Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

  • THE BOOK
    • The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
    • April 18, 2017
    • First work by author

  • THE PREMISE
    • In the 1910s young women (some as young as 13) began to work as "dial painters", painting luminous paint onto clock-face numbers so they would then glow in the dark. During World War I they also painted things for use in military equipment, allowing soldiers and pilots to see the dials in the dark.
    • The paint was made with radium, a chemical element discovered by Marie & Pierre Curie in 1898. 
    • The girls would take their paintbrushes, put them in their mouths to make a perfect point. Then they would dip the point into the paint. (Watch faces, for example, are fairly small so the numbers painted needed to be very precise.) The book refers to this process as "lip-dip-paint" or "lip-dipping". They did this hundreds of times a day.
    • The girls were told that radium wasn't harmful --- even while the male employees in the labs used lead aprons and gloves when handling the stuff --- and it was in their hair, on their skin and clothes. They literally glowed in the dark.
    • The job was considered a good one because it was an "artist's studio" rather than a factory. It paid 1.5 cents per dial painted. A good dial painted could make about $20 per week, a great salary for a young woman in those days.
      • The girls would sometimes even paint their fingernails with the luminescent paint. Or take it home to paint onto their siblings.
    • Meanwhile, radium was considered a health elixir and was added to all sorts of things. (Read about Eben Byers on Wikipedia to see how that worked out.)
    • Even while they were still working at the studios the girls started having health problems: loose teeth, abscesses, joint pain, exhaustion and many others.
    • So here's the deal: radium is radioactive. It emits alpha, beta and gamma rays. No one cared about alpha rays because they didn't travel far, maybe a few inches. Beta and gamma rays are the ones to protect one's self from, hence lead aprons and tongs when handling it. (Rules are MUCH stricter in modern times.)
      • Because the girls were ingesting it with every touch of the brush to their lips, the radium entered their bodies where it has a half-life of 1600 years. 
      • The human body treats radium just like calcium: it goes right into the bones. Once it's in the bones those alpha rays kept emitting those few inches, causing radiation poisoning, something the radium dial businesses knew but ignored when it came to these women.
      • Their teeth fells out; their jaws disintegrated. They suffered from anemia (bone marrow is where new blood cells are created; radiation destroyed that ability for many). Their leg and arm bones got shorter and easier to break. Their spines collapsed.
        • All of this came with constant excruciating pain. There was no cure
      • Those who weren't affected in this way eventually developed sarcomas, tumors on the bones.
    • The main story of the book follows two groups of women and the fight they had to try to get just compensation for their medical costs. One group was located in Orange, New Jersey and the other in Ottawa, Illinois.
    • Of special note are the stories of Katherine Schaub from Orange and Catherine Wolfe Donohue of Ottawa. Both were the plaintiffs in cases to claim compensation.
      • Catherine found out in a court hearing that her condition was incurable.
    • Typical corporate legalese: In one case they were all, yes, yes, radium poisoning happened but the statute of limitations has run out so too bad while in the next they denied any poisoning had occurred because radium was safe.
    • Their ordeals led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
    • Some of the women lived long lives but still suffered the affects of radiation such as constant pain, lameness, and amputations. Most died in their 20s and 30s after more suffering than we can imagine.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • As you can probably tell from my very long premise section, I loved this book. My heart ached for these women, many of whom would have been contemporaries with my own grandmother who was born in 1898. 
    • You keep wishing for an ending like the one in the movie "The Verdict" where the jury wants to give even more money to the victims than they asked for but for various reasons there was only a pot of $10,000 to split among the Illinois women, most of whom were already in huge debt due to their medical bills.
    • Since they were female and the medical troubles started months or years after they worked at the radium studios, they were not taken seriously. When one of the men who worked in the lab got sick people noticed.
    • The story is fascinating but it does take a while to remember the women's names as we learn their stories. The story goes back and forth between New Jersey and Illinois and can be a little confusing but it ends strong with the legal section on Catherine Donohue's claim.
    • Recommended for those who are interested in life about 100 years ago or just find this topic intriguing.
    • ★ ★ ★ ★

1 comment: