A group of trailblazing women known as the Radium Girls turned tragedy into a crusade to help protect their fellow watch industry workers.
Women painted radium-lighted watches and instruments for the U.S. Radium Corp. circa 1917.
In the early 1920s, luminous timepieces were all the rage. At that time, radium was hand-painted onto watch dials by women working at U.S. Radium in Orange, NJ, and other manufacturers. It became a common practice for workers to lick the tips of their paintbrushes to keep their points razor-sharp. For fun, some of the girls would paint their fngernails and teeth or run the luminescent paint through their hair. Unbeknownst to these women, they were ingesting from a few hundred to a few thousand “microcuries” of radium each year (one-tenth of a microcurie is considered to be the maximum safe exposure). Most went on to suffer illnesses of the mouth and jaw, and many died as a result. It is said that U.S. Radium and other companies issued statements saying that the women were dying due to illnesses caused by X-ray machines, or from other diseases such as syphilis.
Finally, in the late 1920s, a group of women led by Grace Fryer, a former dial painter for U.S. Radium, retained a lawyer willing to take their case to court against the powerful company. They became known as the Radium Girls. Their brave fght not only won them fnancial compensation from U.S. Radium, but also—and more importantly—catapulted workplace safety regulations around radioactive materials into the headlines. Marie Curie, who died in 1934 as a result of working with the radium she discovered, was quoted as saying, “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could. There is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.” Eventually, the factory sites were shut down and new laws were enacted to protect workers from radiation and other industrial dangers.
One of the last Radium Girls, Mae Keane, who died in March 2014 at the age of 107, told National Public Radio that her survival was due to her refusal to lick her brushes because she couldn’t stand the gritty taste of the material. She left after only a few days on the job; that decision saved her life.