Undark and the Radium Girls
January 2, 2007 10:03 PM   Subscribe

Undark and the Radium Girls is the fascinating true story of several female employees of the US Radium Corporation at the turn of the 20th Centry. The women were employed to paint radioactive "Undark", a glow-in-the-dark paint for military application (dials that needed to be seen at night, etc) onto the machinery. The women were given lethal amounts of paint & fine brushes, which they all routinely kept sharp by wetting the tips in their mouths. Twenty years later, as their jawbones disintegrated & the tumors began to spread, they started down the path to figuring out who had murdered them, and how.
posted by jonson (68 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Read Kurt Vonnegut?
posted by impuls at 10:07 PM on January 2, 2007

Not much - just Breakfast of Champions. Why?
posted by jonson at 10:13 PM on January 2, 2007

Great post, jonson.

I've always found it difficult to see these types of stories not only from a perspective, but from a different frame of mind entirely (if that makes sense).

That is, to me, living in the 21st century, it should be seemingly obvious that the warm, eerily glowing substance you worked with for quite some time might have something to do with your disintegrating jaw. I'm also terribly jealous of those who got to experience putting their entire forearms in giant vats of Mercury without the slightest concern for their health. But I've got the benefit of perspective and hindsight, which as they say, is 20/20. To live in a time where these things were new and exciting but could have such terrile consequences would be a very different experience for me, I think.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 10:17 PM on January 2, 2007

True, CF12. I wonder what things we're doing today that will seem outlandishly foolish to our grandchildren?
posted by jonson at 10:19 PM on January 2, 2007

A heartbreaking story.

Shoe fitting fluoroscopes was another mindless use of new technology (radioactive too) which was thankfully abandoned in the mid 50's.
posted by carmina at 10:24 PM on January 2, 2007

Genetically Modified foods, maybe?
posted by Boydrop at 10:24 PM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

By this time the dangers of radium were better understood, but US Radium assured the public that their paint used the radioactive element in "such minute quantities that it is absolutely harmless." While this was true of the products themselves, the amount of radium present in the dial-painting factory was much more dangerous, unbeknownst to the workers there.

Not just amount, but type of exposure. Radium is an alpha emitter - easily stopped by a piece of paper, a layer of clothing, and most certainly by a leaded watch/instrument crystal. The energy in Alpha particles is, on the other hand as this tragic story tells, easily absorbed by flesh and bone.
Wearing a watch painted with this stuff presents no risk.
posted by three blind mice at 10:24 PM on January 2, 2007

From the Wikipedia link in jonson's post:

It turned out at least one of the examinations was a ruse, part of a campaign of disinformation started by the defense contractor. U.S. Radium, like other watch-dial companies, rejected claims that the afflicted workers were suffering from exposure to radium. For some time, doctors, dentists, and researchers complied with requests from the companies not to release their data. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes; syphilis was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of the women.

Some things (practices) never change...
posted by carmina at 10:30 PM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I worked as a designer in a printshop and various art departments throughout my 20s. Besides the printing chemicals in the building, we used to practically wash our hands in bestine & inhaled spray mount almost daily (until they forbid us from using it indoors). I still wonder if that's going to catch up with me someday...
posted by miss lynnster at 10:30 PM on January 2, 2007

Excellent article. I had heard about this before but I didn't know all the details. Kind of makes you wonder about what we might be exposed to right now without even understanding the possible hazards.
posted by Aanidaani at 10:35 PM on January 2, 2007

Radium is part of the same chemical family as calcium. Ingested radium is transported to the bones and incorporated into the bone matrix.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:35 PM on January 2, 2007

Carmina, AFAIK the fluoroscopes weren't (aren't) radioactive. They were just X-ray machines with absurdly large amounts of x-rays. (Yeah, x-rays are technically "radiation", in the same sense that any wavelength of light is; and they're ionizing radiation, which is why they're dangerous; but they don't make anything radioactive, nor is an x-ray machine itself radioactive.)
posted by hattifattener at 10:38 PM on January 2, 2007

That is, to me, living in the 21st century, it should be seemingly obvious that the warm, eerily glowing substance you worked with for quite some time might have something to do with your disintegrating jaw.

