Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was yet another book I picked up on a whim because it was on the “new books” shelf. I was passingly familiar with the basic history, because of the important legal precedents set by the cases that resulted. But I had never really gone into detail on the personal, scientific, or political sides of the issue.

I’ll start with a basic synopsis. In the period of time spanning from the beginning of World War I through the 1930s, glow-in-the-dark faces for watches , gunsights, and aircraft instruments were in great demand. Back in that time, this was accomplished by using a paint containing the element radium, combined with zinc sulfide. The radioactive radium would stimulate a glow from the zinc. 

 Antique clocks and watches under black light. Still radioactive, but not dangerous unless ingested.

The radium paint was carefully applied to the dial by skilled painters - almost all of them young women hired for the task. In order to get the fine brush point, the painters were advised to use their mouth and tongue to shape the bristles before painting - a practice which predictably led to the workers ingesting radium. While radium was well known to be toxic at the time, this fact was hidden from the young women - and in some cases deliberate lies were told to them regarding the danger. Within a few years, the women began to experience radiation poisoning, and many of them died at young ages as a result.

In what is well known to lawyers and law students as a common theme of history, the corporations lied, bribed, threatened, retaliated, and fought against all attempts to hold them legally responsible for killing their workers. Finally, some courageous lawyers, working mostly for free, teamed up with the most determined of the workers, and won. Soon afterward, laws were changed to protect workers, and OSHA was created, to prevent this sort of horror from happening again.

Kate Moore intentionally focuses on the women themselves. Their stories, lives, and fates, are the central story of the book. She extensively researched their lives, drawing heavily on diaries, letters, and interviews with survivors and family members. The result is a truly heart-rending tale, made all the worse by the unvarnished way it is told.

First, a bit of science, because I care about that sort of thing. Radium exists in nature only as a byproduct of the decay of uranium. Because the most common isotope has a half-life of about 1200 years, it doesn’t last long, geologically speaking. (Particularly compared to uranium, which has a half life of 700 million to 4.5 billion years, depending on the isotope. This is why uranium is useful for radiometric dating.) Radium thus forms a very small portion of uranium ore. The Curies isolated radium in 1898, and described its properties.

Radium is found in group 2 of the periodic table - the “alkaline earth metals.” (Back when I was in school, the groups had different names: group 2 was 2a back then.) This is the same group that contains calcium, and the human body uses radium the same way it does calcium. This means that if you ingest it, the radium will be built into the bones. Unsurprisingly, this is not at all good for the body. Radium decays by alpha decay, which means it emits a helium nucleus and becomes radon gas. Alpha radiation is normally not all that dangerous, because it doesn’t penetrate skin. But inside of bones, it can do tremendous damage.

This is precisely what happened to the Radium Girls. “Lip...Dip...Paint,” as the women described the process, and eventually, you get enough radium in your bones to destroy the marrow, turn the bones to sponge, and devastate the immune system. Just as a warning, the medical stuff is graphic and horrifying in this book. Some women had their jaws disintegrate in their mouths - and then brought the pieces into court. You also get pus and infections, fatal hemorrhages, and painful cancers.

Even worse, there is no real treatment. Once the radium is in there, it can’t be removed, even by chelation therapy. All that can be done is to remove any surface contamination, give supportive therapies, and hope the dose is low enough. The problem is that the radium continues to emit radiation for thousands of years, and as long as it is there, it will continue to cause damage.

Some specifics stood out to me as I read this book. First of all, there is no doubt that the companies in question knew the risks of radium. The evidence that came out at trial showed that they provided the (exclusively male) lab workers and supervisory staff with lead aprons and other protective gear. On the one hand, this was sexist (as later events showed), but on the other, this was kind of par for the course when it came to worker protections. High level, high skill employees are considered valuable enough to protect - and retain. Low level workers are considered expendable, and thus not worth sacrificing even small amounts of money or work to protect. This is still the case, by the way. One need only look at coal mine safety to see this in action. One might also note the fact that in general, higher wage workers get paid vacation, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, and so on, while “service industry” workers do not. I wonder why? Might it be that they are considered expendable?

