Today’s story begins with the 1896 discovery of the natural radioactivity of Uranium in France by Henri Becquerel. This was followed by the 1898 isolation of two new radioactive elements by Marie and Pierre Curie called Polonium (after her native Poland) and, which is important to this story, the discovery of Radium (so-called because it was radioactive, a term that they coined.)
The Curies immediately noticed that Radium had an unusual property: it glowed blue. Becquerel experimented with this new material and found out that the radiation emitted by radium would cause other materials, like zinc sulfide, to glow in the dark.
I am sure that you can see where this is going. It didn’t take long before a glow-in-the-dark paint was developed from it. The first to do so was a man named William J. Hammer, an associate of Thomas Edison, who mixed radium with zinc sulfide to make a paint that he applied to watches and clock dials. While he never capitalized on his invention, the wheels were set in motion for an explosion of glow-in-the-dark goods.
The first company to produce products with this new paint was the Radium Luminous Material Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, which would eventually become the US Radium Corporation. Other companies popped up to do the same, but this story only focuses on US Radium.
Demand for products painted with the radioluminescent paint was initially small. The cost to extract the radium from its original rock was complex and costly. One-ton of ore produced about .0045 ounces of radium after being treated by 7 tons of chemicals in a twenty-three step process.
World War I changed everything. It brought about a need for glow in the dark military instruments and watches for the battlefield. All of the factories producing these glow-in-the-dark products saw a sudden increase in volume and, as a result, hired a lot more staff.
Nearly all the painters were women. Using fine camel hair brushes, they painted the glowing paint to the dials of the various devices. But painting those tiny numbers on to the faces of watches proved to be the most difficult. The women were encouraged by their supervisors to use their lips to make a fine brush point. They were assured that the paint was harmless, even though the factory owners (who were doctors) and their chemist all used protective masks and lead screens when handling the radium-laced paint.
Over time the radioactive material built-up in their bodies and the effects were readily apparent by the early 1920s. Many had problems with their teeth and their jawbones began to decay away. Others had joint pain and severe anemia. As their health deteriorated, some would develop disfiguring cancer tumors.
With little in the way of worker protection in the early 20th century, these women had little means of recourse for the damage to their bodies. Things started to change when the case of a former US Radium worker named Grace Fryer was brought to the attention of a reporter named Waller Lippmann. He got the Consumers League to champion her cause.
With their backing, Grace Fryer decided to sue US Radium in 1925, but it took two years to find an attorney willing to take on her case. The suit was finally filed in May 1927 on the behalf of Fryer and four other employees in New Jersey State Supreme Court.
The case quickly grew into a media sensation and the 5 women were quickly dubbed The Radium Girls.
To no one’s surprise, US Radium denied knowingly poisoning these or any other dial painters. They launched a campaign of disinformation and were able to initially keep doctors and dentists from releasing any information. Worst of all, they attempted to smear the reputation of these women by claiming that the symptoms that they were experiencing was due to syphilis.
But there was much documented research data available for the lawyers to use, including a comment by Marie Curie herself who said that “if the poison is taken internally, it is practically impossible to destroy it.” US Radium knew that they were going to lose.
A trial date was set for June 1927, but just days before, the case was settled out of court. Each of the five women were awarded $10,000 each plus complete medical coverage and a $600 annual annuity, payable until death.
Unfortunately, death came way to soon. Four of the women died within a short period after the settlement, all in their 30s. Grace Fryer was thirty-four when she died in 1933. The fifth died in 1946 at age 51. A great many workers at radium manufacturers around the world died equally young and received no justice or compensation at all.
Without a doubt this is a tragic story, but its legacy still lives on. It established the right of employees to sue their employers for labor abuses. The strict industrial standards that are in place today for the handling of toxic materials can be traced directly back to the outcome of this case.
One would think that would be the end of the use of radium, but it wasn’t. Practically from the moment it was discovered by the Curie’s, medical quacks left and right promoted it as a miracle substance: a true gift to humanity that could cure all ills. The horrific stories of the Radium Girls did not stop the production of these products.
Various products claimed that it could cure anemia, arthritis, cancer diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, obesity, senility, virility, and much more. There were radium laced drinks, salves, bath salts, tablets, suppositories, and on and on.
But it was the case of a socialite and golf champion named Eben M. Byers that really changed everything. In 1928, Byers injured his arm and his doctor recommended that he start drinking Radithor; a one-ounce bottle of distilled water laced with Radium. He consumed three bottles a day for two years.
Then things started to get bad for Byers – ready, really bad. In 1930, his teeth started falling out and he was diagnosed with Radium poisoning. Eventually, he had his upper jaw and most of his lower jaw surgically removed. Holes began to develop in his skull and it was determined that all of the remaining bone tissue throughout his body was slowly disintegrating. His death in March 1932 ushered in the regulation of radioactive materials and all of these products quickly disappeared from the market.
In case you are curious, you have nothing to worry about with modern glow-in-the-dark materials. They are made with phosphorescent materials. Shine a light on these products and they absorb some of the energy, only to re-emit it at a later time. There are no radioactive materials involved. Radium was phased out from use in clocks and watches in the 1950s and was last used in watches in 1968 and in clocks in 1978.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.