Why is that? People work with glow-in-the-dark stuff all the time these days and have no problems...
posted by delmoi at 10:40 PM on January 2, 2007

dang, hatti, you are right. Radiation is what I meant.
posted by carmina at 10:40 PM on January 2, 2007

Heartbreaking story. Thanks for the post jonson. I know a woman who was given one gamma ray treatment for acne and later had 3 tumors removed from her skull. Her sister died of the same acne 'treatment'.

The Johns Manville company hid the danger of asbestos and countless people suffered.
posted by nickyskye at 10:56 PM on January 2, 2007

They also marketed the pigment for non-military products such as house numbers, pistol sights, light switch plates, and glowing eyes for toy dolls.

The real question is, where can I get one of those dolls and will it haunt me in my sleep?
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:23 PM on January 2, 2007

And there, right there, is the kind of thing I think about when I argue in favor of governmental regulation of industries. Were it not for this sort of thing, I'd be pretty darn conservative with my views on corporate regulation, but this sort of thing (the FPP, the asbestos, the leaded gas, and so on) happens too often for us to allow industries to operate without regulations.

Not that it solves all the problems, of course, but at least it's SOMETHING.
posted by davejay at 11:43 PM on January 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

At least it wasn't fireproof.
posted by tehloki at 11:43 PM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

(it's also why I don't grant trust easily wherever a profit motive can be found.)
posted by davejay at 11:45 PM on January 2, 2007

the lesson to take away from this story is that sufficient concentrations of money "capital" will make their own rules with utter disregard for the welfare of humans associated with them. sufficient concentrations of money have been killing people for much longer than sufficient concentrations of radioactive materials.
posted by bruce at 11:52 PM on January 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Why is that? People work with glow-in-the-dark stuff all the time these days and have no problems...

My point, Delmoi, was that however obvious it may seem to me (living in the 21st century) that this substance was not safe, that it is totally different living in a time where I might be ignorant of this knowledge, and to think of this warm glowing substance only as "really neat."

It's a bit like saying of the Civil War, "Well of COURSE marching towards the enemy, having each of you stand in rows and calmly fire highly accurate weaponry at one another is a stupid tactic." But at the time, they really didn't know any better, and had I grown up in the same time period, I doubt I would have either, so it's something altogether different for me to try and imagine myself in a position where I'm lacking a good amount of what I would consider "common sense," and as such I find these types of articles very interesting, as they offer a radically different "mind set" than my own.

I apologize if I'm being unclear--and I assume I am being just that--but I've just now realized the time. 3:00AM where I am. I've got work in 5 hours! I'll be back tomorrow to attempt to explain myself further in an all around confusing fashion. Cheers!
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 12:07 AM on January 3, 2007

Tho-Radia facial cream and powder: the active ingredients were thorium and radium. It was just one of many personal products sold during the radium craze that followed Marie and Pierre Curie's discovery^ and 1903 Nobel Prize:
Minute dilutions of radium were added to tea, health tonics, face creams, lipsticks, bath salts, costumes that glowed in the dark and so forth. "Crème Actina" purported to contain radium was guaranteed to keep skin looking young. "Curie Hair Tonic" guaranteed no loss of hair. A bag containing radium worn near the scrotum was said to restore virility, a "Cosmos Bag" was strapped to the waist for arthritis. Radium toothpaste was said to preserve and whiten teeth, a radium inhaler to increase the vigor and enrich the blood. A doctor calling himself Alfred Curie marketed "Tho-Radia Creme." His advertisements showed a beautiful blonde woman with flawless skin bathed in blue light. According to Hélène Langevin-Joliot, Marie was so offended by this appropriation of the Curie name that she asked a lawyer to write him to desist. Nevertheless he continued.

One could buy a "Revigorator"—a flask lined with radium to be filled with water each night to drink the following morning. "Raithor" a drink containing one part radium salts to 60,000 parts of zinc sulfide, was said to cure stomach cancer, mental illness, and restore sexual vigor and vitality. An American industrialist, Eben Byers, drank a bottle a day for four years at the end of which he died in excruciating pain from cancer of the jaw as his facial bones disintegrated. The famous American Follies Bergere dancer Loie Fuller became infatuated with Marie and her discovery and wrote requesting some radium to create a costume. When Marie refused, Loie came to the Curies’ house and performed a dance, her body lit by electric lights colored by blue cellophane filters—the nearest she could come to a radium effect. Soon, in Paris, New York, and San Francisco, theater and night club reviews featured women invisible but for the glowing radium paint on their costumes
That healthy glow was far more than they imagined.
posted by cenoxo at 12:19 AM on January 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I do take some morbid delight in the fact that all of the evil people running US Radium are dead.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:20 AM on January 3, 2007

I wonder what things we're doing today that will seem outlandishly foolish to our grandchildren.

