Radium Girls: Lessons From The Past 
UPdate Fall 2002

During World War 1, young women workers were employed to paint luminous watch dials.  The watches were originally designed to be used by soldiers in the trenches, and later became a popular consumer item.  To get a sharper tip, the women were instructed to point up the brushes with their tongues.  Several years later, the women began to suffer from anemia, fractures and necrosis of the jaw.  Some of them, and their doctors and dentists, suggested there was a connection between their illnesses and the radium paint.

It was the early days of radium.  The watch dial companies rejected the claims that radium had caused the illnesses.  Government regulators felt that existing evidence did not justify further investigation.

The Consumer's League of New Jersey took up the women's cause.  They undertook an investigation, and successfully campaigned to have radium necrosis recognized by the State Workman's Compensation Board in 1926. However, it was too late to benefit the women poisoned by radium before the law was passed.

The case of the radium girls, as they were known, horrified many people. It led to passage of a bill in 1949 which made all industrial diseases compensable, and extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses and make a claim.

In her recently published book, Radium Girls, Claudia Clark looks at this case of occupational disease and its lessons for the present.  In a review in the New England Journal of Medicine, David Jones of Harvard University wrote, "the recognition of radium poisoning was not a single event, a flash of medical insight.  It was a political process, negotiated by labour, management, government and medicine...[ Radium Girls ] powerfully reminds us that it is not enough to take precautions only against known toxins.  Instead we must struggle to anticipate new risks in our changing industrial and social environments."


Related Article:
Labour Movement Takes on Workplace Carcinogens