Radium had become an unstoppable craze in the US, with it used in face cream, soap and powder, and toothpaste -- brighter with every brushing! The liquid sunshine was touted as a cure-all known to restore vitality.
My mother was born February 28, 1917. My dad always said she was born in a leap year on the 29th, so we figured her age in our heads much differently than real calendar years. He was well known to "boof" us kids, since he knew we never fact-checked him. Sure enough, it hadn't been a leap year, but it was quite a year since a few months later the United States joined forces in the War to End All Wars.
That year in New Jersey girls 14 and older were getting hired at a new company at wages high enough they could buy nice clothes and the most stylish hats. Many of them lived nearby and walked to and from work. Some were sisters, some friends already, and most ended up friends for life.
There was laughter while they worked at their desks as they dipped their Japanese brushes in a powder, then put the brush in their mouth and fit their lips around it to make the sharpest point to paint with. They were painting high end watch and clock dials, with a new luminance substance that made the numbers show up in the dark.
The dry powder could be seen around the rooms where they worked, it dusted the girls' skin, their hair and landed on their clothes. When the girls walked home that fall, they glowed as it got dark. Sometimes girls would wear their party clothes to work so they would be especially striking at the dances they attended those nights. Some used a bit on their faces.
These gleaming girls were some of the first to use radium in an industrial setting. Radium had been discovered in 1898 in France by Marie Currie and her husband. She called it, "my beautiful radium." They had produced a material that was 300 times more radioactive than uranium.
The girls worked at the United States Radium Corporation in Newark and Orange, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois, earning the name as the Radium Girls and later were known as the Shining Women. They were being poisoned as they chatted merrily at their work on each number using luminous paint.
Radium had become an unstoppable craze in the US, with it used in face cream, soap and powder, and toothpaste -- brighter with every brushing! The liquid sunshine was touted as a cure-all known to restore vitality. But these young women worked with radium, with a half life of 1,600 years. It could take its time affecting these workers. Radium is like lead, a bone-seeker with the body believing both are calcium and storing them in bones. Some of the girls got sick quickly, loosing first a tooth, then more and even the jaw bones breaking and falling out of their mouths. They suffered one at a time. Some died before they would come to understand that the sparkling particles were not only "undark" but deadly.
Perhaps because women had begun to claim their place in America, by gaining the right to vote in 1920, as they came to learn their work had harmed them, they took the company to court and won a time or two and brought national attention to the hazard they worked with and how it had poisoned them. They spoke up as one after another died, with many of those friends living such short lives.
Their legacy of awareness of radiation poisoning saved lives when World War II began and more luminous dials were needed. Safety standards protected a whole new generation of dial painters who went to work.
Atomic-bomb making involved widespread use of radioactive plutonium, which is very similar to radium as it settles in the bones. During the Manhattan Project a chemist was determined not to have workers harmed like the dial-painters had been and issued nonnegotiable safety guidelines based directly on the radium safety standards.
Radium harmed these girls and oddly the residue left from radium extraction looked like seaside sand, and much like our "chat" from the lead and zinc waste, the industrial waste was sold to schools and playgrounds and used in children's sandboxes. Toxic waste made the companies money at the expense of the exposed, just like it had here. When they tore down Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois the damage went deep in the earth and like here will take EPA decades to clean-up the mess.
Those weakened, toothless young Shining women put on their best hats, stood tall and walked into courtrooms and testified against all odds to find justice, and found national respect and a place in history. Their case ultimately led to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In their honor and for the legacy at the Tar Creek Superfund site, I will join the Women's March on Tulsa for positive and just futures for all and to celebrate the spirit of resistance Americans have shown throughout our history. I will be standing up for women's rights, environmental justice and the right for jobs that don't kill or leave waste so generations grow up exposed to so companies can prosper.
Setting an alarm but not that Westclox Big Ben with the luminous dial still shining 100 years later.
Recommending the 'Radium Girls, the Dark Story of America's Shining Women' by Kate Moore.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim
Rebecca Jim is the executive director of the LEAD Agency (www.leadagency.org).