The Radium Girls are to be remembered as women who stood up and fought back against the odds, with death staring them in the face.
(Photo by iStock Photo)

Weird History: Radium Girls, Honey You’re Positively Glowing

My friends, this is a weird history story with a little bit of everything. Glowing bones? Yes. Outrageous lies. Yep. Terribly sad and painful deaths. Unfortunately, yes, it has those too. This is the story of the Radium Girls.

What Is Radium?

Radium is a chemical element with the symbol Ra and atomic number 88. It is a rare, radioactive metal that belongs to the alkaline earth metal group. Radium was discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898 and was named after the Latin word “radius,” meaning “ray,” because of its intense radioactivity.

Radium is a silvery-white, shiny metal that reacts with water and air and is highly radioactive. It decays into other elements, such as radon and helium, emitting alpha, beta, and gamma rays in the process. Radium has been used in medical treatments and in the manufacturing of luminous paints, such as those used on watch dials and instrument panels (this will be important to remember). However, its radioactivity makes it a hazardous material and must be handled with extreme caution. You are probably saying, well, that sounds terrible. Why would any girl be called that? Indeed, they were just WWE characters or something. Sadly, their story is far more tragic, but also a very important one as it has saved thousands, if not millions, of lives in the workplace.

The Radium Girls began to experience severe health problems, including anemia, bone fractures, and cancer.
(Photo by iStock Photo)

Who Are The Radium Girls?

Their story starts back during World War 1. At the time, many men in the United States were off fighting in the war. So on the homefront, the women were called to work, mostly in factories. None of these jobs were glamorous, and most did not pay well. But there was one such job that seemed to be a popular one among working girls. It was at the United States Radium Corporation (USRC). Their job was to paint watch dials and instrument panels with a luminous paint containing radium. The pay was reasonable compared to other factory jobs, as it was estimated to be about three times the amount of the average factory job. Decent money at the time.

Not What They Signed Up For

It wasn’t long before this highly sought-after job became too good to be true. But initially, the workers were led to believe that the paint was harmless, and some were even encouraged to ingest tiny amounts of radium to enhance their health. You see, the women were taught a technique to paint the tiny watch dials. It was to slip the paintbrush between their lips to make a fine point. This was a practice that was called lip-pointing. It worked great to paint the tiny dials, except that every time they did this, they swallowed a little bit of the paint. This is the same luminous paint containing radium. Do you remember radium, the hazardous, radioactive material which must be handled cautiously?

However, most of the women trusted what they were told and did not know that it was extremely harmful to them. In fact, at the time, radium was considered safe by the general public, at least in the small amount of radium they were in contact with. Radium was even marketed as something that could be healthy for you. It was in butter, milk, toothpaste, and people even added radium to their water.

The girls initially embraced it and its luminosity; they were known as the “ghost girls” because, after a while, they would glow in the dark. They wore gold dresses and even painted their teeth with the paint. Wild right? But again, they were told over and over by their managers that it was completely safe. Never mind that the men who worked at the same factory wore lead aprons and used tongs to handle the radium they came in contact with.

The Radium Girls case also resulted in significant changes in the legal system, including the creation of the doctrine of "strict liability."
(Photo by iStock Photo)

They Started To Get Sick

Over time, the workers began to experience severe health problems, including anemia, bone fractures, and cancer. We know now that these health issues were caused by the high levels of radium they had ingested and inhaled during their work. But at the time, it was blamed on everything but radium. Radium was safe. No way it could be causing health problems. Some studies showed it was safe. Except, these “studies” were funded by the same companies using radium to profit. We know how that goes. But the length that some of these companies, like USRC, went to avoid responsibility is staggering. They went so far as to say that the women who were so sick that they would lose their teeth had syphilis or some other disease.

These poor women’s jaws would just fall off their faces. One such instance was of a woman who was visiting her dentist. He lightly pushed against her jawbone, and it broke off into his hand. Just came off. Women were dying of various infections and abscesses, and their bones were literally breaking as the radium slowly ate away at them from the inside.

The Light That Does Not Lie

As the women’s bones began to feel the effects of the radium poisoning, they started to glow from the inside. So much so that if they looked in the mirror with the lights off, they would just see a ghost girl looking back at them. It was absolutely the worst because once the poison was inside them, there was no way to reverse it. Their fate was sealed. Once more and more women started to experience radium poisoning, and saw their friends severely affected and dying. They kept fighting and pushing to hold the factories that were doing everything possible to avoid responsibility accountable.

It was an uphill battle, but a few lawyers took on the cases pro-bono, and thankfully these brave women pushed through their pain and suffering. Some women even testified on their deathbeds to keep their cases alive. One such case was the Radium Girls case. This case finally brought national attention to the dangers of radium exposure and the need for better workplace safety regulations.

OSHA Enters The Chat

Because of this case, USRC and other companies that used radium in their products were required to improve their safety measures and protect their workers from radium exposure. Additionally, the case led to the establishment of Occupational Health and Safety Standards (OSHA) in the United States, which aimed to protect workers from dangerous working conditions and toxic substances.

The Radium Girls case also resulted in significant changes in the legal system, including the creation of the doctrine of “strict liability,” which holds companies responsible for the harmful effects of their products. Regardless of whether they were aware of the risks at the production time. The case served as a reminder of the importance of corporate responsibility and worker safety, and its legacy continues to be felt in today’s workplace safety standards.

The Radium Girls are to be remembered as women who stood up and fought back against the odds with death staring them in the face.

Enjoyed this fun little bit of Weird History? Then checkout this article: Project Eldest Son

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