The Radium Girls: Injustice or Error?
October 3, 2018
If you have any general knowledge about chemistry, you would know that radium is one of the most dangerous substances in the world. The legal amount of radium to be exposed to is 5 picocuries per liter, which is close to nothing. It seems as if we’ve always known the dangers of radium, but history shows us that it was the exact opposite.
Radium was discovered in 1898 by none other than Marie Curie. After the discovery, there was still much to be learned about the chemical. However, instead of learning about it at a safe distance, people decided to use it as a part of everyday life. Radium became one of the biggest diet trends, claiming it would make you skinny and reverse the effects of aging. Radium was added into water, toothpaste, even makeup. Radium spas became a near necessity to attend as they enjoyed the glow the radium gave them. A literal glow. Not like what we refer to as glowing where they seem dewy and happy, no, not at all. They glowed as if they were glowsticks.
And this brings us to the story of the radium girls.
The radium girls were a group of girls who worked in a factory that created clocks. The girls were in charge of painting the clock faces with bio-luminous paint which, evidently, contained extremely high traces of radium. The girls were exposed to radium the entire day, and when they walked home, people could see the radium glowing on their skin. This, however, was not what caused the major dilemma.
When the girls were painting, they had to make sure the tips of the paint brushes were small and pointed so they could have more precise strokes. How did they do that, you may ask? Well, they put the bristles (covered in radium) right into their mouths so they could point the tip. We know today that ingesting that much radium is extremely dangerous, but during this time, they had close to no idea as to what the dangers of radium were. Soon enough, the girls began having problems with their bodies.
The first known case was Mollie Maggia. She went into her dentist one day to get a rotten tooth pulled, and that’s when everything began. After the dentist removed her tooth, she continued to come in and get more pulled. None of her wounds were healing, so the dentist decided to undergo surgery as she began to grow an abscess. When the dentist exposed her jawbone, however, he saw a problem. The bone was grey and flaky, and when he touched it, it crumbled into dust. He removed an entire half of her jaw with only his fingers, and eventually, her entire jaw was removed. Sadly, Mollie passed away due to her rapidly developing tumors.
At first, the company she worked for claimed her death was caused by syphilis. But the problem with that claim was that almost every other woman who worked with her began to suffer similar symptoms. Tumors began to sprout, their bones began to crumble with the slightest movement, their hair began to fall out, and their teeth were rotting, along with a slew of other problems. Lawsuits and accusations flooded in, and the companies scrambled to cover everything up, thus the reason why they listed her death as syphilis. If people knew the dangers these women were in, it would spark an outrage bigger than the one that already existed.
In the end, multiple women were affected by their exposure to radium. Many were crippled or disfigured, and more were killed from it. Yes, it is an extreme tragedy, but it is also a huge injustice for all of those women, as well as factory workers overall.
What many people don’t know about this case is that the men who worked with the radium in the same factory, for the same company, had protective wear in order to avoid radium exposure. Meanwhile, the women had nothing but their clothes to protect them from the radium, and even then, their clothes couldn’t protect them from the extreme amounts of radium they were ingesting when they were putting the tips of radium-saturated paint brushes into their mouths.
Some of the women who survived the initial radium exposure sued the company and won. They then led a movement to have more protection in factories, which gave us many of the labor laws that we have today, as well as the creation of the modern labor union.
Though what these women suffered is horrible and beyond immoral, it taught us so much about the effects of radium, and it gave us safer labor practices in the workplace. It created modern labor laws and helped push forward the creation of modern unions. All of these women led one of the most important movements, and some of them weren’t even alive when they did so. The radium girls are close to being forgotten, but their legacy will always live on.