The sexism was more apparent later, however. As women began to show symptoms of radium poisoning, the company - and their doctors - tended to blame “hysteria.” Yep, because they were female, their poor nerves were making them sick. This was a common response to any sort of occupational illness or injury among women. And it still is. Anyone remember carpal tunnel syndrome? Because it was mostly (or at least perceived to be) an injury that happened to female secretaries, it was blown off as a hoax by many.

The worst misdiagnosis was to one of the early victims. Her death certificate listed syphilis as the cause of death. Fortunately, her body was exhumed a decade later, and was found to have no signs of syphilis - and every sign of radium. The fact that her body hadn’t really decayed - and glowed in the dark - was a dead giveaway. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Also a factor here was that dial painting attracted working-class teens to the job. The pay was good, and their families needed assistance. But the assumption that lower-class women are sluts is pretty much timeless, it appears.

What seals the deal on sexism, however, is that it wasn’t until a male employee died of radiation damage that doctors started actually taking things seriously.

At this point, I really have to mention the case of Eben Byers, the wealthy socialite who died of radiation-induced cancers after consuming 1400 bottles of “Radithor,” a patent medicine containing radium. Ah yes, the history of medical quackery in the United States - it is our true national game. The best thing about this rather sad story is the fact that the Wall Street Journal ran the story under the headline, “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.” After his death, he was buried in a lead lined coffin, because he was so radioactive…

 Ah yes, the good old days before regulation...

On a related note, a person who went by Dr. Frederick Flinn comes into the story as one of the main villains. Not a medical doctor, he had a doctorate in philosophy. (The jokes almost write themselves…) That didn’t stop the United States Radium Corporation from holding him out as an MD, having the ill women consult him, then hiding the results. Flinn was originally a hired gun in another case, involving the fumes from the manufacture of leaded gasoline. His job: prove that the fumes were harmless. Likewise, he was hired on by the corporation to prove that radium was harmless. The account of Flinn’s perfidy is pretty sobering. That he sold his soul so easily is disconcerting - as is the story of one of the dentists who helped blow the whistle on the early cases...and then decided to try to sell his silence to the company.

Like the doctors, some of whom fought on the side of the victims, the lawyers involved took both sides. The company lawyers came up with all sorts of, um, creative defenses, and did not make lawyers look good. (I suspect they were Partnership Collective Drones. Go read Schlock Mercenary to understand why…) 

 But she wasn't REALLY sick. Just hysterics, right?

The Statute of Limitations defense was obvious, and it worked in some cases. However, the counter was that the company had deliberately misled the women, and that the SOL on fraud didn’t start until the women discovered it. But there was another counter argument, one that would have a significant impact on the law. (This was, if I recall, the reason I read one of the cases back in law school.) Raymond Berry, the attorney in the New Jersey cases (the others were against Radium Dial, located in Illinois - and the difference in the laws of each state were important too), submitted the argument that since the radium remained in the bones causing damage, the SOL was irrelevant: the injury was continually occurring and would continue to occur.  

The other attorney who deserves recognition as a hero was Leonard Grossman, who took on the Illinois cases, mostly on his own dime no less. While the New Jersey cases came first, and started the process, they were settled out of court, and the company was never held to be at fault. Grossman, in contrast, fought his cases through trial, with the issues eventually reaching the US Supreme Court.

Grossman was quite a character, and his appearance in this book is delightful. He was a brilliant litigator with a soft spot for victims, which meant that he was often in financial difficulties. And boy, could he write a passionate brief. I’ll quote a bit from it.

“I cannot imagine a fiend fresh enough from the profoundest depths of perdition committing such an unnatural crime as the Radium Dial Company did. My God! Is the radium industry utterly destitute of shame? Is the Radium Dial Company utterly dominated by a beast? … It is an offense against Morals and Humanity, and, just incidentally, against the law.”

