Friday, April 26, 2013

Radium Girls

No, the Radium Girls are not a new indie band, though that is a pretty good name for one. The Radium Girls were the women who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey from 1917 to 1926. The girls worked in a factory whose job it was to paint the glow in the dark faces on watches with a mixture that consisted mostly of radium, which is what supplied the glowing. These radioluminescent watches were huge for the military, so you can imagine that they wanted to churn out as many of these watches as possible. The problem was that nobody told the women that radium was a dangerous element to playing around with. It's literally radioactive! The girls painted the faces on the watches with camel hair brushes, which would fray after a few strokes, so they were encouraged to stick the brushes in their mouths and use their lips and tongues to make the brush pointed again. Mmmmmm, radium. The girls, thinking that the substance was harmless, even painted their nails, faces, and teeth with it. The scientists who concocted the stuff knew better and used safety equipment when handling the paint, but apparently didn't care enough to let the lower end of the factory know about it. This wasn't an isolated incident either; a total of 20,000 women throughout the United States and Canada were hired to paint radium on watches. So, what makes the 70 workers at the Orange, New Jersey plant special? Well, once they found out about the deadly mixture, they sued.

The girls started to get sick, and not just regular sick. Girls started suffering from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw, now known as Radium Jaw (which would be another awesome band name). So, basically their bones in their faces were slowly breaking away, while tumors were developing in the same area (picture of an infected person on the right. That was probably the least disturbing picture I could find). Not pretty. Unfortunately, there is not an accurate number of deaths attributed to the radium poisoning since every factory claimed that the women has syphilis (a popular sexually transmitted disease at the time. And by popular, I don't mean that it was all the rage, I mean that everybody freaking had it) and other illnesses. Unfortunately for the girls, things were sometimes made worse when they were x-ray'd since they were being exposed to even more radiation. Doctors and dentists who looked at the girls consistently kept their findings to themselves, at the urging of U.S. Radium Corporation. One of the girls wasn't going to let the factory get away with all of this, so she decided to try and sue. It took her two years, but she finally found someone who was willing to take on U.S. Radium. A total of five girls joined the suit, called the Radium Girls by the press, and set out to get some sweet, sweet justice. The case was a media extravaganza, much to the chagrin of U.S. Radium. The case was settled in late 1928 without being heard by a jury, with each girl getting $10,000 dollars (a little over $133 thousand now) and $600 annuity per year, as long as they lived, however short that might have been. U.S. Radium must have known that it didn't have a chance with the evidence clearly apparent by looking at the girls.

So, why tell this heartwarming story about factory girls and radium? Well, it's thanks to this little debacle that we have the basic assurance from our employers that we wouldn't become deathly ill just by doing our jobs. It also set the precedent for suing your employer if said assurance isn't followed through. Thanks to this case, standards at factories and other workplace environments drastically improved. From then on, workers at the U.S. Radium factories were instructed in the proper handling of the mixture and were provided with safety equipment. Fun Fact: Radium was still used for glow in the dark watches as late as the 1960's. Scientific research was also launched right after the case settled to find out what the acceptable threshold for radium and radon exposure is. Turns out that radium is way worse for you than radon, seeing as radon's half-life is three days and radium's is over 1,500 years. So, next time you get a crazy disease at work, thank the Radium Girls for their sacrifice and bravery. Oh, and don't ever stick paint in your mouth. That is never a good thing.

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