After radium was discovered by the Curies in 1898, it was considered a wonder chemical, curing cancer, glowing in the dark and invigorating the health of those who imbibed it. As we know today, radium is radioactive and incredibly dangerous. In 1920s America, two factories employed young women to apply luminous paint onto watches and military equipment. This is the story of those girls.

You would be a hard-hearted soul not to shed a single tear over The Radium Girls. We know a lot about the effects of ingested radiation now because of these women, but at the time that thought would hardly be a comfort to their suffering. It’s a heart-breaking and riveting read, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in radiation, occupational diseases, industrial lawsuits or social justice.

The girls shone ‘like the watches did in the darkroom’, as though they themselves were timepieces, counting down the seconds as they passed. They glowed like ghosts as they walked home through the streets of Orange.

Everyone wanted to work in the dial painting studios. Young women who had the skill could easily make more money than their peers and there was an element of glamour surrounding them. When the women stepped out at night, their clothes and skin would glow. No one worried, radium was said to be good for you, and they weren’t provided any specialist equipment to work with it. In order to get a fine enough tip on their brushes to be accurate, the women would dampen them in their mouths. Yes, that’s right, they were putting radioative paint into their mouths. I was seriously gobsmacked at the cavalier attitude reading the first few chapters.

You could forgive the companies for not knowing in the early days but as the cases pile up, their ignorance is breath-taking, turning into gross negliance when they knew very well what they were doing. The women didn’t matter much to them, they could always employ more, and there is always this feeling that they thought no one would believe a bunch of working class girls anyway.

Yet the tragedy and pain were part of the appeal for the captivated public. Radium poisoning – with its child-killing devastation and disfiguring symptoms – ‘seemed to destroy their very womanhood’.

One by one the women fell ill. Doctors and dentists were mystified but the cases weren’t connected for a long time as the radiation poisoning manifested in different ways. The suffering of the women is hard to read, as the radium acted like calcium, being transported into their bones to do its worst. The death certificates never identified the culprit, never said that their occupation was to blame. The companies had plausible deniability.

To add insult to injury, the medical bills financially crippled the affected families. With the women unable to work, some of them turned to lawyers to try and make the companies take responsibility. Having got to the end of this book I can undoubtedly say the people in charge were evil. They ignored the advice of scientists, they continued letting girls put paint into their mouths because it was less wasteful (of paint not of human lives), then they denied this was what they told the girls to do. They demanded medical examinations and then never shared the damning results with their employees. They lied and lied and lied, all the while whilst their ex-employees were dying by their hands.

Radium had been known to be harmful since 1901. Every death since was unnecessary.

There are reasons industies are regulated. Those who wish to deregulate it should maybe read into the history of worker compensation. The radium girls’ legacy is one of better workers’ rights and more respect for the dangers of radiation.

I’m not even going to object to the use of girls in the title. They were so young when they started working, many only teenagers eager to be independent women. So many didn’t even reach twenty-five. I feel like crying just thinking about it. Need to put your emotions through the ringer? Read this book.

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Book Source: Purchased