Hey, I found one:
Mercury: Dentistry [wikipedia]

"In 1843, The American Society of Dental Surgeons, concerned about mercury poisoning, required its members to sign a pledge that they would not use amalgam. In 1859, The American Dental Association was formed by dentists who believed amalgam was 'safe and effective.'"

And so the fun begins.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:25 AM on January 3, 2007

So mercury fillings have been in use for more than 150 years, and there's still scant evidence of any danger (despite multiple, large-scale trials).

Just sayin'.
posted by alexei at 1:25 AM on January 3, 2007

I became a radiographer in 1958 A previous chief of our department used to reduce fractures under a flourescent screen - by the time I knew him he had lost one arm and most of the other. Finally his shoulder went and so did he, poor devil. There were a great many such instances in the early days, there is a parallel in the early use of cocaine. Laudanum is another panacea that went bad.
Wonder what we use these days will turn out badly?
posted by Cennad at 2:07 AM on January 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

My mother has some beautiful old green glassware that glows under UV. It was coloured using uranium dioxide. She bought it at Woolworths.
posted by Hogshead at 3:03 AM on January 3, 2007

alexei: despite scant evidence of me being The Sex Machine, for some reason uber sexy barely legally dressed hawt girls don't care to prove this theory wrong or right.

Despite many double blind trials, in which I am playfully blinded twice while they giggingly run away, there is still no proof I am not The Sex Machine.

Similarly mercury is a neurotoxic and few care to experiment if it is not or if I am the sex machine, they just try avoiding the problem entirely, by using other not clearly toxic compounds or by hiring Rocco Siffredi.
posted by elpapacito at 3:30 AM on January 3, 2007

A person I once knew collected antiques and rare things, and had once found some Fiesta plates. Doing a small amount of research, he discovered that in Canada it's illegal to own more than four (I believe the number was) of any combination due to the potential radiation hazard. As I was looking for this, I also found this on radiactive glassware. Beautiful and deadly.
posted by Zack_Replica at 3:38 AM on January 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

This story features in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Jail Bird.
posted by thirteenkiller at 4:08 AM on January 3, 2007

the turn of the 20th Centry.

'hooked on foniks' just keeps giving and giving and...
posted by quonsar at 4:18 AM on January 3, 2007

As a child, I was encouraged to "go wiggle your toes under the machine" to keep me entertained while Mommy picked out shoes. Doctors never did figure out why every time they cut my toenails, pus ran out from under them. There's a pool in the family about which kind of cancer gets me. I think thyroid is still open.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 4:24 AM on January 3, 2007

the kid who tried to (and nearly succeeded) build a nuclear reactor in his back yard using radium paint he scrounged from thrift stores and flea markets.

Interestingly enough, I've found throughout my own antique scrounging two examples of radioactive ephemera. The first was, like the Radioactive Kid, an unopened bottle of radium-laced paint inside a mantle clock. I'm guessing that this isn't as uncommon as you might think. More than likely, the clock manufacturers placed these "touch-up" bottles inside the clocks for the benefit of future owners who might need to "recharge" their clock's illuminated dials.

The second thing I've come across was what looked like a water cooler with a hollow core. Apparently the core used to be filled with some radioisotope emitter that would radiate the water. The markings on its side advertised the health benefits of drinking this stuff. Sadly, the core had been removed long ago.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:06 AM on January 3, 2007

Know what's gonna kill us all in 20 years? Botox.
posted by tehloki at 5:31 AM on January 3, 2007

There are certain incidents which stand out as the platonic ideal example of why X is true. I'd heard about the Radium Girls a long time back and its been my platonic ideal example of why we need regulation and oversight on business.
posted by sotonohito at 5:36 AM on January 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

My dad has a lovely vial of radium from, I believe, his childhood chemistry set. I'll tell you what, radium is really cool to look at.
posted by eparchos at 5:50 AM on January 3, 2007

An infuriating read.
In 1925, three years after Grace's health problems began, a doctor suggested that her jaw problems may have had something to do with her former job at US Radium. As she began to explore the possibility, a specialist from Columbia University named Frederick Flynn asked to examine her. Flynn declared her to be in fine health. It would be some time before anyone discovered that Flynn was not a doctor, nor was he licensed to practice medicine, rather he was a toxicologist on the US Radium payroll. A "colleague" who had been present during the examination– and who had confirmed the healthy diagnosis– turned out to be one of the vice-presidents of US Radium...

