On Episode 5 of the Science Dispatch Podcast, ACSH contributor Dr. Barbara Billauer recounts the tragic story of the "Radium Girls," a cohort of young women who were gradually sickened and killed by occupational radium exposure in the early 20th century. Subsequent research has shown that their employers knew the girls were at risk, but denied culpability and continuously assured them that all was well. These shocking developments changed the way we view occupational health and safety—providing the foundation for current radiation exposure standards.
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.”