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United States Radium Corporation

The United States Radium Corporation was a company operated between the years 1917 to 1926 in Orange, New Jersey, in the United States. After initial success in developing a Glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint, the company closed in the late 1920s in the wake of severe illnesses and deaths of workers who had ingested radioactive material when they licked their brushes to paint the thin lines needed on watch dials. Workers had been told that the paint was harmless.[1] During World War I, the company sold many of its watches to the United States Army for use by soldiers.[2]

U.S Radium was the subject of major radioactive contamination of its workers, primarily women who painted the dials of watches and other instruments with luminous paint.[1]



The company was founded in 1914 in Newark, New Jersey by Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky and Dr. George S. Willis, and was originally called the Radium Luminous Material Corporation. The company produced uranium from carnotite ore and eventually moved into the business of producing radioluminescent paint. The company then moved to Orange in 1917 and four years later opened its doors as United States Radium Corporation in 1921. By 1926 carnotite ore processing ceased and the company called itself the Safety Light Corporation, a reference to glow-in-the-dark safety signs, dials and other luminous paint products the company produced until 1927.

The luminescent paint used by the women, a product called Undark, had radium as its main ingredient. Workers had been instructed to "point" the brushes by licking them with their mouths.[3] Unbeknownst to the women, the product was highly radioactive and therefore, carcinogenic. The ingestion of the paint by the women, brought about while licking the brushes, resulted in a condition called radium jaw, a painful swelling and porosity of the upper and lower jaws, and ultimately led to the deaths of many of these women.

Radium jaw (Radium necrosis), was allegedly known and initially denied by US Radium's management and scientists working for the company. This was the reason for litigation against US Radium by the so-called Radium girls. The unfavourable publicity generated by reports of illness and death amongst previous dial painters resulted in a drop in potential employees. This was the reason cited by the company for its closure.

Around 1920, a similar dial painting business, a division of the Standard Chemical Company based in Chicago, known as the Radium Dial Company opened in Chicago, but soon moved its dial painting operation to Peru, Illinois to be closer to its major customer, the Westclox Clock Company. Even though several previous workers died and health risks associated with radium were allegedly known, this company continued dial painting operations until 1940, when the operation was moved to New York City.

Immediate aftermath

The chief medical examiner of Essex County, New Jersey published a report in 1925 that identified the radioactive material the women had ingested as the cause of their bone disease and aplastic anemia, and ultimate death.[2]

Illness and death resulting from ingestion of radium paint and the subsequent legal action taken by the women, forced closure of the company in 1927. The case was settled out of court in 1928, but not before a substantial number of the litigants were seriously ill or had died from bone cancer and other radiation related illnesses.[4] The company, it was alleged, were taking too much time to settle the litigation on purpose, leading to further deaths.

In November 1928, Dr. von Sochocky, the inventor of the radium-based paint, died of aplastic anemia resulting from his exposure to the radioactive material, "a victim of his own invention."[5]

To this day, the levels of radiation ingested by the victims is sufficient to be detected at their graves using a Geiger counter.[3]

Superfund site

The company processed about 1,000 pounds of ore daily while in operation, which was dumped on the site. The radon and radiation resulting from the 1,600 tons of material on the abandoned factory resulted in the site's designation as a Superfund site by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1983.[6] From 1997 through 2005, the EPA remediated the site in a process that involved the excavation and off-site disposal of radium-contaminated material at the former plant site, and at 250 residential and commercial properties that had been contaminated in the intervening decades.[7]


  1. ^ a b Frame, Paul. Radioluminescent Paint, Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Accessed September 17, 2007.
  2. ^ a b University Libraries Special Collections: U.S. Radium Corporation, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Accessed September 20, 2007.
  3. ^ a b "Radium: From Wonder Drug to Hazard"], The New York Times, October 4, 1987. Accessed September 20, 2007. "It was not until the early 1920's, after the first cancer deaths of watch-dial painters at the United States Radium Corporation in East Orange, N.J., that medical authorities began to realize that radium, in even the most minute amounts, was extremely dangerous and long-lasting. Workers had been instructed to twirl their paint brushes in their mouths to get a fine point. As a result, some victims ingested so much radium that their graves still cause Geiger-counter needles to jump."
  4. ^ Radium dial painters, 1920-1926, Johnston's Archive. Accessed September 17, 2007.
  5. ^ "RADIUM PAINT TAKES ITS INVENTOR'S LIFE; Dr. Sabin A. von Sochocky Ill a Long Time, Poisoned by Watch Dial Luminant. 13 BLOOD TRANSFUSIONS Death Due to Aplastic Anemia-- Women Workers Who Were Stricken Sued Company.", The New York Times, November 15, 1928.
  6. ^ NPL Site Narrative for U.S. Radium Corp., United States Environmental Protection Agency notice dated September 8, 1983. Accessed September 20, 2007.
  7. ^ U.S. Radium Corp., United States Environmental Protection Agency notice dated September 8, 1983. Accessed September 20, 2007.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "United_States_Radium_Corporation". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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