But it wasn’t just the Radium Dial Company and the United States Radium Corporation that were - and are - like this. The pursuit of profit always presents the temptation to sacrifice people. It is a part of human nature that has been evident ever since the dawn of recorded history. Slavery is merely the most obvious example. I cursory examination of worker safety even a mere 100 years ago show just how casually cruel employers have always been. A couple summers ago, the kids and I visited the ghost town of Bodie, where the stamp mill is still mostly intact. Not only did workers work without protection from giant machinery belts, if an arm got ripped off, they got fired. And charged for the damage to the equipment. Other workers used mercury to extract the gold. Was safety equipment provided? Of course not. And if you got sick, you got fired, and your family had to go beg. Ah yes, the good old days before OSHA. And likewise for the Radium Girls. Once one got sick, she was fired, so she wouldn’t frighten the other workers into quitting.

The case of the Radium Girls was crucial in forcing Congress to examine the widespread disregard for worker safety, and eventually enact laws to protect workers. OSHA was part of the solution, as were the many safety regulations that govern our workplaces.

I really wish that my Libertarian friends would actually read the history, before they insist that government has no place in regulating workplaces. There was no golden age before regulations - the golden age (such as it is) is now, and it exists because of regulations and inspections. Remove that, and you will have workers treated as expendable.

And let’s not kid ourselves about the present either. Here in Kern County, we grow things. This year, our crops were the most valuable of any county in California. Our food and clothing comes from here - and it is planted, cared for, and harvested by farm workers, most of whom are immigrants. My wife works in a local hospital, and she has seen a lot of workers who were victims of pesticide “drifts.” Many of them were never healthy again. Expendable. They’re just damn Mexicans and probably illegals, right? Or are they human beings, deserving of their lives and health? That is the question for my Libertarian friends. How do you plan to protect them? Or do you just not care? And no, the fact that the dial painters got high wages doesn’t solve the problem. Many died in their early 20s. Was that okay because they made some money?

At this point, I think we need to talk politics. I lean conservative, but part of that is that I support keeping our institutions - like OSHA - in place. That is not the goal of the modern day Right any more. Rather, it is to pack regulatory agencies with industry insiders - let the fox watch the hen house. And, to eliminate class action suits, which are about the only sort of litigation likely to succeed against giant corporations. Something to think about. And remember, the company can hire a doctor who will claim that the injury is imaginary. In one case in this book, a woman was told “I don’t think there is anything wrong with you” by the company doctor.

She was missing an arm.

I am not making this up. But this is what happens when profits are at stake.

My point here isn’t to make an anti-corporate or anti-capitalist argument. The track record of the Soviet Bloc isn’t good on worker safety either. The problem is human nature, in which power and wealth will always be more tempting than the lives of “other” people. That is why our current system, our social institution, if you will, is set up to balance the power and motivation of profit with the power of regulation and the law. The one keeps the other honest. This balance is as much a necessity of a functional society as our laws against theft.

This book is a powerful reminder of that reality, and a good antidote to the utopian thinking that Libertarians indulge in. We don’t have to guess what an unregulated workplace looks like: we can examine history. We don’t have to guess whether unregulated employers will do bad things. We know they will, because that is what they have always done. Human nature.

One final bit to point out here. A key player in these cases was the Press. The pressure on Congress would never have been felt if the legal cases were all that happened. It was the stories of these women and their suffering which inflamed public opinion and led to legislation. I think we are in need of a similar event these days, but I am not yet sure where it will come from. Right now, the very people who would most suffer under an unregulated workplace are the very people who distrust the legitimate media, and prefer media which pushes the agenda of corporate deregulation - and not coincidentally, the White Nationalism which distracts the white working class from the fact that they are being sold out. I am reminded a bit of the way that the residents of the town in which Radium Dial was located responded to the injured women.

