Today, most people know that radium is a radioactive substance that should be handled with extreme caution. During the First World War, however, it was different when people with a few precautions dealt with it as if there was no tomorrow … which meant that there were none for some of them. The most tragic story of this carefree early approach to radium is the story of the Radium Girls – a group of unsuspecting factory workers who recognized the dangers of the element they went with the hard way. That's her terrible story.
Radium as Material
The chemistry and physics legends Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898 . At first, the highly radioactive material was very hard to extract and only tiny amounts were available. And the Curies became extremely cautious after having suffered several radiation fires as they dealt with it. Indeed, Curies apprentice Sabin of Sochocky once heard Pierre say: " would not be interested in confiding in a room with a kilo of pure radium, as this would burn the entire skin of his body and destroy his eyesight and kill him probably. "
In 1913, Sochocky and another physician named George Willis experimented with radium, creating a radiant" radium-based "color that made things glow in the dark. This color would continue to destroy hundreds, and possibly even thousands of lives.
Radium as a Beauty and Health Product
Sochocky and Willis were well aware of the dangers of radium – in fact, Sochocky once hacked one of his products when it had been stained with the radioactive element. Unfortunately for the radium girls the information about the dangers of the material was not available to anyone outside the scientific community. Because had been used successfully in the early days to treat cancer people had begun to regard it as an all-healing superdrug.
The media praised radium as a miracle substance with no negative side effects, and people took in daily elixirs with traces of it, much like you would take vitamin pills. Radium was considered a cure for arthritis and other ailments and was found in all sorts of products, from cosmetics and toothpaste to suspensions and lingerie, to food and drink. In retrospect, this was particularly dangerous, as ingested radium behaves like calcium and gets directly into your bones. Remember this evil factoid, it will be important in a minute.
The Radium Girls Emerge
A color that glows in the dark proved to be excellent for making things like dimly lit clocks for military use, and military needs were urgent because of World War I. raged. To take advantage of this demand, founded by Sochocky and Willis the US. Radium Corporation in 1917 to join other similar companies operating since 1916 . The radon from Carnoniterz, extracted and purified by over 100 workers in the company's plant, blended the company's special radium paint Undark and painted the clocks by hand.
The Radium Corporation was an excellent place to work for a lady, or so it seemed: the work was well paid and comparatively simple, and the company liked to employ young women because their delicate, skilled hands made the job easier. That they had to work with an amazing health substance and stand by the war effort did not hurt either. As a result, the company was a much sought after employer for a while.
Poor Precautions and Planning
The founders of the company were undeniably familiar with radium, and it was well known that the item could potentially be potentially dangerous to a large extent, no one bothered the radium girls about the risks to inform. The workers were assured that the glowing fluid they were working with was extremely safe, although the managers of radium product companies usually wore protective clothing – those of the Radium Corporation had heavy lead aprons and were only able to handle the radium with the long ivory tongs.
Meanwhile, the women worked without protection, painting the clocks and mixing the color of radium dust, glue and water. The plant that was so full of radium dust that it landed everywhere and made everything – and everyone – shine in an otherworldly light. To make matters worse, the company taught the workers to paint dials with a special "lip, dip and paint routine". The painters used a "lip pointing technique" in which they sharpened their paintbrushes with their mouths in order to achieve color preservation. Do you remember what we said about eating radium, which is incredibly dangerous? These women did it daily for years just to cut costs.
The Shining Goddesses
The Radium girls never really worried about putting radium-stained brushes in their mouths. After all, all magazines and newspapers said that radium was healthy, and the regulators assured that the paint was completely safe. How could a little recorded radium be anything but useful ?
However, the brushes were not the only thing that increased the radium content of the workers. The strange lighting effect of the supposedly safe substance was retained even after their shift and they shone so strongly that it was immediately clear who was working in the system and who was not. Many of the "radiant girls" wore this glow as a welcome reward, and when the work week was over, some of them went one step further . Before they reached the city, they used Undark to paint their nails, hair, and even teeth and literally illuminate the room with their smiles. They were the shining goddesses: well paid, proud of their work and literally radiant. They were happy and many invited their siblings and close friends to join them in the factory. They had no way of knowing that something was wrong. And then the problems started.
The Horror Begins
The questionable honor of being the first of the radium girls to die went to Mollie Maggia . In early 1922, she visited the dentist for toothache. It soon turned out that he had another one. And another one. When they were removed, ruthlessly painful, seeping ulcers broke through her gums. Soon the pain spread to her limbs, rendering her unable to walk.
The doctors first rejected the symptoms as rheumatism and sent away the aching Maggia with a bottle of aspirin. By May, however, radium poisoning had plunged them into a zombie-like semi-death existence. Most of her teeth were gone, and her entire mouth, jaw, and even the bones in her ears could only be described as "a great abscess." Still, no one seemed to realize how serious her condition was until she took what would be her last trip to the dentist. When the dentist touched her jaw, he broke off. In another examination, the dentist completely removed the upper jaw of poor Maggia – just by going in and picking it out. Soon, her entire lower jaw had to be removed. To her dreadful horror, other girls began to feel tooth and body aches, and we can only imagine how scary it must have been for them to grasp what was happening, to know about Maggie's cruel condition and to realize that she was possibly the next could be.
