In my November 4 blog post, I mentioned my reluctance to read The Radium Girls, the story of the teenage dial painters who worked with glow-in-the-dark, radium-laced paint, licking their paintbrushes to achieve a perfect fine point. The blog post concluded with the assertion that I should indeed read the book. I was right. Yes, some of it is truly horrifying and sickening. But this story is still relevant and more important than ever.
My previous blog post mentioned the Radium Dial Corporation, but that company was just one of many involved in producing radium-laced products, and one of two at the center of the Radium Girls story. The first was the United States Radium Corporation (USRC), based in Orange, New Jersey. Radium Dial Corporation started in Ottawa, Illinois a decade later.
News in those days didn’t travel instantly, like it does today. When the USRC dial painters began falling ill and dying while still in their 20s, as a result of daily exposure to radium, the workers in Ottawa knew nothing about it. Girls and young women flocked to dial painting jobs for the money and the camaraderie, just as they had half way across the country.
Author Kate Moore tells the story from the perspective of the workers, which makes for compelling reading. I couldn’t put it down, even as I feared what horror I would learn about next. Perhaps just as sickening as the girls’ illnesses and disfigurement is the attitude of the companies that employed the dial painters. Predictably, they denied responsibility for their employees’ ailments despite mounting evidence to the contrary. They hired their own doctors and hid any evidence that suggested that the radium in the paint was linked to sickness or death.
Clearly, workplaces in the U.S. are safer than they were in the early 20th century. Labs and factories are filled with warnings, as are even products on store shelves, and workers wear protective apparel when handling dangerous materials. Safety Data Sheets, which used to be called Materials Safety Data Sheets and spell out the hazards and precautions associated with specific chemicals, are mandatory. When radioactive materials or X-ray radiation are present, workers wear dosimeters to continually monitor their exposure levels.
But it’s frightening that in some ways things haven’t changed. Business executives still respond defensively when attacked, with the most common gut instinct being to deny responsibility. They claim that their product or their manufacturing facility can’t possibly be causing people harm. Such reactions aren’t limited to business executives. Politicians, of course, do the same thing, as do people who aren’t even in the public spotlight.
Authors like Moore are doing a public service by informing readers and reminding us of the importance of safety regulations and holding people accountable for their actions. The book I’m writing, Get the Lead Out, includes a discussion of the dial painters’ story, as well as other instances where products and materials promoted as being safe have endangered public health and safety.
My book, perhaps not surprisingly, includes an entire chapter on lead. While reading The Radium Girls, I discovered a curious connection. Dr. Frederick Flinn, one of the huge cast of characters that Moore introduces, was an industrial hygiene specialist that the Radium Dial Corporation hired to investigate the effects of radioactive paint. It so happens that Dr. Flinn had previously worked with the Ethyl Corporation, having been hired to provide evidence that tetraethyl lead was a safe additive in gasoline. Dr. Flinn had also worked in the mining industry, which I discuss in chapters on metals and e-waste.
Get the Lead Out, which I plan on publishing in 2018, does not focus only on the negative. Far from it. I have been talking to business leaders who truly believe in transparency and prioritizing people ahead of profit, and it’s refreshing to hear their stories. If you or someone in your circle of contacts wants to be interviewed, please reach out soon, as I plan to wrap up interviews this month.