Radium girls

Katherine Schaub, Amelia (Molly) Maggia, Quinta Maggia McDonald, Albina Maggia Larice, Helen Quinlan, Grace Fryer, Edna Bolz Hussman, Hazel Vincent Kuser, Marguerite Carlough, Catherine Wolfe Donohue, Inez Corcoran Vallat, Margaret (Peg) Looney… just a few of the young women, known as the radium girls, who lost their lives as a result of radium poisoning and industrial negligence.

They were employed at first to paint military dials with radium-based luminous paint for the First World War effort, and then as the radium craze swept the world, to paint watch and clock dials. The work paid well but no-one warned them of the hazards associated with radium. To paint with speed and precision they were instructed to smooth their brushes to a point between their lips.

Ingested radium localises in the bones, mimicking calcium and binding to hydroxyapatite. The cumulative effect of the radiation destroys the bones from the inside out. Many of the girls first lost their teeth as necrosis of the jaw set in. For others the decay began in the legs or spine. Severe anaemia followed as the bone marrow was no longer able to function. Any that survived this stage later succumbed to bone sarcomas.

As more and more girls fell ill and died it became apparent that their condition must be connected to their work. Their fight for justice is described vividly in The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.

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