When autumn came, Maggie's deadly infection was already in her throat. It cut her throat, causing a deadly hemorrhage that killed her at the tender age of 24 in horror movie style. Her death was written off as syphilis. However, she was far from the last to die, and by the end of 1924, dozens of other girls had suffered a similar fate.
The worst thing about radium is that it takes its time. Many of the women had swallowed traces of the stuff for many years, and the item slowly took its toll. It tracked their bones and tracked their limbs, drilled holes in their bodies and sabotaged their health in a number of frightening ways. A woman was forced to wear a steel brace because the radium squeezed her back. Others had bone fractures so deep that their legs became shorter. There have been cases when jaws fell into cruel stumps. And then of course there was cancer. Very much cancer.
What made it worse was the fact that radium in its bones and bodies never stopped glowing and emitting a bright, deadly light under its skin. The former luminous goddesses had become ghost-girls – dozens of radioactive lifeless people who were full of radiant deaths and could not be removed from their bodies.
Deaths and Subsequent Investigations
Radium Girls were fired from their work for ill health and eventually died but they found it hard to call attention to their fight. However, fate intervened when a wealthy, well-known man named Eben Byers also died of radiation poisoning. It was his death that led the officers to take action and reform the industry in a way that was less dangerous to just about everyone involved. Unfortunately, these improvements mainly served to protect consumers and barely affected the women who still work actively with Radium.
In 1924, the US Radium Corporation finally commissioned its own study an attempt to discard rumors about the alleged dangers of their trade. This was not quite what was expected: the hygiene investigators Katherine and Cecil Drinker, who were responsible for conducting the investigation, found that not only was radium dangerous, but it was everywhere in the girls' workplace and they changed when they changed her whole body. The Drinkers undoubtedly concluded that radium was the cause of all health problems, and although the US-based Radium Corporation did its best to present the results in a more favorable light for them, the pressure increased.
Some of the Radium Girls sued the company who relentlessly denied any connection between the deaths on the rise and their product. As studies linking the two emerged, the US Radium Company even bribed scientists to create other studies that showed that radium is safe for workers. Even while Sochocky and Willis had decided that their workers would make some kind of opposition to their company to finance their medical bills, the Radium girls continued to push on, knowing only that they were right. Finally, they won valuable allies. The famous pathologist Harrison Martland began investigating the case in 1925, and after examining the remains of poor Molly Maggia and other dead radium girls, she found that they did not show symptoms of syphilis (their most common "official" cause of death).
Even Martland's new found evidence did not seem to be sufficient to bring the radium industry to a standstill. The case was so complicated and the radium industry so powerful that almost every lawyer denied the case and believed that it was a situation without success. In 1927, a lawyer named Raymond Berry eventually agreed to represent the Radium girls, but by that time, most of the women involved in the suit had only a few months to live, and the US Radium Company made it clear that they would stretch their feet as much as possible. Small victories led to appeals Settlements were closed and even the victories came so late that many of the radium girls used the money only for funding their own funerals .
Nevertheless, the events were heavily publicized and the Radium girls liked to give interviews and organize fundraisers, which meant that the cat was now out of the bag. The government had no choice but to act, and in 1928 the technique of lipsticking was banned, and protective clothing was given to every worker who came into contact with radium. Ten years later, radium color took the lead in the dodo, and the FDA banned the "packaging of radium-containing products". By 1939, the radium industry lost its final appeal to the Supreme Court, which officially confirmed the existence of a Radium poisoning as such a cause of death. As an added bonus, the entire case was directly responsible for the establishment of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority. Yes, you owe it to the Radium Girls that OSHA exists.
The Legacy of the Radium Girls
The tragic history of the Radium girls reads like a horror story, and their victims were terrible. More than 50 of the girls died of radium intoxication in 1927, and many of the hundreds who survived were facing serious health problems . It is estimated that the total radium industry has caused thousands of women at least some health problems. Bone cancer, anemia, and leukemia were as common among the survivors as amputations, bone changes, and collapsed vertebrae. Some suffered for decades from a version of the half-life of poor Mollie Maggia, and an unhappy woman could not leave her bed for a whopping 50 years.
Despite their unfortunate fate, almost all Radium girls worked to ensure the necessary security that no one would suffer the same as ever. They agreed to be measured and examined by scientists, which led to a profound understanding of the effects of radiation on living humans that would otherwise have been impossible to obtain. In fact, we owe almost everything we know about the long-term effects of radiation in the human body, the radium girl. Without them, the Manhattan Project could have argued against the rigorous security measures. In this case, thousands of people who worked with actual nuclear weapons might have done so with precautions that were little more than the radium girl's lip paint. "Without the investigation of them, it would have been possible for President John F. Kennedy not to sign the international treaty on a limited ban on tests of 1963 nuclear tests. In fact, the tragedy of the radium girls is directly responsible for the strict regulation of all types of industries involved in radioactivity.
However, the radium industry needed more time to go under. While radium companies were massively affected, radium color was banned in 1938 and the world began to move away from the joys of radium when the Second World War came to an end. The last of the glowing processing plants was only closed in 1978. Its radiation levels were 1,666 times higher than allowed.
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