United States Radium Corporation, dial manufacture | right: (theatrical picture)Wikipedia excerpts http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_Girls
In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer became concerned when her teeth began to loosen and fall out for no discernible reason.
Radium Girls: Lessons From The PastDuring World War 1, young women workers were employed to paint luminous watch dials. The watches were originally designed to be used by soldiers in the trenches, and later became a popular consumer item. To get a sharper tip, the women were instructed to point up the brushes with their tongues. Several years later, the women began to suffer from anemia, fractures and necrosis of the jaw. Some of them, and their doctors and dentists, suggested there was a connection between their illnesses and the radium paint.It was the early days of radium. The watch dial companies rejected the claims that radium had caused the illnesses. Government regulators felt that existing evidence did not justify further investigation.The Consumer's League of New Jersey took up the women's cause. They undertook an investigation, and successfully campaigned to have radium necrosis recognized by the State Workman's Compensation Board in 1926. However, it was too late to benefit the women poisoned by radium before the law was passed.The case of the radium girls, as they were known, horrified many people. It led to passage of a bill in 1949 which made all industrial diseases compensable, and extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses and make a claim.
historical news clipping (Ottowa)
the former factory site in W Orange, New Jersey
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, a notorious sexually transmitted disease at the time, was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women.
The story of the abuse perpetrated against the workers is distinguished from most such cases by the fact that the ensuing litigation was covered widely by the media. Plant worker Grace Fryer decided to sue, but it took two years for her to find a lawyer willing to take on U.S. Radium. A total of five factory workers - Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice - dubbed the Radium Girls, joined the suit. The litigation and media sensation surrounding the case established legal precedents and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards, including a baseline of 'provable suffering'.
The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physics and the labor rights movement. 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.
The case was settled in the autumn of 1928, before the trial was deliberated by the jury, and the settlement for each of the Radium Girls was $10,000 ($135,950 in today's terms) and a $600 per year annuity ($8,157 per year in today's terms) while they lived, and all medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company.
The lawsuit and resulting publicity was a factor in the establishment of occupational disease labor law. Radium dial painters were instructed in proper safety precautions and provided with protective gear; in particular, they no longer shaped paint brushes by lip, and avoided ingesting or breathing the paint. Radium paint was still used in dials as late as the 1960s.
'glow-in-the dark' clock hands in storage
Robley D. Evans made the first measurements of exhaled radon and radium excretion from a former dial painter in 1933. At MIT he gathered dependable body content measurements from 27 dial painters. This information was used in 1941 by the National Bureau of Standards to establish the tolerance level for radium of 0.1 ìCi (3.7 kBq).
The Center for Human Radiobiology was established at Argonne National Laboratory in 1968. The primary purpose of the Center was providing medical examinations for living dial painters. The project also focused on collection of information, and, in some cases, tissue samples from the radium dial painters. When the project ended in 1993, detailed information of 2,403 cases had been collected. No symptoms were observed in those dial painter cases with less than 1,000 times the natural 226Ra levels found in unexposed individuals, suggesting a threshold for radium-induced malignancies.
Environmental History Timeline: Radium Girls, By Bill Kovarik and Mark Neuzil, from Mass Media and Environmental Conflict (Sage 1996), p. 32-52
Clark's account emphasizes the social and political factors that influenced the responses of the workers, managers, government officials, medical specialists, and legal authorities involved in the case. She enriches the story by exploring contemporary disputes over workplace control, government intervention, and industry-backed medical research. Finally, in appraising the dialpainters' campaign to secure compensation and prevention of further incidents—efforts launched with the help of the reform-minded, middle-class women of the Consumers' League—Clark is able to evaluate the achievements and shortcomings of the industrial health movement as a whole.