The Swinging Pendulum of Societal Distrust, and the Saga of Radium Poisoning

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Once pretty, vivacious young women in their late teens and early twenties awaiting marriage and children, one by one, they sickened. On X-ray, their bones looked moth-eaten; their teeth fell out, leaving pockets of pus– every dental effort to treat them caused more tooth loss. Eventually, their jawbones broke or splintered in their mouths, or they suffered cancerous sarcomas of their limbs, requiring amputation. Their spines crumbled, their legs shortened, so they painfully limped. For years no one could determine what ailed them. They were the “Radium Girls.”

These were the women who painted watch dials beginning in 1916 with the “miracle” chemical – luminescent radium. The magic medium caused them to glow in the dark, the dust clinging to their clothes and hair. Mostly, they worked in two factories, the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Newark (later the US Radium Corporation of Orange, New Jersey) and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, near Chicago.

The employers, who had some idea what was killing the women, kept it secret. They denied culpability and continuously assured the women all was well, even as they continued exposing them to the harmful rays.

The Swinging Pendulum

Today, we are bombarded with exaggerated claims of risks from chemicals, GMOs, and even UFOs and are tempted to look askance at warning cries of potential hazards. Perhaps this is a pendulum swing, an over-reaction to the blind-eye turned to serious harms overtaking workers at the turn of the last century: asbestos, garment work, match factories, and maybe the most horrendous story of all: the radium dial painters.

Our present concerns primarily focus on gamma radiation, the penetrating rays that can alternatively kill us or shrink tumors. Beta radiation of intermediate length can be shielded by a sheet of lead or aluminum. A sheet of paper can protect us from short, alpha radiation, but these comparatively benign alpha waves can also be vicious – if ingested. And that’s what ravaged the girls.   

Glowingly Unsafe 

Even as scientific reports as early as 1906 reported that radium could cause physical harm, [1] some procured and sold the stuff touting its safety, even claiming life-affirming qualities. Some sold it as a cure-all or tonic. Some died from it, but the association of radium with disease and death was roundly denied or discounted.

“The residue from radium extraction looked like seaside sand, and the company offloaded this industrial waste by selling it to schools and playgrounds to use in their children’s sandboxes…[pronouncing] the sand “the most hygienic’ for children to play in, ‘more beneficial than the mud of world-renowned chemical baths.” [2]

Initially, radium dial painting was part of the war effort for soldiers’ watches and defense department contracts, but the rage for those luminous dials continued even after the war ended.

“Lip, Dip, Paint”

All the while, “the radium girls” applied radium paint (a powder decanted in small crucibles with water) to tiny watch dials with very fine camel-hair brushes. As fine as they were, the brushes were too thick to achieve the neat lines required on the delicate dials– and so, they were instructed to wet the brushes in their mouths to refine the tip each time they made a stroke - a technique called “lip-pointing.”  “Lip, Dip, Paint” went the refrain - and each time, with every lick, they ingested the deadly substance. The practice continued, even as the girls visibly sickened.

By 1924, six years after the work began, the condition of the young women could not be ignored, even if doctors and dentists were baffled as to the cause. The Department of Labor investigated and, after a cursory investigation, found no cause that explained the girls’ varying symptoms - and gave the factory a clean bill of health.

According to author Kate Moore, this may have been a political decision by the notoriously pro-business Department of Labor. Federal occupational safety laws were virtually non-existent, and state law prevented the feds from stopping industrial processes, even if harmful. For over a decade, the causal relationship between ingested radium and toxic results remained undetermined.

New Jersey Takes Action

In April 1924, a New Jersey Health Department officer who was incensed that the federal government hadn’t followed up on her recommendations contacted the head of the Consumer’s League, a national organization fighting for better working conditions for women. They, in turn, contacted Dr Alice Hamilton, the pioneer of occupational disease investigation in America, who voiced support and assistance.

The threat of a lawsuit from workers in the New Jersey plant prompted their employer to retain Drs. Cecil and Katherine Drinker of Harvard School of Public Health to do an ostensibly independent investigation. The Drinkers visited the plant, examined the girls, and concluded the work was dangerous, but did not publish their report – merely sending it to the USRC, which had retained them. Harvard’s School of Public Health, founded by Cecil, depended on company support. Perhaps the Drinkers didn’t wish to antagonize their benefactors. Maybe they hoped the company would address the problem on its own. They didn’t.

In February 1925, one radium girl, Marguerite Carlough, filed a lawsuit against US Radium Corporation (USRC) for $75,000 (one million dollars today); shortly afterward, she was joined by a co-worker, Helen Kuser. The USRC wanted the case to be heard by the Workmen’s Compensation Bureau, where it would surely fail - radium poisoning was not listed as one of the nine compensable diseases. The federal judge hearing the case was having none of this. He thought a jury should hear the case.

In April, another national investigation on industrial poisons was launched by the Bureau of Labor Statistics under Swen Kjaer, only to be terminated three weeks later. One reason was that the prevailing chemical of concern, white phosphorus, an ingested industrial poison used in making matches and which caused a similar disease called phossy jaw, was not implicated. A second was the expense.

But even in that short time, Kjaer concluded that radium painting was dangerous. Trouble is, no one told the radium girls; Lip, dip, paint continued, and the girls got sicker. USRC now misrepresented the Drinker report as benign to allay the fears of their employees and passed on a manipulated report to the government to exonerate themselves.

Fortuitously, Dr. Hamilton, who was monitoring events, happened to be a colleague of the Drinkers (and a friend of Katherine’s). When she learned of the duplicitous white-washing of their report, she brought it to the Drinker’s attention. As one might imagine, they were incensed.

But absolute proof of the causal connection between radium exposure and the various diseases the girls suffered still went wanting.

The Martland Test

That is until the newly arrived local medical examiner, Dr. Harrison Martland, devised a method to measure the amount of radioactivity stored in the bones of the radium paint workers. He was also able to measure the breath of the workers to record radiation levels and correlate this with their disease.

“The company tried to keep everyone in the dark – the Department of Labor, the medical community, the women they had doomed to die….”

Martland’s tests, in conjunction with the Drinker report, finally published in August of 1925, a full year after being handed to the USRC, established the elusive connection between the occupational practice and the illnesses. There was no treatment and no cure.  Radiation poisoning was a death sentence. Laboriously, Martland compiled a list of those exposed; he called it the List of the Doomed. The government, however, (both federal and state) did nothing in terms of setting standards for exposure or work practice.

The radium girls wanted to sue; their savings had been expended in searches for cures, treatment, or even palliation. But now, they ran smack into a legal bar: the statute of limitations. The NJ Worker’s Compensation limit was five months; the federal system a more generous at two years. But some girls had left the employ of USRC years earlier. Radiation poisoning has a long latency, the symptoms often manifesting many years after exposure (and employment) had ceased. The law shut the door in their faces on recovery.

In 1926, radium necrosis was added as a compensable disease under Workman’s Compensation. But it only covered jaw necrosis, not anemia, not locked hips, broken thighs, sarcomas, nor any of the other diseases the girls suffered or were doomed to die from. And the law wasn’t retroactive.

Radiation isn’t the only long-latency disease confounding recovery; the same applies to asbestos. But, as usual, law and legislation lag behind science.

When science fails to bring causal connections to the government's attention to enable recovery for the injured and set preventive standards of exposure, the role falls to lawyers.

Stay tuned as we see how the actions of two lawyers and a judge made a difference.

[1] Marie Curie died of radiation-induced aplastic pernicious anemia

[2] The Radium Girls, Kate Moore