If we scanned with a Geiger counter over the tomb of one of the “Radium Girls”, the levels of radiations would still be so high to let the needles of the scales jump even almost 90 years from their death. The story of the radioactive products which charmed the market during the 20’s is curious and absurd yet not many are the ones who know about it, obscured by an information that today does not mention the case anymore.

It all started in New Jersey in US some years after the discovery of radioactivity by the spouses Curie shortly before the 20’s. A local factory is engaged in the production of the dials of “luminous” clocks, the last gadget of the American Army which would utilise radioactive paint able to light up during the night. The girls who were handling the paint to decorate the clocks would get 0.27 dollars per piece. They were commonly making an average of 250 clocks a day every day and that salary was, at that time, close to the one of a manager.

Between 1917 and 1926 the U.S. Radium Corporation hired around 70 women from the Essex County and, in 1927, more than 50 of those same women had died from poisoning of radioactive paint, eating their bones from the inside. The “UnDark” clocks were going like hot cakes, so there was plenty of work to do. During their breaks some of those employees would paint their nails too, raising their exposition to the substance in a significant way.

At the beginning of the 20’s  around 4,000 people were working in this industry between US and Canada. The creator of the paint, Doctor Von Sochocky, died in 1928 due to the exposition to the radiations. To this day it is unknown the exact number of victims of the radioactive industry.

On the other hand the historical period could not allow the understanding of the danger that radioactivity had, so radium was used as a miraculous ingredient to add to any product. The radium-based goods had become extremely common, from toothpaste to wool for newborns, toys for children and drinking water.

Everything had to be radioactive

Even the products which did not contain radium whatsoever, were branded with radioactive slogans and packaging, in order to make them more sellable.

In Paris they developed a cosmetic line named Tho-Radia which became trendy, developed by Doctor Alfred Curie. The doctor had nothing to do with Pierre and Marie Curie discoverer of radioactivity, but the marketing idea sold to the French women the idea of a radioactive make-up. The line would include lipsticks, face cream, soap, powders and toothpaste containing thorium and radium. As a radioactive metal they employed the thorium, an element which can be utilised in nuclear plants.

A very shocking part of this story is not the unawareness of the mortal effects of radioactivity from the audience but rather the knowledge of the mass poisoning that the U.S. Radium Corporation and its scientists had.

The high ranks of the U.S. Radium Corporation knew about the deadly outcome that radioactivity would provoke, but they didn’t halt it in any ways as they did not want to lose their market

The scientists and supervisors of the company avoided any sort of exposition about the UnDark and its radiations. While the young employees coming from school were licking the tips of their brushes and swallow radius every day, the chemists and owners of the company would handle the substance behind lead screens masks and protective pliers.

The US Radium Corporation in reality had distributed a series of publications to the medical community in order to describe certain negative effects linked to the radiations but, somehow, doctors of that time were prescribing radius for any sort of issue, from a shallow cold all the way to cancer.

The word “radioactive” was the key to sell any kind of product, even medicines

In the first 20’s the girls that were painting the dials started to show the first signs of poisoning. Their jaws started to swell and their teeth fell down without any apparent reason. One of the workers went to a dentist in order to remove a tooth but, incredibly, with the tooth a piece of jaw came out as well.

When the workers started to suspect that it was the working environment to have caused those issues, many specialists were summoned for medical inspections. Famous was the case of Grace Fryer, declared as in a good state of health by two expert doctors. The two were a toxicologist of the U.S. Radium Corporation and the vice presidents of the same company.

With the help of doctors and dentists paid by the company, the brand pushed away all the accusations making it sound as an idyllic environment, without any risk for the health. For some reason the medical community kept it quiet along with the company, which ran undisturbed for a long time.

It took 2 years for Grace Fryer to look for a lawyer inclined to go against the U.S. Radium and the process was dragged for months. Other 4 workers joined the woman and the media renamed the cause as “Radium Girls“. At their first hearing they were all so ill to not be able to attend, so the case was suspended for several months. The women reached an  extrajudicial agreement which included 100,000 dollars of compensation, legal and medical costs and a cheque of 600 dollars a year for the rest of their (short) life. If today the value can appear as paltry, back in the day it was massive, comparable to today’s several millions of dollars.

All the women died in a short time, but they marked an extremely important step for the workers’ rights inside the companies. Before this was not conceivable for a single worker to sue a company for the safety in the working environment; after the “Radium Girls” it became common control practice of the relative competent organs.

The U.S. Radium kept on producing luminous clocks and other objects with the radioactive paint still for a long time, but after the introduction of the new laws on the safety of the workers no more poisoning from radiation were registered. The life of those girls had been sacrificed, but that was not vain, at least: every worker in the whole world owes something to those poor young girls, died in that atrocious way.

Below: picture of the river next to the factory shared via Wikimedia Commons – public domain

In the 80’s the factory was abandoned and was decontaminated. Inside they found around 1,600 tons of waste radioactive material.

Below: trailer of the film “Radium Girl”, coming out in 2020

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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