Monday, June 20, 2011

The Radium Girls & Undark- A Deadly Combination

When I first heard about this story, it shocked me. I was watching a television program called "1000 ways to die," when they had a brief segment about the 'Radium Girls.' Immediately I began to be intrigued by the story that was told. After the short segment was over, I decided to do some more research of my own about this sad and tragic story.

In the 1920's a company known as US Radium Corp. (formerly Radium Luminous Material Corporation) hired 4000 workers, mainly women in their Orange, New Jersey facility. The starting pay was $18.75 per week, which was higher than the median wage of that time, $15.00 per week. The owner of US Radium Corp. had acquired radium salt crystals from William J. Hammer, who had originally bought the crystals from Scientists Pierre & Marie Curie.

When the crystals were mixed with zinc sulfide and glue it turned into a luminous paint, which they named 'Undark' due to the glow-in-the-dark properties. The paint was then used for the surface dails of wristwatches made for WWI infantry men to be able to read their watches in the dark. The luminous paint would make any surface it touched glow in the dark.

Although US Radium Corp. knew the dangers to that sort of exposure of radioactive materials, they assured their workers that the paint was harmless. In fact, the young women who were hired to paint the dials on the wristwatches were even told to lick the ends of the camel hair paint brushes each stroke in order to keep the shape of the brush pointed. These young ladies had no idea they were slowly poisoning themselves. The paint had no smell and no flavor. The women were told that it was harmless materials so they never gave it a second thought. After time the women began to paint their nails with it and even paint their lips with it, because it glowed in the dark, making it fun while they were working. All the while, their bosses never said anything about their safety. In fact, some of the managers even encouraged the girls to paint themselves with it, saying it would give them a beautiful glow.

Some women began taking small amounts of the Undark paint home to paint their bodies and share it with their husbands or boyfriends for fun. Little did they know that all the paint was being absorbed into their bodies, slowly building up over time. You see, the Undark paint's chemical makeup was not unlike Calcium in the fact that the body mistook it as Calcium thus it was absorbed into the women's bones. After so long with the radioactive materials being absorbed regularly into their bodies, they developed bone cancers and their bones started deteriorating abnormally.

I've read about reported cases of Irene Rudolph, Katherine Shaub and Grace Fryer. These are just a handful of the many girls who suffered from this terrible poisoning. So many suffered from anemia, bone fractures, bone loss, necrosis of the jaw and bone cancers. Grace Fryer, went to the dentist because her teeth began to fall out. The dentist found small holes in her jaw, like honeycomb patterns showing serious bone loss and deterioration of the entire jaw.

Meanwhile, several other dentists were noticing that too many cases in the area were similar to that of Grace's. When Grace saw a so-called 'Specialist', Frederick Flyn from Columbia University, he told her that she was perfectly normal. Later on it was discovered that Mr. Flyn was a toxicologist working for US Radium Corp. It was obvious he was paid off to lie to that poor girl.

As time went on more and more girls were affected, and more and more girls started to die. Doctor's couldn't figure out what was causing their deaths and so they blamed the deaths on STD's such as Syphilis, which ruined the girls' reputations even in death.

After there was some media attention to US Radium Corp, the company hired Cecil Drinker to investigate the employment conditions at their facility. Cecil's findings showed the truth, that there was highly unsafe conditions for these girls and that serious changes needed to be made to remedy the situation.

So did US Radium Corp. take into consideration Mr. Drinker's findings? Absolutely not. In fact, they re-wrote his report and tried to pass it off as Mr. Drinker's original file. Everything that Mr. Drinker had found and noted, they erased and instead put praises of how great and safe the facility was. US Radium Corp. then turned the false file to the New Jersey Department of Labor.

Eventually Mr. Drinker caught on to the lies that US Radium Corp. forged in his name and he published a copy of his original findings. That brought even more media attention to US Radium Corp. exposing them as liars and frauds.

In 1927, the Class Action Suit against US Radium Corp. was on its way. Sadly, the women were dying so fast that it was stated that they were "too weak to even raise their hands to take the oath" in court. Word got to Marie Curie, the Scientist who had originally sold the radium crystals. She felt so badly for the girls and vowed that she would help in any way she could. She also quoted her scientific findings, " There is no means of destroying the substance once it enters the body". A few years later, Marie Curie died of the same radiation poisoning due to her exposure to radioactive materials.

US Radium Corp. was planning to drag the court case as long as they could, hoping the girls would die off before they could ever make it to trial. But, at the last minute they reached a settlement agreement due to an emergency mediation hearing prompted by the girls' Attorney.

Each girl would receive $10,000, all medical and legal fees would be paid and they would receive compensation in the amount of $600.00 every year for as long as they lived. As you can imagine, most of those girls never got to see their compensation money due to passing away soon after the trial.

Sadly, there is no happy ending for these women as they all eventually died from their exposure to those radioactive materials. However, their victory in the media influenced US Industrial Safety Standards that all employers are bound by today. They also established rights for workers to sue their employers if they contract occupational diseases or injuries while on the job.

Yes, US Radium Corp. was an evil, money-hungry company who did what they wanted, and tried to shut up anyone in their way, but in the end they were shut up. Its just sad that it took so many young women's lives in order to do it. I have to sit here today and thank the Radium Girls for their part in history, and for making the workplace safer for us today.

Thank you ladies.

J'aime Rubio (Copyright) 2011

1 comment:

  1. just another sad story of the many that can be told about the way people were treated by employers and even the Government.


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