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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women Kindle Edition
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Radium was widely heralded as a wondrous new substance after it was first isolated by the Curies. It appeared to have an infinite number of uses, one of the first of which 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, some as young as 14 or 15. The work was pleasant and sociable: the women sat around tables painting, moistening the thin brushes in their mouths before they dipped them into the paint, chatting, eating, and drinking while they worked, sometimes taking extra paint home with them to practice with, sometimes painting their teeth, faces, hair, and clothing to make them sparkly. When they left the studio their clothing would be covered with radium dust, and would glow ghost-like in the night. The pay was good and the work was easy, but then some of the women started having strange pains in their mouths and bones. Their teeth would loosen and fall out and their jaws, legs, and ankles would develop permanent aches or even crumble.
After some of the women died and more became ill the companies making large profits on radium rushed to dismiss any hint that the work was unsafe. Victims and their families sought relief and assistance, but found they were responsible for their own mounting medical bills. The federal, state, and local governments all disavowed any responsibility. Eventually publicity stemming from lawsuits filed by some of the victims (using their own scanty resources) focused enough attention on the problem that governments felt compelled to set safety standards and regulations.
The Radium Girls is a horrifying read. The careless ways in which radium was handled, the indifference of the radium using industries and the governments involved to the safety of the women painters (in contrast to the men who worked to produce the radium, who were protected by lead shields), and the pain and suffering of the women themselves are appalling. The safety regulations and restrictions which were finally put into place hardly seem adequate, and the Epilogue and Postscript giving details of the women's later lives, as well as an account of another industry that made careless use of radium as late as the 1970s, are especially harrowing.
This is a well written, meticulously research 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.