The Radium Girls—What Has Really Changed?

As safety and health professionals, it’s up to us to further the mission of protecting the health of millions of American workers.

December 22, 2017

Every industrial hygienist (IH) knows this story. In the early 1920s, young women working at several U.S. Radium Corp. (USRC) plants across the U.S. and Canada painting glow-in-the-dark radium clock dials were becoming sick, some with grisly symptoms such as disintegrating jaws, horrible pain in their bones, and death from hemorrhages. Many developed massive sarcomas that riddled their bodies.

The women had been told that the radioactive paint was harmless, and so they didn’t worry as they painted 250 dials apiece each day, using a technique called lip-pointing. After every few paint strokes, they would swirl their brushes between their lips and tongues to give them a fine point. Each time they did this they ingested a small amount of radium. After a few years many of the women began experiencing serious health effects. Many of them died in their 20s and 30s, wasting away, their bones crumbling from the unique radiation-related sickness.

The hazards of radiation exposure were not well understood by the general public at the time. The Curies had discovered it in 1898; Marie Curie first isolated it as a metal in 1910. It was industrially produced shortly thereafter, and quickly became America’s favorite new miracle ingredient. “Small” amounts were regarded as therapeutic and restorative. Radium-based household commercial products became widespread, and included toothpastes, hair creams, women’s cosmetics, elixirs, food items, and dozens of others.

The most tragic aspect of the story is that the owners and scientists at USRC knew that radium is extremely toxic. They were careful to avoid any exposure to the radium themselves, using lead screens, masks and tongs to handle it, yet, encouraged its use by the public and did not recommend that workers be prevented from ingesting it. When the girls began to get sick and die, the company fought claims that radium exposure was linked to their workers’ illnesses and deaths for nearly two years, until public awareness of the tragedy adversely affected their business.

In 1924 USRC commissioned an independent expert to explore the link between radium and the women’s illnesses. When the expert confirmed the causal relationship, the president of the firm ordered new studies to contradict the original results. When the Department of Labor began investigating, he lied about the independent report’s conclusions.

There is more to this horrific story, and it breaks one’s heart to read it through. A play, a book, and a movie have been written about it. It has recently been discussed on the radio program Marketplace. However, the authors have been laboring under the false impression that the problem has been solved, that creating occupational illness is illegal, that workers are fully protected from the effects of harmful chemical exposure in today’s workplaces.

One reasonably could expect that the experience of the Radium Girls had changed the terrible practice of exposing workers to hazardous materials and letting them become ill without consequence to the employer. But, in fact, very little has changed since those days. Granted, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established some 50 years later, however, it has almost no power to prevent the same thing from happening again with new substances.

Thousands of chemicals that have no restrictions on worker exposure are being used in today’s workplaces. Even worse, in the vast majority of cases, very little is known about the potential health effects of these chemicals. Like the Radium Girls, today’s workers often are the bellwethers of danger, unknowingly lending their bodies as indicators of harm. It is when workers actually become ill that action is more likely to be taken, however, today it is nearly impossible to create new standards to protect workers against even well-known hazardous chemicals.

As safety and health professionals, it’s up to us to further the mission of protecting the health of millions of American workers. The Radium Girls would REALLY thank us for that.

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