While history is made of progress, many have come into being with their share of horrors, losses and scandals. Whether we are talking about the medical community, the agricultural sector, politics or science or even technology, there have unfortunately been a host of dark events that the story, or at least the people who tell it , wanted to pass over in silence. That of these working women in the United States in 1917 who were called the Radium Girls is one of them, and we propose to summarize it for you in a few points.
1. The Radium Luminous Material Corporation, the beginning of a promising society
This whole story begins in New York when the radium luminous materials company was created by two doctors in 1914. At the base, it took care of producing uranium by exploiting a radioactive ore called carnotite, but its activity quickly evolved into the production and sale of luminescent paint. In barely three years of existence, the company opened two other branches in the state of New Jersey, the first in Newark and the second in Orange.
2. New factory in the city of Orange, New Jersey
It was in 1917 in Orange (New Jersey) that the company that would soon be called United States Radium Corporation settles in order to get closer to the place from which the radium is extracted. Nearly half a ton of ore is then processed per day by workers and the luminescent paint named Undark is produced there. It is composed of sulphide of zinc and radium, the radiation of which causes the sulphide to fluoresce.
3. The First World War and the Rise in Demand for Equipment
At the time, one of the company’s most important customers was none other than the American army, it wanted to equip as many soldiers as possible with watches with luminescent dials so that they could have the time even when it was dark. fallen. The dials of vehicles such as cars and military planes are also equipped with them and even after the end of the war one continues to order luminescent dials to fill the stocks in the event of another conflict.
4. Working-class America
While many men are at the front, it is women who in many industries are becoming the majority of the working class. You have to support the country, and if it’s not always possible to do it as a soldier in Europe, then you have to do it as a worker in the country. This is how the company hires several hundred women who want to help the American army to paint watch faces. They are mostly very young, some are even teenagers and this is their first job for them.
5. The working-class working class elite: patriotism and advantage
What can be added to helping your country at war by manufacturing essential equipment for the army than a good paycheck? Not much. Employees earn a salary that often reaches three times the median salary of other factories in the country and those who rise in rank can enter the list of the highest paid women in the country by painting nearly 250 faces of clocks and watches a day. .
“The worker elite” is how these women are called and it takes little time for the factories to grow, the workers themselves doing the word of mouth necessary to hire their sisters, their friends and acquaintances.
6. “Ghost Girls”
A quickly visible side effect on these workers is that they glow. Literally. Leaving the factories after dark, we observe that they themselves are phosphorescent because of the radium powder deposited on them and they are quickly nicknamed the “ghost girls”. This becomes one more argument for working in the factory: many women also want to shine, especially since some of the employees put paint on their evening dresses and even on their nails and teeth to stand out from the others. of their suitors.
7. Known adverse health effects
It was said at the time that small doses of radium were good for the health, it was found in certain cosmetic products such as creams, toothpaste or food products. Some advertising campaigns even promote longer life with a small dose of radium, so drinking a few drops mixed with water is advisable.
But in reality, we know very well the harmfulness of the product since its discovery by Marie Curie in 1898. She burns herself seriously with radium and between this discovery and the creation of the famous painting, many people exposed to radium quickly died. All the studies that praise the merits of the product were actually written by researchers paid by the brands, a scandal that would only become public a few years later.
8. “It’s not dangerous, so don’t be afraid.” The factory foreman
Many employees naturally asked from the start whether the product was dangerous. After all, they have to mix the radium salts, water and glue needed to make the paint themselves before applying it to the dials. These salts which appear as a kind of shiny powder stay on their hands, hair, clothes and faces after the day is over.
They also see that the scientists who handle it in the company’s laboratories are equipped with masks, gloves, lead aprons and grab the samples with forceps, but never with their bare hands. But they are told many times that it is not harmful and there is nothing to worry about from this product.
9. Forced daily exposure
In addition to mixing the products themselves to make the paint and being covered in powder, the workers are asked to lick their brushes when they taper. Dozens of times a day, the bristles of the brushes deteriorate and they have to tighten it by pinching it between their lips and moistening it with their tongues, swallowing small doses of paint as they pass. It even becomes a procedure to follow: “lick, dip, paint”.
Quickly, more and more serious side effects appeared: several employees began to suffer from jaw necrosis, anemia, but also fractures due to bone degradation. In two years time, four employees died while the cases of illness multiplied.
10. First clinical studies and numerous cancers
More and more employees are undergoing clinical examinations, and it is thought that the x-ray equipment of the time which exposed even more radiation than today was even a factor in aggravating the symptoms. Cancerous tumors are found in many patients, especially at the bone level. Growths grow on the chin, limbs, bones almost shine through the skin of the sick and become necrotic from the inside. Deaths are increasing rapidly, and gradually the doctors and dentists treating the patients are beginning to understand the source of the illnesses.
11. The start of the lawsuit and the company’s disinformation campaign
Faced with numerous complaints from sick workers, the company categorically rejects their arguments. Not only does she persist in saying that radium is not dangerous, but she also blames the women. She declares that some deaths are due to syphilis, dragging in the mud the memory of the first victims by clearly accusing them of having died because of their sex life.
At the same time, society pressures doctors and dentists, demanding that they falsify reports or avoid making their results public. Bribes or threats, the Radium Corporation will stop at nothing to keep the scandal a secret. Another similar company, the Radium Dial even has the graves of its deceased employees looted to recover the irradiated bones so that forensic scientists cannot study them.
12. The Trial
The first worker who wants to file a lawsuit against the company takes more than two years to find a lawyer who accepts the case. The Radium Corporation does everything to slow down the procedure, aware that the plaintiffs only have a few months to live, hoping to pay less compensation if there are fewer plaintiffs.
The press covered the affair massively when it became public and at the end of the trial in 1927 the Radium Corporation is forced to compensate the plaintiffs in the amount of $10,000. They also receive $600 a year, but most die within five years. The same year, nearly fifty employees died as a direct result of their poisoning, but the hundreds of survivors suffered from numerous illnesses.
The case later makes it possible to review the texts of laws which prohibit employees from filing a complaint against their employer. As far as the danger of radium is concerned, it will take five more years for it to be taken seriously when a man, who is also rich, dies because of his exposure to the product.