Friday, 23 September 2016




Simon & Schuster, 2016, 465 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

Those smirking denigrators of the ‘nanny-state’ who gripe about ‘occupational health and safety gone mad’ would do well to read Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls about a time when a nasty industrial poison, unregulated by business-friendly governments, destroyed countless American women’s lives.


Discovered in 1898, radium’s spectacular luminescence made it a popular craze.  It could, said its promoters, not only make you glow in the dark, but cure cancer (it did destroy tumorous cells) and all manner of human ailments.  US business entrepreneurs cashed in, at their head the watch dial industry whose profits increased by the bucketload from government contracts for night-time illumination of military instrumentation during the first World War.


Because of their nimble fingers, teenage and young women (and girls, some as young as eleven) were employed by the thousands for the intricate work of painting tiny dials.  They embraced their new jobs.  Paid on a piece-work basis, the more dials (and thus more radioactive radium) they handled, the better their earnings.  The most efficient and profitable (and dangerous) way to apply the radium-paint was ‘lip-pointing’, where moistened lips were used to bring paint-brush bristles to a fine taper.


The continual, close oral contact with bone-loving radium meant that the jaw was the first to go from radiation-induced necrosis (bone decay), after having lost all the teeth, followed by other crumbling bones, severe anaemia from destruction of red blood cell production in bone marrow, and cancer of the bone.


The radium-painters had been assured that radium was safe, despite management being aware of its dangers and, in fact, introducing some safety standards for their technical and scientific laboratory workers.  As the radium-painters fell sick and died, however, they continued to be lied to, and about.  Their health problems were blamed on ‘improper diets’, syphilis from sexual promiscuity, pre-existing health conditions, and workers’ compensation fraud.


Management’s allies included pro-business government bureaucracies, state legislatures, company doctors, and radium researchers, most of whom either worked for radium companies or for prestigious university departments which were funded by industry.


The radium-painters could only rely on a few conscience-troubled defectors from the above ranks, some lawyers (who acted from a mix of sympathy and the commercial lure of their standard 30-40% cut of successful compo claims), and the Consumers League which campaigned for better working conditions for women.  Trade unions (especially the conservative, male-dominated American Federation of Labor) are absent from the book - the radium-painters were too often deferential towards authority figures in business suits and lab coats.


Out-of-court settlements in front of business-linked judges cut the companies’ compensation losses whilst exempting them from any precedent-setting legal guilt.  It took two decades before a jury court vindicated the women as victims of industrial poisoning by radiation.


The real turning point for the radium industry, however, wasn’t so much the women workers but a wealthy male industrialist who died from drinking Radithor (a radium-infused tonic water) to treat an injury (‘The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off’, was the newspaper headline).  Radium medicines were banned, then laws introduced for all workers for safety standards for radium and other radioactive substances.


Radium’s legacy (it has a half-life of 1,600 years) still endures, however.  The contaminated factory and waste land-fill sites remain a radioactive source for above average community cancer rates, whilst costing taxpayers millions of dollars for government clean-ups.


The intimate human drama of the radium-painters monopolises most of Moore’s attention (she is a theatre director, not a historian) but the narrative reveals an early, grim chapter in the real cost of all subsequent variations (weapons, reactors, mining, waste dumps) on the disastrous nuclear theme.

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