If you are familiar with HODINKEE or early wristwatches, you have likely heard of the "Radium Girls," the young women employed by the United States Radium Corporation in the early 20th century to paint the dials of wristwatches and clocks with luminous material. Back then, the hazards of radioactivity, and the dangers of radiation exposure, weren’t well understood. And the "girls" were encouraged to even put the paint brushes in their mouths for finer hand-work. That is until many of the radium girls began to grow ill, and eventually a group of them filed suit against their employer. The suit eventually led to considerable advances in workers rights and set the stage for many labor safety standards.
Though today the dangers of radiation are universally recognized, in 1917 (when the U.S. Radium Corporation went into business) there was still far from a general understanding that with radiation came health hazards. Henri Becquerel had discovered radiation as a phenomenon relating to radioactive substances in 1896, and the term "radioactivity" was coined by his then-doctoral student, Marie Curie. These early researchers treated their radium samples with what today would be considered horrendous carelessness but an understanding of the broader dangers of radiation came relatively slowly. (Marie Curie would eventually die of aplastic anemia, related to her handling of radioactive materials, and even today many of her papers are so radioactive that they require anyone handling them to wear radiation shielding.)
The "Radium Girls" actually ingested considerable amounts of radium thanks to the practice of putting a fine point on their paint brushes by licking them. Accidental ingestion was so severe that many of the workers literally glowed in the dark. Though the management of U.S. Radium by then suspected radium was a health hazard, and took steps to protect themselves, they did nothing to discourage the practice and even when their workers began to show severe symptoms of radiation poisoning – including disfiguring cancers of the jaw – they continued to attempt to deny the dangers of radium.
Kate Moore, who just published a new booked titled The Radium Girls, was interviewed this weekend by NPR, and goes into a lot of detail on how the undeniably horrible fate of the US Radium Corporation workers led not only to a better understanding of the dangers of radiation, but also to better safety in the workplace in general.