At first it was great fun. Indoor work, no heavy lifting, and piece rates that were generous by the standards of the day, particularly if you put a fine tip on your paint brush by licking it. And the factory dust sparkled in your hair, and the boss didn't make an issue of you using scrap paint at the end of the week for nail polish, which lit up even in dim dance halls.
Then Mollie's teeth started falling out. Grace ached too much to be able to dance. Helen suddenly died. Thus the travails of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, expertly researched by Kate Moore and material for a somber Book Review No. 30.
Ms Moore's focus is on the story of the women themselves, who painted luminescent dials for clock and watch faces useful for the war effort and perhaps frustrating for the insomniac who now easily sees what hour of the night it is. Some died without any recourse from their employer or state assistance, some won their lawsuits, some gave birth to children who might have been adversely affected, some never bore children; a few lived a long time, albeit sometimes saved by radical surgery.
The policy dimensions of their story are instructive. One New Jersey case dismissed a suit against the United States Radium Company noting, "Today, industrial methods which the [company] then employed would not be merely negligent but criminal. But it should be carefully noted that this case must be decided on the facts as they existed in the light of the knowledge of 1917." (Page 306). That is, judging past behavior on the basis of current standards, when, in 1917 radium-laced water was still on sale as a health tonic, and x-ray machines were common in shoe stores, effectively becomes an ex post facto law. Subsequent lawsuits turned out more favorably for the surviving women, although in many cases, the awards simply covered escalating expenses for treatment or for the loss of income.
Subsequently, chemists and physicists figured out that radium is in the same column of Mendeleyev's periodic table as calcium, and the solid material in bone is calcium phosphate. Radium itself is dangerous stuff: it has a half-life of 1600 years yet it decays to polonium, an isotope that has a much shorter half-life. Thus, physicist Glenn Seaborg insisted on much more careful protections for Manhattan Project workers refining plutonium: likely a very good thing, for had plutonium dust blown around bomb factories the way radium dust continued to blow around dial-painting factories, the U.S. atomic bomb project might have unintentionally killed more U.S. citizens than the Japanese deliberately killed by the bombings. A few years later, the presence of strontium isotopes after atmospheric bomb tests combined with the recognition that strontium is below calcium and above radium in the light metals column of the periodic table might have led to the passage of the ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. It appears that received wisdom these days is that the natural background radioactivity of the human body ought not be augmented. Thus, Ms Moore concludes, the radium girls did not die in vain.
All the same, the painting of watch dials with radium compounds continued, perhaps no longer with camel-hair brushes and certainly not with anybody licking brushes to a fine point: and yet, Ottawa, Illinois, one of the three major sites for dial painting, remains dangerous today, and that might not always be well understood by people moving into town.
(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)