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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.
A very painful read, though important to know this history and contemplate how familiar this story sounds. Industry focuses on business opportunities at the expense of their workers health, and even the health of their neighbors. Sound familiar? Not many industries have as deadly a product as featured in this heartbreaking story, but we have witnessed this disregard for worker and public safety before.
The material was Radium, used to paint the dials on clocks and watches so they would glow in the dark. These were immensely popular time pieces used by both soldiers and civilians. The problem was the way the Radium was applied. With brushes brought to a point by the lips of unsuspecting women (mostly) who were ingesting minute quantities of the Radium with each pointing of the brush. The companies who hired these women initially seemed not to know about the danger and even felt the substance had some health inhancing properties. The problem was they were wrong and their employees started losing their teeth, parts of their jaws fell out, they had sarcomas of bone, and many died at very young ages. The Radium dust was allowed everywhere, and these women wore it home on their clothes and exposed their families to the Radium. Their stories of illness and death are followed with much detail. The companies denied, and denied for decades any culpability. They hired medical doctors and other scientists to refute the claims of patients and their doctors and dentists. (Of course the perverse separation of dental health from medicine slowed down the process of coming to a causative agent.) They refused to pay for healthcare or disability. Ultimately they knew it was Radium poisoning and it killed scores of women in the prime of their lives. More than there had to be because of their denials.
A haunting story which highlights the arrogance of companies who see their employees as expendable and are unwilling to invest in safer handling and manufacturing procedures to protect those who are in their employ.
The other issue is how frequently industry privatizes the profits but socializes the ultimate costs of their products. These women paid the ultimate price, they and their families. But the cities paid as well, for decades of cleanup work to remove the radioactive products that poisoned the soil and buildings.
Tom's River is a great read about this dumping the costs in the nonradioactive chemical industry.
Our government has been guilty of much hubris as well. When I was an infant in Washington state, the Atomic Energy plant at Hanford, released radioactive iodine into the air to see where it would land because they could trace it through its radioactivity. Guess what? It landed on the grasses, the cows ate the grass, we drank the milk, then decades later a significant increase in thyroid cancer! Those who got it were called the " downwinders".
I know of women whose fathers worked in the military and who were themselves exposed to testing of nuclear bombs in Nevada and who were made infertile because of their exposure.
We must be vigilant about those who have something to gain telling us there are no risks to exposure with new substances. As this history shows, there is much hubris.
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This was an extremely sad account of the torment the women of the United...Read more