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Radium Girls

Radium Girls

In the 1920s, young working-class women could land a job working with a “miracle” substance called radium. Radium was widely heralded as an incredible new substance having been discovered just 20 years earlier by French physicists Marie Curie and Pierre Curie. It appeared to have an infinite number of uses. One of the first was to make the numbers on clocks and watches easier to see. Workers were needed to coat the dials with radium paint, and the best and most efficient workers were women and girls, who became known as the radium girls. The work was pleasant and sociable: the women moistened the thin brushes in their mouths before they dipped them into the paint, chatting, eating, and drinking while they worked, sometimes painting their teeth, faces, hair, and clothing to make them sparkly. When they left the workshop, their clothing would be covered with radium dust, and would glow in the night. The pay was good and the work was easy, but soon, the radium girls started to experience ailments that wouldn’t go away - bone decay, skin lesions, ulcerations that worsened with any attempt to treat them, perplexing the doctors. Dozens of women died. Women, who worked at a factory in New Jersey, sued the U.S. Radium Corp. for poisoning and won. Sadly, most of them ended up using the money to pay for their own funerals. By 1927, more than 50 women had died because of radium paint poisoning. In the book titled “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women”, Kate Moore tells the story of how these dial painters took on the radium companies that made them sick—as they were dying. Their lawsuits were key to reinforcing the U.S.’s bourgeoning workplace safety standards. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Their legacy cannot be understated. Their case was among the first in which a company was held responsible for the health and safety of its employees, and it led to a variety of reforms as well as to the creation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “The Radium Girls” is a well-written, meticulously researched and documented account of tragedies that never should have been. The radium girls' lives can't be returned to them, but thanks to Kate Moore we can remember, and learn, from their pain.

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