The Story Of The Radium Girls And Their Decades-Long Fight For Justice

Published April 6, 2023
Updated May 1, 2023

The Dangers Of Radium

Ad For Radium Water

Wikimedia CommonsAn ad for radium water.

Unfortunately, that bright element had a dark side. The only stable isotope of radium is radium-226, which has a half-life of 1,600 years. For as long as it lasts, any sample of radium will emit alpha particles in all directions.

Normally, alpha radiation is harmless in small doses. Countless natural sources of this radiation can be found in the average kitchen or bathroom. Even nature is full of it as the low-energy particles have a hard time penetrating even one layer of skin. Outside the body, it’s virtually safe.

Inside the body, it wreaks godawful havoc on the body’s tissues. That warming glow radium puts out is caused by the element’s atoms acting like tiny batteries.

Light photons strike the radium atom, bumping its electrons into a higher orbit. After the sun sets and it gets dark, those electrons spontaneously drop into lower orbits, emitting a particle and some photons as they go.

When radium is placed next to human cells or in the bloodstream, like when it crosses a mucous membrane such as the gums, it turns into a microscopic machine gun that gets lodged in the body’s tissues. The radium then fires off particle after particle at very close range, eventually mutating and killing the cells around it.

The Work Of The Radium Girls

Radium Girls

Wikimedia CommonsEmployees of the U.S. Radium Corp. (Radium Girls) paint numbers on the faces of wristwatches using radioactive paint.

The men who worked for USRC wore lead aprons to protect them from this radiation, which was known to have a cumulative effect. The shop girls were given no protection of any kind and even encouraged to lick their brushes to get a fine point for detail work.

The reason the company gave for this difference was that the male engineers were handling huge bundles of raw material, while the girls were never exposed to more than a small amount at once. Day after day during the war, and for many years after, the radium girls painted military and civilian watches and dials, licking their paintbrushes and handling jars of radium tincture as carelessly as they would handle any paint.

This paint naturally got all over the girls, whose clothes and skin would glow when they got home from work. The girls thought this was great fun; reassured by their supervisors that they were perfectly safe.

Some girls even took to wearing their best ball gowns to work on Friday so they would glow at the dance that weekend. Girls painted their nails with radium, sprinkled flakes into their hair, and even applied it to their teeth to “give their kiss a pop.”

For several years, working at the radium plant was fun and very well-paid, so many of the employees encouraged their sisters, nieces, and sisters-in-law to apply. By 1920, several large families were working on USRC’s floor, totaling around 300 girls at the peak of operations.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.