This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It’s fixed format so it’s better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website .
Lux et Veritas
In the Jewelers’ Circular, August 7, 1918 is an ad for paint for glow-in-the-dark watch dials.
Luma Radium Luminous Compound
We absolutely guarantee that only radium is used to activate Luma, no mesothorium, radiothorium, ionium (1), nor polonium being added.
Radium paint was used for glow-in-the dark watch dials. The radium was mixed with zinc sulfide which glows from the radioactive particles the radium emits.
The United States Radium Corporation set up shop in 1917 in Orange, New Jersey. It employed women to paint watch dial numbers with their radium paint brand, Undark (which did have mesothorium added). In addition to watches, U.S. Radium had a contract to paint instrument dials for the U.S. Army in World War I.
The women were told to point the brushes with their lips for the delicate task. In the process, they ingested small amounts of radium.
At the Radium Dial Company in Peru, Illinois the workers were told “if you swallow any radium, it’ll make your cheeks rosy.” The women would paint their nails and teeth for a glow-in-the-dark laugh. In Switzerland the dial painters could be recognized at night because their hair glowed.
The women dial-painters began to get sick with aplastic anemia, bone cancer, and a painful deterioration of the jaw dubbed “radium jaw”, with many deaths.
In the early 1920’s U.S. Radium contracted with a Harvard physician and researcher to examine its workers. He found symptoms of radium poisoning in almost all the workers, some severely afflicted.
Arthur Roeder, president of U.S. Radium, disputed the findings, suppressed the 1924 report by refusing permission to publish it, set up a bogus examination of one of the girls that found her in good health, and smeared the girls who had died by claiming they had died of syphilis.
The Orange health department contacted the Consumers League, a non-profit concerned with consumer and workplace issues, (founded in 1899 and still active), which led to an investigation of the deaths of 4 dial painters between 1922 and 1924 by the Essex County Medical Examiner, who issued a report in 1925 finding that radium poisoning was the cause of the deaths.
The word got out to potential employees and U.S. Radium closed its Orange factory in 1926 and moved to New York City, but with reduced production.
Five of the dial painters filed suit against U.S. Radium in 1927; it had taken two years to find an attorney who would take the case. After a January, 1928 hearing, the national press picked up the story of the “Radium Girls.”
In April, the judge adjourned the case until September because U.S. Radium said its witnesses would be going to Europe on vacation. The Radium Girls’ attorney protested in vain that the women were dying and might not live until then.
At this point a Harvard M.D. On the board of the Consumers League contacted Walter Lippmann, influential columnist for the New York World. He excoriated the delay of the suit of the dying women — some of the women were too weak to raise their hands to take the oath in court. Lippmann’s editorial and other negative publicity convinced the court to reschedule the trial for early June, 1928. Shortly before the trial, U.S. Radium settled with the Radium Girls for $10,000 each, $600 a year, and payment for legal and medical expenses, past and future, but denied any responsibility. (2)
The Radium Girls all died by the early 1930’s. Their case helped establish the right of workers to sue for labor abuse and promoted occupational safety regulations.
The U.S. Radium site was contaminated by waste from the extraction of radium from ore and became a superfund site. It was cleaned up from 1997-2005. Radium was used in watch dials into the 1960’s, but applied safely. Today, tritium or promethium is used in luminous dials
Bizarrely, there is a punk rock band named Undark and the Radium Girls.
1. Obsolete terms for radium 228, thorium 230, and thorium 228. Radium 226, with a half-life of 1600 years was used for watch dials. Radium 228, mesothorium, was added because it was cheaper, $32,000/gram vs. $120,000/gram for radium 226; it was a byproduct of gas mantle manufacturing. It quickly decays into thorium 228 which emits the alpha particles necessary for luminescence, but which itself decays away within a few years.
2. From a letter by Arthur Roeder, president of of U.S. Radium to the Commissioner of Public Health of the City of New York June 18, 1928: “The fact that we settled these suits in no way is indicative of the merits of the complainants contentions, or that we admit responsibility or liability. From a legal aspect there is very little question that we had a perfect defense, both from the standpoint of the Statute of Limitations [2 years] and from the fact that there was no negligence on our part.”
There was a “radium craze” beginning around 1903. Radium was touted as the cure for what ails you. Radium was put in candy, soda, toothpaste, face creams, suppositories(!), and sundry tonics and elixirs. Even Al Jolson plugged the Radio X pad that “worked wonders” for the crooner’s throat.
There was Radium Spray “The new combination bug killer, disinfectant, and furniture polish.” (You could drink it, too.)
The radium craze ended with the death of Eben Byers, a wealthy socialite and amateur golf champion. After injuring his arm in 1927, he drank some 1400 bottles of Radiothor radium water in three years. He died in 1932. The Wall Street Journal headlined “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off”.
Eben Byers is buried in a lead-lined coffin in Pittsburgh.
Copyright © 2020 Joseph Mirsky