Kate Moore’s Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women turned out to be a timely book for me, for two reasons. First, I read it the weekend before I had a dentist appointment. (This turned out to be a bad idea.) Second, and more seriously, Radium Girls tells a story that demonstrates in no uncertain terms that American workers need government regulations and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Before these agencies existed, several companies poisoned hundreds of women with radioactive paint and fought them hard in court to keep from paying their medical bills and funeral expenses.
Between World War I and World War II, companies like the US Radium Company and Radium Dials filled millions of orders for luminescent clock and watch dials. At the time, the ingredient that made the paint used on these dials glow was radium. We know now that radium, if swallowed, is used by the body like calcium. Radium heads straight for the bones, where it bombards the body with radioactivity. Before World War I, scientists knew that that radium could cause burns if it came in contact with skin for a few hours. The men who were hired to mix the paint had rules in place to prevent them from overexposure. The women who actually painted with this stuff, however, did not.
Women were hired and paid by the dial. They were taught to use small brushes to carefully paint the tiny numbers on the dials. To make the best point on the brush, they would use their lips. For every dial, the women would ingest small amounts of radium multiple times. When the women went home, they often found that their clothes, shoes, and skin would glow in the dark. When they started to get sick with horrific tooth, jaw, and bone problems, doctors and dentists had no idea what was wrong with these women. Some suspected phossy jaw, an old occupational disease that caused bone necrosis in the jaw due to exposure to phosphorus because the teeth and jaws of the Radium Girls seemed to rot faster the more they tried to remove necrotic material. (Seriously, these women died terrible, terrible deaths. Readers who don’t have strong stomachs may have to skip sections.)
New Jersey (where the biggest radium dial companies were located) had a law that recognized that employers were liable for compensation for occupational diseases. Unfortunately for these women, radium poisoning wasn’t one of the listed diseases. Worse, the statute of limitations was ridiculously short. On top of that, the radium companies were so wealthy, few lawyers were willing to help the Radium Girls once they started fighting for compensation.
Most of Radium Girls follows the ins and outs of their legal battles in the 1920s and 30s. Because Moore spent the opening chapters of this book introducing readers to individual women and their husbands and families, reading about their legal struggles and deaths becomes especially infuriating and poignant, all at the same time. Seeing doors (literal and figurative) slammed in their faces filled me with outrage on their behalf. And because we now know what radium does to the body (Moore explains the effects for readers who don’t), we know that most of these women are doomed and their struggles are races against time.
Radium Girls should be required reading in a time when the White House and Congress are working on rolling back funding for and regulations from OSHA and the EPA. Those regulations are in place for very good reasons. Anyone who argues that companies won’t pollute or harm their workers are kidding themselves. As US Radium and Radium Dials show us, profits are king to big business—even when their products cause their employees to glow in the dark and slowly poison those employees from the inside out.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.