US Radium was a defense contractor with deep pockets and influential contacts, so it took Grace Fryer two years to find a lawyer willing to take on her former employer.
These bastards will always be with us, so we have to keep a close eye on them. It's not about "profits," it's about human nature; some people (too many people) are happy to cause any amount of suffering to others so that they may enjoy some benefit themselves.

Great post—thanks, jonson.
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on January 3, 2007

These bastards will always be with us, so we have to keep a close eye on them. It's not about "profits," it's about human nature; some people (too many people) are happy to cause any amount of suffering to others so that they may enjoy some benefit themselves.

I'm sorry, how is that not about profits?
posted by eparchos at 6:16 AM on January 3, 2007

Human beings have a hard time believing that anything that doesn't kill you immediately is dangerous--lead, small amounts of radiation, asbestos...global warming...
posted by emjaybee at 7:18 AM on January 3, 2007

where can I get one of those dolls and will it haunt me in my sleep?

Yes, as it stares into your soul.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:20 AM on January 3, 2007

Here's an agnostic hoping the officers of US Radium earned themselves a pass straight to the ninth circle of hell for hiding the toxicity of radium, and refusing to protect workers. But beyond that, allow me to suggest that people should eternally go out of their way to make pilgrammages to piss on the graves of US Radium officers and management, for further suggesting that many of the Radium Girls' problems resulted from syphillis.

That allegation, in those times, made publicly, was a special slap in the already painful and disfigured faces of the Radium Girls, by the bastards that ran US Radium.
posted by paulsc at 7:24 AM on January 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I first heard about this in a haunting poem by Lavinia Greenlaw. Hope I haven't posted this here before - I know I've posted it elsewhere.
posted by fleetmouse at 7:48 AM on January 3, 2007

Christ. I hate people so much.
posted by cortex at 8:00 AM on January 3, 2007

There is also a play about the women who worked for US Radium called Radium Girls by D.W. Gregory.
posted by brookeb at 8:00 AM on January 3, 2007

I was sure this was a double, but not quite. I posted the other horrific-in-retrospect example of contamination from a radium watch factory -- the streets of Ottawa, Illinois. They demolished a plant, prewar, and the debris ended up in all sorts of places, including asphalt street repairs. (The second plant in town was carefully packed off to Hanford.)
posted by dhartung at 8:10 AM on January 3, 2007

A science teacher in high school showed us Radium City (NYT Review), a documentary about the women who worked for Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, IL, as well as the aftereffects on the town itself. Most of the town is radioactive, and I still remember the scene where a hunter found a disfigured deer.

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find anything more than the NYT article and the IMDB page.
posted by natabat at 8:20 AM on January 3, 2007

People were asking what we're going today that we'll find out years from now is just plain stupid and dumb because it causes health issues? How about Viagra, Wellbutrin, Covox, Lipitor, HFCS (sorry, kids, gotta be a stickler on that one), someone mentioned Botox, but that's such a strange little fad, and it's voluntary, so I'm skeptical about that one. Then there's fun things like radial power transmission lines, the 60 cycle hum, and inert gas fluorecent lighting. For a long time I've been against these artificial constraints. Always thought we should at least cycle the frequency of AC voltage up above the visible registers (somewhere in the 200 hertz range, but that's just me). But anyway.
posted by daq at 9:08 AM on January 3, 2007

Someone already found the Vonnegut reference: Jailbird, a novel I read a long time ago.
Thanks for your posts in general–they are invariably interesting.
posted by impuls at 9:42 AM on January 3, 2007

Amazing thread. Thanks for the tip Zack_Replica. I'm going to get a black light and see if my vintage glass glows.

I don't think talcum powder is good for babies. Use cornstarch powder instead.
posted by nickyskye at 9:58 AM on January 3, 2007

Food, water and drugs have been subjected to some tests at least. I think more danger lies in chemicals that aren't tested as rigorously because they aren't ingested directly by humans, or don't directly cause cancers, like hormone disrupting pesticides. They call them POPs, persistent organic pollutants, just ask your local frog what happened to its sex organs, if you can find one. I've just completely depressed myself.
posted by tula at 10:12 AM on January 3, 2007

I'm sorry, how is that not about profits?

