In the early 1900s, radium was considered a miracle product—until it started poisoning women.
If you were to listen to every health expert out there, it wouldn’t be difficult to feel like you’re filling yourself with chemicals, pesticides, bacteria and generally living a life on the verge of cancer. Everything is toxic and anything you eat that you haven’t manually dug from your own organic/sustainable/eco-friendly garden is garbage going straight into your mouth. The thing is, it’s usually hard to tell if all of this advice will truly have an effect on your health or not. Usually people don’t find out until it’s too late—which was the case with the infamous radium girls.
In the early 1900s, radium – a pure, white, radioactive metal – was becoming the hot new thing. It was positioned as a miracle substance: curing cancer, alleviating hair loss, remedying high blood pressure AND pumping up people’s sex lives and making women more beautiful. It quickly became the next miracle product people were putting into everything from makeup to water, or baby wipes to toothpaste. Radium was so firmly believed to be a wonder material, even doctors were praising it.
Because of its glow-in-the-dark ability, it was a perfect substance for many things—like making clocks glow in the dark during WWI, so soldiers could tell time in the dark trenches of war. It was this particular function that finally made people realize that radium wasn’t nearly as miraculous as they thought.
A group of around 2000 women were hired to paint the clocks. While the women carefully painted on the numbers, their brushes periodically fluffed out of shape; to get the brushes back in shape, the instructors told the women to reshape them with their lips. It wasn’t unusual for the girls to paint 250 watches a day and put the radium-soaked brushes in their mouths up to six times for each watch they painted.
When the first wave of illnesses came in the early 1920s, not even doctors new why the women were experiencing such severe cases of bone decay. When the first women died a few years later, with bones as brittle as if they had been eaten by moths, the first theory was syphilis. Some suspect that this theory was only presented to smear the girls’ reputations—but slowly, the truth started coming out about the cause behind their deaths.
The high number of illnesses within the factory caught the attention of chairman of the Consumers League Katherine Wiley, and she took it upon herself to begin the investigation and get to the bottom of what was going on in the small New Jersey factory.
It was a Harvard physiology professor who, by personally testing the women’s blood toxin level and bone density, discovered the similarity in symptoms. He was contacted by Wiley and her team who, despite denials and lawsuit threats from the owners of US Radium, encouraged him to publish these findings. He found out that radium as an element was in constant breakdown and breaking everything around it down, which was actually the reason it was thought to be a cure for cancer to begin with.
Only five out of the many women in the factory joined together to sue the owners—and with help from the Consumers League and the publication, media had begun picking up on the story, sympathizing with the women and strengthening their case. They ended up receiving 10.000 dollars annually for the rest of their lives as compensation. Tragic fate would have it that only three were still alive when the settlement was reached—and the last of the Radium Girls died only two years after.
The radium girls ended up having a profound impact on workplace regulations and science: they made way for individual workers to sue employers about issues of labour abuse, and began the enactment of safety laws that are still around today.
Although their case ended unfair and hazardous working environments, it didn’t result in the removal of radium for commercial use. Radium was neither a food nor a drug, after all: it was just a naturally-occurring element, placing it outside the Food and Drug Administration’s jurisdiction. It took the death of a young millionaire socialite in the 1930s and the press coverage around it for the government to grant the FDA broader powers to regulate patent medicines and protect the public from other dangerous products.
There’s no record of any exact numbers, but hundreds are said to have suffered radium-related illnesses. The poisoning was so severe that if you were to stand over the radium girl’s graves today with a Geiger counter, the radiation levels would still cause the needle to jump off the charts—and will most likely continue to do so thousands of years later. In our much more informed times with a higher access to information, one could only hope that history doesn’t repeat itself and that the sacrifices of the radium girls wasn’t for nothing.