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radium girls


"Not to worry," their bosses told them. "If you swallow any radium, it'll make your cheeks rosy."
The women at Radium Dial sometimes painted their teeth and faces and then turned off the lights for a laugh.

From: 'Radium Girls' By Martha Irvine, Associated Press, Buffalo News, 1998

The US Radium Corporation a factory in Orange, New Jersey around 1917 employed young women as painters to paint radium on the dials on watchers. The girls would use their lips to paint the brushes and with every time they painted their brushes, they would ingest a small portion of the radium.

Radium is an alpha particle and can do severe damage once ingested. The Radium moved to the bone and continue to emit radiation for the rest of the girl's lives because of the long half-life of Radium. It damaged the cells by the none and caused bone Cancer in many of the girls.

During the 1920s, a group of these women sued the US Radium Corporation. Some of the victims won a small portion of money thus becoming the first to receive compensation for occupational injury.

Radiation sickness

Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw, a condition now known as radium jaw. It is thought that the x-ray machines used by the medical investigators may have contributed to some of the sickened workers ill-health by subjecting them to additional radiation. It turned out at least one of the examinations was a ruse, part of a campaign of disinformation started by the defense contractor. U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium. For some time, doctors, dentists, and researchers complied with requests from the companies not to release their data. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes; syphilis was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women.

Historical impact

The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades.citation needed

The case was settled in the fall of 1928, before the trial was deliberated by the jury, and the settlement for each of the Radium Girls was $10,000 (the equivalent of $124,000 in 2009 dollars) and a $600 per year annuity while they lived, and all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company.

Literature and film

  • The story of the workers was told in the poem "Radium Girls" by Eleanor Swanson, and is included in her collection, A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium (2003).
  • Writer D.W. Gregory also retold the story of Grace Fryer in her award-winning play Radium Girls, which premiered in 2000 at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, New Jersey.
  • There is an elaborate reference to this story in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Jailbird.4
  • Poet Lavinia Greenlaw has also written on the subject in her poem "The Innocence of Radium" (Night Photograph, 1994).
  • Ross Mullner's book, Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy describes many of the events preceding and surrounding the Radium Girls' story.
  • The Radium Girls' story was also depicted by Jo Lawrence in her short animated film "Glow" (2007)1.
  • The Radium Girls story is referenced in the film Pu239
  • The short story "It's Time" by Michael A. Martone is told from the perspective of an unnamed Radium Girl.
  • A fictionalized version of the Radium Girls was featured in Spike TV's "1000 Ways to Die" on March 22, 2009.
  • The story of Catherine Donahue litigation and the girls at the Ottawa, Illinois, Radium Dial plant was the basis of the play "These Shining Lives" by Melanie Marnich.
  • The Case of The Living Dead Women is a website which displays scans of 180 pages of newspaper clippings of the Ottawa, Illinois radium dial litigation.


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