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The use of luminous paints on
watches was the newest growing fad in the United States in the early 1900’s.
People were so excited to get their hands on the amazing watch that was
sweeping the country. It was also providing well needed, good paying jobs to young
women during a difficult time. People never questioned the safeness of what was
going on within these companies because they were informed the ingredient that
made the watches glow was harmless and would not affect their health
negatively. The growing needs for the watches kept growing, and the need for
more people working within the plants also kept increasing. The woman lived a
life of luxury or, so they thought because they were getting paid enough to
live nicely. As the years went on one by one, the women started to have
unexplained illnesses that were later linked to the all amazing paint which
contained radium. In this paper, I am going to talk about the company that made
the watches, the girls that worked within the factory and the outcome of working

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The Radium Dial Girls

In Ottawa, Illinois in
the early 1900’s a factory called Radium Luminous Material Corporation opened.
This company wasn’t the first of its kind. These types of factories were
popping up in cities across the United States. The first factory opened in
Orange, New Jersey in 1917. The one in Ottawa, Illinois opened in the early
1920’s and a third factory opened in Waterbury, Connecticut. This company had a
product that was growing in popularity. The military was the company’s biggest
buyer of their product because the soldiers needed this fantastic invention as
it was during World War 1. The amazing product that this company was selling
was glow in the dark watches. Little did everyone know the poison that was held
within this watch.

The Factory

Radium Luminous
Material Corporation employed mostly women at its factories. The women’s ages
were between 18-25. The women that worked at these factories happily worked and
did not question how the paint made the dials glow in the dark because jobs
that paid decently during this time was hard to come by. According to Gwen
Whiting (2014) “Factories paid between 1.5 to 8 cents per dial
painted.” Some of the ladies painted over 300 watch dials per day because
they were so good at their job. The women that worked at the factories was told
by the management to put a fine tip on the brushes. The best way to do that and
to conserve the paint would be to put the brush in their mouth to get the
bristles to have a perfect tip. Doing so retained more of the paint because
wiping the brush on a towel or napkin would wipe the paint off. Since the women
that worked at this company believe the paint was harmless the women would
paint their nails with it, wear it was lipstick and even brought clothes in so
that the dust within the factory would get on their clothes and they would
glow. When the women left from work in the evenings, they would glow as they
walked down the street from the dust being on them. Even if they washed their
hands, their skin still glowed from all the radiation within them. These ladies
had no idea at the amounts of radiation they were putting in their bodies. They
wouldn’t realize the horrible truth until it was too late. The paint these
ladies were using was called Undark. Undark wasn’t as harmless as they were led
to believe. Radium was its main ingredient.


Radium was discovered
in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Currie. Marie was born November 7, 1867, in Warsaw,
Russian Empire. Which is now Poland. She moved to Paris to continue her
education where she met her husband, Pierre Curie. He was also her workmate in
studying radioactivity. The couple started to investigate radioactivity because
of Henri Becquerel. They investigated many things before they found pitchblende
to be radioactive. They were able to withdraw polonium and radium pitchblende.
Both of those were more radioactive than uranium. Marie went on to manufacture
radium as a pure metal. To get one-tenth of a gram of radium Marie and her
assistant processed quite a few tons of pitchblende. Rachel Ross (2016) states
that “Radium is a highly radioactive element and can be extremely
dangerous.” Before scientists discovered just how dangerous radium is it
was used in everyday products like toothpaste, butter, paints, chocolates, and
lipsticks. Found to be able to destroy human tissue doctors used it to treat
cancer, constipation, and gout. As an unstable element radium undergoes
radioactive decay before ending in lead. Radium has a half-life of 1,620 years.
Radium puts off a lot of radiation. “10 Interesting Radium Facts”
(2015) stated that “It is as radioactive as one million times of
uranium.” When exposed to air radium changes from a silver color to a
black coating because of a nitrogen interaction. Radium’s effect on human
health is detrimental. Our bodies absorb radium just like calcium. Bushong
(2017, p. 531) stated: “When ingested, the radium behaves metabolically
similar to calcium and deposits in bone.” We are exposed to radium daily
because it is in our environment. It is caused by burning coal and fuels.
Radium can also be in our water if we have water wells close to a radioactive
disposal area. There are no harmful health effects to human health from natural
exposure to radium.  High levels of
radium exposure can cause anemia, bad teeth, bone cancers, and death.


The Radium girl’s
exposure to the highly radioactive substance was so high they started showing
symptoms quickly. The girls first symptoms were jaw pain and swelling. Their
teeth were falling out for no reason. One woman went to the dentist to have her
tooth pulled, and half her jaw came out with it. After this happened they
started calling it radium jaw. If you were lucky enough to get your teeth
pulled and your jaw stay intact, you would develop painful ulcers that leaked
blood and pus. The blood and pus would make your breath smell like a rotting
corpse. The infection would spread causing an abscess in their ears also. One
women named Mollie Maggia had the mysterious disease spread to her throat and
through her jugular vein. She bled out so fast they could not do anything for
her. She died at the age of 24. Mollie was the first person to die from the
factory. She only worked at the factory a year. The girls’ bodies hurt to the
point they couldn’t move, and they had no explanation as to why these things were
happening to them. The radium they were ingesting was emitting devastating
radiation within their bodies and now was in their bones. One woman’s spine was
overcome so badly that she had to wear a back brace because her spine could not
support her weight anymore. Some of the girls’ legs shrunk for no apparent
reason and broke without cause. Their bones couldn’t support their bodies after
all the exposure to radiation they had. Some of the girls had goiters that
developed. The girls even claimed they could feel the radium fizzing from
within their bodies. Radium has a lot of nasty things it can do to your body.
It can cause anemia, fatigue, and hair loss at the beginning of being exposed.
The more of an exposure will cause the nasty late effects of bone cancers and
death. These women had no chance of being healthy after starting this job
because of the lies they were told. They were constantly reassured that the
magical paint had nothing to do with their illnesses.


