundreds of female workers employed in American watch factories at the beginning of the 20th century.

The women and girls, often underage, had the task of brushing the hands of the watches with a special varnish. This in fact contained radium, a radioactive chemical element capable of making the hands luminescent, therefore visible in the dark.

This radioactive metal had been discovered by the Curie couple in 1898 and isolated for the first time in 1902. Pierre Curie had already understood that it was a toxic and dangerous element, as it caused burns to the skin. However, the industry was not able to resist the luminescence of this element. As a result, believing that small quantities of radium would not affect health, people started using it to produce paints, cosmetics, medicines and even to enrich food.

The Consequences of Contact with Radio

Painting the hands was a task that required precision and the women’s small hands were perfect for this. To make even a more accurate work, they also had to sharpen the tip of the brush with their lips. In this way they ended up swallowing radium every day. Of course the workers were assured that radium was safe. They had no trouble believing it because this newly discovered element had aroused a lot of enthusiasm. In fact, it was present in a great number of products, from groceries to cosmetics and medicines.

However, the company executives were well aware of the risks in using radium. It is no coincidence that when they were inside the factory they wore appropriate protection so as not to get sick. On the other hand, no precautions were reserved for women and girls. As a result, after five years of continuous exposure to this dangerous radioactive element, they began to have the first symptoms including tooth loss, disintegration of body and facial bone tissue and tumors. In fact, radium reaches the inside of teeth and bones like the calcium that makes up these tissues. Once inside the cells, radium caused their destruction.

The Heritage of Radium Girls

With the beginning of the first symptoms came the complaints from the workers. Grace Fryer, Katherine Schaub, Edna Hussman, Quinta and Albina Maggie sued the Radium Corporation, a large company in which they had worked, carrying on a revolutionary battle. The trial began in 1927 and was much followed by the press, bringing to the public’s attention the risks related to radium.

Workers still employed in companies handling radioactive metal began to take precautions and denounce companies that did not provide protection. The watch companies immediately suspended the lip-pointing process, and new regulations changed and saved the lives of hundreds of workers in the following years.

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