They shunned them, and condemned them for “attacking” a major employer in the city. The power of denial is very strong, stronger than empathy in many cases.

Find and read this book. It will put a human face on the purpose of regulation, and give a cautionary tale that we need to heed in these times.



At the end of the book, there is a bit on the subsequent history of the study of radiation. It was the long term effects of radium that opened the eyes of many in the field of nuclear science to the risks of long-lived isotopes that were biologically active. In particular, strontium 90 behaves in much the same way as radium. Strontium 90 is a byproduct of nuclear weapons. So if you ever wondered why the world has banned above-ground nuclear tests, that is why. You don’t need any strontium 90 eating your bones, do you?

Postscript 2:

The most shocking thing from the epilogue turned out to be a statistical fact. The US wasn’t the only country to use radium for luminescent paint. (European countries, however, used safer techniques…) But get this: the total amount of radium used worldwide during World War I was…

30 grams

Say what??

Thirty grams worth of water is two tablespoons. That’s all. And radium is denser than water. So we are talking an incredibly minute amount of the substance.

That is probably why some didn’t think the small dose would be harmful. But a tiny bit of radioactive stuff in the wrong place can indeed kill you. And in really gross ways.


  1. Just a small note, because I'm a detail person and have been around the mining industry for a long time now.

    Everybody thinks of coal mining when they think of "super dangerous mining operation" because it's so visceral--the sheared-off mountain tops in West Virginia and the mine collapses tend to stick in people's minds. And coal certainly isn't safe. However, the *most* dangerous mining operations, at least in the US, are actually sand and gravel operations. And the reason why actually plays to your main point.

    Gold and metals mining, coal, oil, and other extraction industries at least have the feature that they require lots of employees, so MSHA (the agency that regulates mines) is all over them. But sand and gravel is often a "mom and pop" operation--less than 50 employees--and can be done almost anywhere, which means that in practice sand and gravel is much less regulated and much less inspected.

    And while the mining companies we've worked for have been meticulous about safety, the public doesn't really realize the dangers inherent in metals mining, for example. (At the mine where the Husband worked, he figured out the stats. For every 1000 ounces of gold extracted, they had one fatality.) Metals mining is fanatical about safety, at least in this country, but one big part of that is that MSHA has the authority to roll up to the mine at any time, and levy giant, expensive fines if they find violations. Otherwise--well, you hope the companies would still be as meticulous about safety, but the metals extraction track record in other, less regulated countries does not suggest that they would.

    1. I should have noted, sand and gravel nationwide has the most fatalities and maimings per year. Gold nationwide has something like 15 fatalities a year; coal I believe is in the 20s; sand and gravel is in the 50s. (But don't quote me, I haven't looked it up in a long time.)

    2. Thanks for the insider information! Here in CA, we have sand and gravel operations all over, and they are indeed small - we have an abundance of dry washes and alluvial deposits. :) I hadn't really thought about the safety records.

      On the other hand, the two big industries in this county are petroleum and agriculture. I would say that CA in general tends to care more than other states, but I also have seen a tendency to be more lax on ag than on oil. I wonder if that might be related to the fact that oil means Chevron, while ag is perceived to be less corporate (although the reality is somewhat different). Or maybe it is because of the racial demographics of the workers. I hope not, but...

    3. Just for fun, you can find statistics by state here:

      In what should not surprise anyone, the #1 cause of fatalities here in CA is transportation related injuries. You are literally more likely to get killed as a result of a motor vehicle accident while on the job than from other causes. I'm also wondering what happened to the person in "Architecture or Engineering" who died. He/she doesn't fit into any of the named categories.

    4. Construction site, I'm guessing, site visit.

    5. And I should say, people have heart attacks on site with relatively disturbing frequency. There was a sad occasion at a cement plant that I know of--nothing about the plant caused it, the person was just walking along and that was when the clot broke loose.