United States Radium
Corporation refused any responsibility for what was happening to their
employees. The company hired people to consider the girls’ health problems once
the girls started to realize the role the paint was playing in their issues.
The people that the Radium Corporation hired swore the girls were suffering
from sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis. They also
claimed the girls were dying from these diseases. They hired Dr. Cecil Drinker
in 1924. He discovered substantial radium contamination within the Orange, New
Jersey plant. Almost all their workers had a high blood contamination of
radium. All the dial workers were covered in a highly radioactive dust. The
dust was Undark. A yellow powder made of radium and zinc sulfide. Drinker
advised the plant operators to stop the practice of tipping their brushes due
to his findings. Nevertheless, the company dismissed the guidance and kept the
girls doing the same practices with tipping the brushes. The company also
refused to let Dr. Drinker from releasing his original findings because it
would portray the company in poor light and possibly shut them down. Before the
company turned the report into the New Jersey Department of labor, they changed
the report, so they would look like they were complying with establishing a
safe environment for their workers. The plants’ scientist knew that the radium
was more dangerous than they led the women to believe. They even knew it was
more dangerous than uranium. They made sure they protected themselves while
leaving these poor women to suffer horrible life’s and deaths once the radium
poisoning set in.   The upper management
wore lead aprons and made sure that whenever in contact with the radioactive
substance that they were protected to the fullest. Carrying samples of the
paint with tongs and in metal boxes. The scientist that made Undark, on the
other hand, did not protect himself. He carried it without protection and did
not wear a lead apron which untimely led to his premature death at the age of
45. Before dying, he did, however, let the company know the dangers of this
paint and to protect themselves and the girls. They again ignored his warnings.


The darkness of the
radioactive substance that would make your cheeks rosy was finally going to be
known. On April 5, 1938, a day that would change the lives of many women would
go down in history. On that fateful day, a judge would order that all the
woman’s ailments were caused by the fantastic Undark paint that contained the
hidden poison. Catherine Donohue was one of the first tippers. According to Dan
Klefstad (2017) “Sixteen years later, plaintiff Donohue was gravely ill.
The Chicago Daily News reported on a February 10, 1938, hearing in which
Donohue presented a box containing pieces of bone she claimed were parts of her
jaw. When the judge asked her doctor about the chances of his patient
recovering Donohue collapsed.” Donohue won a pension of $277 for the
remainder of her life and money for her doctor bills. Radium Corporation tried
to appeal this verdict, but it was thrown out, and she was awarded  more money. It went from $277 to $730
annually. Four more women went on to sue the company in 1938. They also all won
their cases. During the time that the lawsuits were going on The Radium
Corporation stalled the cases as much as possible in hopes that the women would
die, and they would not have to pay out any money or claim any ownership to
what happened to the women. The judge allowed them to go on the vacations and
postponed the hearings which meant when the women did win their cases the
company didn’t have to pay out as much as they would have. The women died soon
after winning so they didn’t receive as much as they should have. Those fateful
court cases changed laws for our workforce and set standards for radiation
protection as we know it. It also helped start the corporation we know as OSHA
to help reduce work-related deaths from occurring. OSHA ensures us a safe work


It has been a hundred
years since the start of this horrible tragedy and, yet the sites are still
highly radioactive. Even though people knew the plant in Ottawa was very
radioactive after the girls won their court cases they opened a meat packing
plant in 1938 after The Radium Dial Company closed. Eventually, it was demolished,
and the remains were used as a landfill in Ottawa. Sixteen sites in all within
Ottawa encompass the Radiation Superfund Sites. Even now the sites pose a
danger to the health of humans. Most are not worried about water contamination
even though they have every right to be. Cancer within Ottawa has a high
incidence and is still on the rise. Most brush it off and don’t connect it to
the mass amounts of radiation that is within their city. People think because
it happened so long ago that it won’t affect them now. A lot of the people
don’t even know the history of their city. They built a playground on one of
the radioactive sites, and parents believe it is a good thing for their city
and children not realizing that the radiation exposure they are getting because
they don’t understand the long half-life radiation has. Five years after Mollie
Maggias death her coffin was exhumed from its grave. Once they opened the top,
they were astonished at the site. Mollie was still glowing even after five
years.  It is said that the girls are
still aglow from within their coffins even though it has been a hundred years
since this tragedy struck the United States. It is also said that you can still
pick up radiation from these ladies with a radiation detector.

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