It is, of course, "about profits" in the sense that profits are a benefit. If you think profits are some special, evil kind of benefit, the only kind of benefit for which people will treat each other badly, you need to think some more.
posted by languagehat at 10:20 AM on January 3, 2007

Reminds me tragically of the PVC coverups of bone loss and brain cancer in thousands of workers, and American Chemical Council's attempts to keep people from seeing the Bill Moyers PBS documentary.

In "Trade Secrets" Bill himself gets tested and is found to have 84 different industrial chemicals in his body. In the transcript I linked to, do a ctrl+F and search for "test results" to read the doctors assessment.

Corporate America is our (the world's) biggest enemy. In the US economic system, money talks, and our overlords have poisoned us, led us to war, and polluted our lands all in the name of money. Capitalism at work, baby!
posted by dozo at 12:18 PM on January 3, 2007

I wonder what things we're doing today that will seem outlandishly foolish to our grandchildren?

Smoking has to be number one on the list, surely - though, of course, it's voluntary, so not quite the same as this.

Another great poser - what things are we doing today that will seem outlandishly barbaric to our descendents, in the same way we now find it hard to believe that otherwise rational, intelligent human beings once condoned slavery. Zoos? Eating meat? Throwing away plastic bottles after one quick drink of fizzy pop?

Great post, thanks jonson.
posted by penguin pie at 12:58 PM on January 3, 2007

I wonder what things we're doing today that will seem outlandishly foolish to our grandchildren?

I vote for wifi, cellphones, cordless everything... low-power microwaving the world.

Invest in tinfoil! :)
posted by rokusan at 1:14 PM on January 3, 2007

High fructose corn syrup will one day kill us all.
posted by nyxxxx at 3:21 PM on January 3, 2007

Q: What did the corn syrup say to the tamari?
A: Dude, we are soy high.

posted by cortex at 3:29 PM on January 3, 2007

cloned beef sauteed in trans fat!
posted by egg meister at 5:34 PM on January 3, 2007

Alan Bellows here... I wrote the linked article. Thanks for the positive comments everyone. I don't usually chime in on sites that link to our stuff because I wouldn't want to appear to be fishing for compliments or something... But I've always loved MeFi, and to see a link from The Blue helped snap me out of a particularly wretched mood today. Much appreciated.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 5:55 PM on January 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Welcome, Alan—your MeFi Moniker is almost as good as your article! Hope you'll stick around and contribute to the debates. (You don't have to tip the cabal, I don't care what anyone tells you.)
posted by languagehat at 5:59 PM on January 3, 2007

Alan, your stuff (and pretty much all the stuff at Damn Interesting) is great, thanks much for writing it. Welcome to Metafilter!
posted by jonson at 7:07 PM on January 3, 2007

nickyskye, good point, but neither powders should be used on babies. There is no reason to fill fresh clean new lungs up with layers of fine powder. I had bought some when I stocked up on the usual baby-stuff-stereotype, but the babies nurse almost shrieked when she saw it.
posted by dabitch at 7:09 PM on January 3, 2007

Interesting article and comments. It reminded me of the people (mostly women) who worked with sulphur in match factories and subsequently suffered from "Phossy jaw."
posted by marxchivist at 7:23 PM on January 3, 2007

Welcome Alan!

Some years ago I watched a high school student do a presentation about the radium girls. He said that even today, a Geiger counter will register radiation over the graves of these poor women.
posted by LarryC at 8:38 PM on January 3, 2007

THAT'S WHY people still make nervous jokes about nuclear industry workers "glowing in the dark". I've worked with radioactive substances, and none have ever lit up. But I can see why stories about dying women with glowing skin would have left an impression on popular culture big enough to resonate a hundred years later.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:19 PM on January 3, 2007

I've always wondered about the long-term use of dark hair dyes, myself. Also, thanks to Hot Pastrami! for the well-written article and welcome to Metafilter!
posted by Lynsey at 10:57 PM on January 3, 2007

From another fan of DI, thanks to jonson, and greetings to Alan!
posted by LinusMines at 2:48 PM on January 4, 2007

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