The Radium Girls – A tale of oblivious poisoning
The Radium Girls is a story of female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint.
I’m pretty sure as soon as you saw the title, you imagined a group of fiction characters with extraordinary superpowers. They fight evil and save the world from crime. I believed this, too, and it led me down to memory lane. As a kid, everyone loved the Power Puff Girls, the Teen Titans, and similar inspirational superheroic cartoons. Sadly, after I searched the Radium girls on the Internet, this idea of mine shattered into a million pieces. Brace yourself as I am going to introduce you to a terrible and depressing story, the unbelievable true story of America’s Radium Girls.
It all began when two scientists Marie and Pierre Curie, first discovered the Radium element in 1898. Enthralled, they immediately purified a sample to work with. They found that the element was quite dangerous to handle and caused a burning sensation to the skin and eyes. Of course, the couple did not mention these unpleasant effects to avoid degrading the value of their discovery.
Radium, mixed with the right kind of paint, emitted luminescence when exposed to light and could soak up energy from the sun and shine bright all night long. This was considered a scientific miracle of that time.
In 1917, jobs were rare because of the war. Scores of young patriotic girls thanked their lucky stars when they were offered jobs at a large warehouse complex in Orange, New Jersey. The young ladies had to apply glowing paint to the faces of clocks, instrument gauges, and wristwatches for the United States Radium Company. The pay was higher enough, and the work required minimum manual effort. This was an option not to be overlooked!
A little bit about Radium
The only stable isotope of Radium is Ra-226, and it has a half-life of 1600 years. As long as it lasts, a sample will emit alpha-particles in all directions.
These emissions are usually harmless in minute quantities. They are present in everyday kitchen and bathroom supplies and low in energy in these cases, so do not penetrate the skin. Radium is virtually safe outside the body.
Unfortunately, inside the body, it’s a totally different story. It creates pandemonium in the tissues. The warm glow you see coming out from Radium is actually atoms acting like tiny batteries. Light photons strike the radium atom, bumping its electrons into a higher orbit. When in the dark, these electrons spontaneously drop back to lower orbits, while emitting photons as they go. When Radium is placed next to human cells, it turns into a microscopic machine gun, lodging into the tissues. The Radium fires off particle after particle at a closer range, leading to the mutation and eventual death of surrounding cells.
The work of the Radium Girls
Who knew gender discrimination would have such disturbing consequences? While the men working for URSC were given lead aprons to protect themselves, no such caution was taken for the women. Furthermore, the shop girls were encouraged to lick their brushes to achieve an excellent point for detailed work. Evidently, according to the company, the men were handling large amounts of raw material while the girls were exposed to only small amounts at one time. This led to the girls being as careless with the paint as though it was a regular one. In fact, they enjoyed it when the paint got all over their clothes and gave them an attractive glow.
For several years, working at the radium plant was fun and very well-paid, so many of the employees encouraged their sisters, nieces, and other female family members to apply. By 1920, several large families were working on URSC’s floor, totaling around 300 girls at the peak of operations.The consequences start rolling in…
The first case was as horrible as it was surprising. Radium girl Mollie Maggia experienced a severe toothache in January 1922. Several trips to the dentist followed, in which many of her teeth came out, leaving wounds that refused to heal. By May, the dentist concluded that surgery was needed to remove excessive growth in Mollie’s jaw. After the gums were removed, the bone was ashy and gray. It took only a touch of the finger for it to crumble into ashes. The Radium had perforated the bone cells and stripped them of Calcium. The collagen inside the bone was shredded as though targeted by a tiny machine gun. Mollie met a tragic death several months later, the tumors spreading to her inner ear and jugular vein.
By this time, all sorts of odd symptoms were cropping up in the shop girls. One suffered a total collapse of her vertebrae, while others developed skin cancer, cataracts, throat cancer, hair loss, etc. At that time, Radium was not blamed as the culprit as it was not thought of to cause any harm. Mollie’s death was attributed to Syphilis.
By 1924, when dozens of radium girls were sick or dead, a study was carried out, which established that the glowing muck was indeed hazardous. Enraged, URSC paid for another study to prove the first one wrong. In 1925, Harrison Martland, Medical Officer at Essex County, reopened Mollie’s case. He abolished the jury system and handed the case to a team of competent medical examiners. As expected, Mollie’s corpse clearly had been mangled by radiation. Similar results came through for other radium girls who had died. USRC was driven into ruins by medical and court costs.
By the time of the radium girls incident, many had met a tragic and painful death, or were suffering from dilapidating bones and various cancers. Those who had the willpower to remain staunch in the court wars were given compensation by the company. The ones who died did not do so in vain. Dr. Martland’s work attracted attention and started working with uranium, plutonium, and other radioactive elements.
In 1942, the first brief chain reaction was established by physicists at the University of Chicago. Three years later, the Manhattan Project produced the first atom bombs. The US Atomic Energy Commission was able to develop safety protocols to protect many war workers in WW2. Even today, Dr. Martland’s work on the radium girls and the effects of long-term alpha exposure is being cited, and millions of people around the globe have benefited from the sad case of the radium girls.
Two movies have released to commemorate the loss of these girls. The first one was named Radium City and released in 1987, and the second, recently released in 2018, with the title “Radium Girls.” A novel has also been written by author Kate Moore. Still, the story of their pain and suffering lay hidden and their bodies still glow in the deeply buried coffins.
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Aniqa Mazhar is a graduate of QAU in Biochemistry. She has taught sciences to O levels and is currently planning for her MS in Food Technology. Aniqa’s hobbies are reading, watching movies, writing, calligraphy, long walks, and nature photography.
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