Friday, June 8, 2018

The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore
I recently finished Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. I chose to read this book because of its relation to topics about radiation risk in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, but I soon discovered that it isn’t about medical physics. Rather, it focuses on the young women who suffered from occupational radiation exposure. After reviewing previous books about the radium girls, Moore writes:
“As a storyteller and a non-academic, I was struck by the fact that the books focused on the legal and scientific aspects of the women’s story, and not on the compelling lives of the girls themselves. In fact, I soon discovered that no book existed that put the radium girls center stage and told the story from their perspective. The individual women who had fought and died for justice had been eclipsed by their historic achievements; they were now known only by the anonymous moniker of ‘the Radium Girls.’ Their unique experiences—their losses and their loves; their triumphs and their terrors—had been forgotten, if ever charted in the first place.

I became determined to correct that omission.”
The job of a radium girl was to paint luminous dials on clocks and instruments, so you could see them in the dark. They used a radioluminescent paint containing radioactive radium mixed with a scintillator such as zinc-sulfide. Most worked for either the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey, or the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois. Their supervisors taught them to make a fine point on their paint brush by putting it in their mouth, a process called lip-pointing. Each time they lip-pointed, they ingested a bit of radium.

Radium girls lip-pointing in a dial factory: "Lip, Dip, Paint."
Radium girls lip-pointing in a dial factory: "Lip, Dip, Paint." From Wikipedia.
Moore examines the individual lives of these girls—many in their 20s, some in their teens—and explains their physical symptoms and health problems in excruciating detail. Don’t read the book if you're squeamish; for instance, one of the first symptoms was a tooth ache, but when a dentist extracted the tooth a chunk of the jaw would come out too. Radium—an alpha emitter in the same column of the periodic table as calcium—is taken up by bones. With a half-life of 1600 years, it irradiates the bones throughout the girl’s life.

The heroes of this story are women like Grace Fryer and Catherine Donohue, who demanded justice for themselves and other victims. The villains are the leaders of the corporations. I had some sympathy for these companies at first, because the dangers from radiation were not well understood in the 1920s, so how could they know? But as time went by and the hazards became obvious, the executives denied the facts and covered up the risks. By the book's end, these men personify evil.

Sometimes I get frustrated when people believe conspiracy theories and fairy tales about the danger from low levels of radiation, but The Radium Girls helps me understand why it happens. When people in authority ignore the risk to others for their own profit and then lie about it, they undermine trust, until no one believes even the most solid science.

If you are driving through Illinois on I-80, stop in Ottawa and see the statue of a dial painter. Moore describes its creation:
“For a long time—too long—the legacy of the radium girls was recorded only in the law books and in scientific files. But in 2006, an eighth-grade Illinois student called Madeline Piller read a book on the dial-painters by Dr. Ross Mullner. ‘No monuments,’ he wrote, ‘have ever been erected in their memory.’

Madeline was determined to change that. ‘They deserve to be remembered,’ she said. ‘Their courage brought forth federal health standards. I want people to know [there] is a memorial to these brave women.’

When she began to champion her cause, she found that Ottawa, at last, was ready to honor its native heroines and their comrades-in-arms. The town held fish-fry fund-raisers and staged plays to secure the $80,000 needed. ‘The mayor was supportive,’ said Len Grossman. ‘It was a complete turnaround. That was wonderful to see.’

On September 2, 2011, the bronze statue for the dial-painters was unveiled by the governor in Ottawa, Illinois. It is a statue of a young woman from the 1920’s, with a paintbrush in one hand and a tulip in the other, standing on a clock face. Her skirt swishes, as though at any moment she might step down from her time-ticking pedestal and come to life."
The blog Backyard Tourist has excellent photos of the statue.

The Radium Girls doesn’t explain much of the physics behind radiation exposure, but it does remind us why we study medical physics. For a history lesson, a case study in occupational safety, an inspirational story, and a great read, I recommend The Radium Girls.

The Radium Girls discusses radiation risks that are covered in Section 16.12 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and BIology
The Radium Girls discusses radiation risk, a topic covered in Section 16.12 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.


A YouTube video of Kate Moore talking about her book The Radium Girls

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