The Unseen Danger: A Close Look at The Radium Girls
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The Unseen Danger: A Close Look at The Radium Girls

By Dr. Zoomie

The Radium Girls

Hi, Dr. Zoomie – so I’ve been reading this book called The Radium Girls and I’ve got to admit it sort of scares me. Did all the stuff they talk about really happen? Is this something we still have to worry about? And is there any more to the story than what the book covers?

Funny you should ask….

First, for those of you who are not familiar with the radium watch dial painters, this book is about young women who, in the 1920s and 1930s, got some well-paying jobs painting the numbers and hands on watches, using glow-in-the-dark paint laced with radium. And, using the techniques they were taught when they started work, to get a fine point on their brushes, they rolled the bristles between their lips. Unsurprisingly, they all ingested traces of radium – over the years, many became ill, many were disfigured, and many died far too young. It took physicians (and medical examiners) years to puzzle this out – to understand that radium deposits in the bones, where its radiation can kill the living parts of the bone and causing the bone (and teeth) to start to rot away (and teeth started falling out) while also depleting the stem cells that produce our blood cells.

Figuring out the medical part of this was challenging, and it was hindered by the radium companies’ lack of cooperation, as well as by radium’s reputation as a wonder compound of sorts. But even harder than working out what was happening inside the body was trying to get the companies to take responsibility for the ladies’ health problems and, finally, taking them to court to try to recover damages, including paying for their medical bills.

And, to answer your first question – yes, the book is well-researched and well-referenced and the events it describes actually happened.

Your second question – is this something we still need to worry about- goes beyond the book and the answer is…well…neither yes nor no. For example, radium is no longer used for watch dials, nor is it still used for cancer therapy. Not only that, but work practices have come a long way in the last century and the practices that led to the girls ingesting radium are no longer allowed in most of the developed world or in most workplaces. Not only that, but for the last three or four decades many nations have been trying to round up and dispose of radium whenever they can. So the specific events that led these women to ingest radium aren’t likely to pose a problem today. On the other hand, just a decade or so ago a dangerous amount of radium turned up in a trash can, and it’s not uncommon for radium-dial watches, compasses, aircraft instruments, patent medicines, and more to show up in online sales sites, personal effects, or even the trash. So radium poisoning isn’t impossible, but it is highly unlikely, and becoming less likely by the year.

Having said that…there have been a number of radiation accidents over the years (see, for example, the Accident Archives postings, and check in from time to time as I add to them), some of which have been fatal. So even though radium might not be the problem it once was, there are still a lot of dangerously radioactive sources in the world and, every now and again, a dangerous source will be lost…although I have to add that this is happening less and less frequently.

Finally – to your third question – is there anything more that the book does not cover? And the answer is “of course!” – but let me take this in a different direction than you might have been expecting.

I found myself providing radiation safety coverage for several years for a radium, remediation project in Ottawa, Illinois. One of the more interesting remediation areas was a flagpole – it was in front of what had, at one time, been the home of (if I remember correctly) the governor of Illinois. Apparently, someone felt that his flagpole should stand out so they gave it a good coating of radium paint so it would glow at night. In addition to taking down the flagpole (and trying to figure out how much radium was still on it) we also had to excavate about 10 cubic yards of soil from beneath and around the flagpole due to the paint washing off over the years – as we dug down, there were so many pipes and other lines underground that, at times, it seemed more like a dissection than an excavation.

Another interesting tidbit is that there was a fairly thick clay layer a few meters underground that, when we were excavating, kept giving us a little over twice background rad levels (the Army Corps threshold for continuing to excavate versus starting to sample). The field manager was certain there was no radium…but the readings were stubborn. Remembering my soil mineralogy class, I asked him if they were digging in a clay layer, which they were. So I suggested checking for naturally radioactive potassium – K-40 (illite, a clay mineral named for Illinois, contains high levels of potassium). It turned out that all of the “extra” counts were due to K-40 from the clay layer. We did some sampling to prove the radium was gone and were able to develop a field analysis technique to do a gross count, then a second count to look only for the K-40 – if the extra counts were all due to potassium, then the regulators agreed that we could stop excavating and send samples off for laboratory analysis to confirm that the radium had been cleaned up. Good thing, too – there’s a lot of illite in central Illinois, mostly found in what used to be lakes formed when the glaciers melted.

So there you go – the radium watch dial painters, the book that commemorates their travails, a brief glance at cleaning up one of the locations of a former watch dial factory, and how that was complicated by the 100,000+ year-old (or more) residue of the last ice age. And, by the way – The Radium Girls? Great book!

Image References:

  1. Radium Girls work in a factory of the United States Radium Corporation.