Book Review: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, 2016, SourceBooks (Simon & Schuster)
“Lip, dip, paint” is the mantra repeated by Kate Moore in her 2016 story of the young women who painted the dials of watches and military gauges with luminescent paint containing radium in the early 1900s. This is the practice of putting a fine point on the paintbrush, then dipping it in the radium-containing paint, and painting the numbers on the tiny dials of watches and, later, gauges for military equipment.
Covering the period of time from 1910-1938 and the paint studios of the American Radium Company (later, United States Radium Company) in Orange, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois, Moore seeks to humanize the story of the young women, some as young as 14, who unknowingly ingested the radioactive isotopes of radium (Ra-226, with a half-life of 1,600 years and Ra-228, also known as mesothorium, with a half-life of 6.7 years) through this practice of lip-tipping their brushes. Moore’s book provides interesting ethical contrasts between the industrial hygienists who support American Radium Company, Dr. Frederick Flinn (who also later supported the Ethyl Corporation in their addition of lead in gasoline) versus the advocates for the young women, Dr. Harrison Maitland.
Appearing in cameo roles as advocates for the women who took their injury cases to court in Illinois are Dr. Alice Hamilton and her colleagues at Harvard School of Public Health, Drs. Cecil and Katherine Drinker.
Many of these young women died within a few years of their ingestion of the luminescent radium paint, since radium aggressively displaced the calcium in their bones and irradiated their bodies from the inside out. Some of the women suffered long-term debilitating illness. Those who survived and were able to have children passed the illness to their children.
The outcome of these women’s exposure to radiation and their horrific illnesses were the implementation of early workers’ compensation laws by states and a retrospective forensic study that forms the basis of much of what we know today about radiation poisoning. Their stories are also a cautionary tale to those of us in the industrial hygiene profession to pay attention to new exposures in the workplace and employ the precautionary principle for the protection of employees.
Previous books published on this topic include:
- Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910 – 1935 by Claudia Clark, 1997, University of North Carolina Press
- Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy by Dr. Ross Mullner, 1999, American Public Health Association