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Radium Girls

  The Radium Girls were women subjected to radiation exposure at the United States Radium Corporation factory, in Orange, New Jersey around 1917, five of whom gained notoriety for their efforts in challenging their employer in court. The five women, and many of their co-workers and radium paint plant workers from across North America, died as a result of their previous radiation exposure during the course of the litigation.


U.S. Radium Corporation

From 1917 to 1926, U.S. Radium Corporation was engaged in the extraction and purification of radium from carnotite ore to produce luminous paints, which were marketed under the brand name 'Undark'. As a defense contractor, U.S. Radium was a major supplier of radioluminescent watches to the military. Their plant in New Jersey employed over a hundred workers, mainly women, to paint radium-lit watch faces and instruments.

Radiation exposure

The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physics and the labor rights movement. The U.S. Radium Corporation hired some 70 women to perform various tasks including the handling of radium, while the owners and their scientists — familiar with the effects of radium — carefully avoided any exposure to it themselves; chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks and tongs.[citation needed] An estimated 4,000 workers were hired by corporations in the U.S. and Canada to paint watch faces with radium.

For fun, the Radium Girls painted their nails, teeth and faces with the deadly paint produced at the factory, sometimes to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out. They mixed glue, water and radium powder, and then used camel hair brushes to apply the glowing paint onto dial numbers. The going rate, for painting 250 dials a day, was about a penny and a half per dial. The brushes would lose shape after a few strokes, so the U.S. Radium supervisors encouraged their workers to point the brushes with their lips, or use their tongues to keep them sharp.

Radiation sickness

Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw. Primitive x-ray machines may have contributed to some of the sickened workers ill-health by subjecting them to additional radiation when they sought medical attention. It turned out at least one of the examinations was a ruse, part of a campaign of disinformation started by the defense contractor.[citation needed] U.S. Radium and other watch-dial companies rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium. For some time, doctors, dentists, and researchers complied with requests from the companies not to release their data. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes; syphilis was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women.



The story of the abuse perpetrated against the workers is distinguished from most such cases by the fact that the ensuing litigation was covered widely by the media. Plant worker Grace Fryer decided to sue, but it took two years for her to find a lawyer willing to take on U.S. Radium. A total of five factory workers, dubbed the Radium Girls, joined the suit. The litigation and media sensation surrounding the case established legal precedents and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards, including a baseline of 'provable suffering'.

Historical impact

The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades.

The settlement for the Radium Girls was $10,000 each[1].

Scientific impact

Robley D. Evans made the first measurements of exhaled radon and radium excretion from a former dial painter in 1933. At MIT he gathered dependable body content measurements from 27 dial painters. This information was used in 1941 by the National Bureau of Standards to establish the tolerance level for radium of 0.1 μCi (3.7 kBq).

The Center for Human Radiobiology was established at Argonne National Laboratory in 1968. The primary purpose of the Center was providing medical examinations for living dial painters. The project also focused on collection of information, and, in some cases, tissue samples from the radium dial painters. When the project ended in 1993, detailed information of 2,403 cases had been collected. No symptoms were observed in those dial painter cases with less than 1,000 times the natural 226Ra levels found in unexposed individuals, suggesting a threshold for radium-induced malignancies.


The story of the workers was immortalized in the poem "Radium Girls" by Eleanor Swanson, and is included in her collection, A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium (2003).

Writer D.W. Gregory also retold the story of Grace Fryer in her award-winning play Radium Girls, which premiered in 2000 at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, New Jersey.

There is an elaborate reference to this story in one of Kurt Vonnegut's novels.

Poet Lavinia Greenlaw has also written on the subject in her poem "The Innocence of Radium" (Night Photograph, 1994).

See also


  1. ^ Kovarik, Bill (Revised 2002). The Radium Girls. (originally published as chapter eight of Mass Media and Environmental Conflict). Retrieved on 2007-01-27.
  • - 'University Libraries Special Collections: U.S. Radium Corporation, East Orange, NJ', Records, Catalog 1917-1940 (Revised, June, 2003)
  • NTIS - 'Radium in Humans, A Review of U.S. Studies, R.E. Rowland, Argonne National Laboratory, 1994, NTIS document number DE95006146
  • United States Radium Company History and Original Stock Certificate - 1926
  • Undark and the Radium Girls, Alan Bellows, December 28, 2006, Damn Interesting
  • Radium Girls, Eleanor Swanson.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Radium_Girls". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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