Friday, April 25, 2014

Radium Girls

We were young. We didn’t know anything about the paint.
-Mae Keane

Back in the 1920s young women working in the United States Radium Corporation factories applying radium paint on watch faces started loosing their teeth and/or suffering from painful inflammation in   their jaws.  It turned out they were in pain because their jawbones were disintegrating. The women used tiny paintbrushes in their work and their supervisors had taught them to reform the point of their brush by using their lips.  They were so in-the-dark about the dangers of radium that they would paint their fingernails teeth, and face with it and sprinkle it in their hair.

At the time the dangers of radium where not known by the general public and radium was being advertised as being healthful.  But US Radium knew and when the women started dying company officials  blamed the women, saying they were suffering from the symptoms of syphilis and that US Radium was not responsible for their deaths.

It is not know how many young women died in their twenties and thirties (It is estimated to be in the hundreds.) or how many died later due to cancer brought on by their exposure to and ingestion of radium at the factories but last month the last of the Radium Girls died at one-hundred-seven-years-old.  Mae Keane was a Radium Girl for only a few months at age 18 because she did not like the taste or gritty feel of the paint in her mouth, or the  monotony of the work and because, as she has admitted, she wasn't good at her job.  She did not get away unscathed though; loosing all her teeth by age thirty-eight and suffering from colon and breast cancer.

George Santayana said those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it and it is interesting how short the memories of big businesses really are.  Right now we have the 1.3 billion dollar fine Toyota had to pay for not reporting the acceleration problem with its cars to the government.  Then there is General Motors ignition switch problem - the one they kept quiet about for over a decade, the one that has killed 13 people.

In all these cases, and there are many, many, more between US Radium and GM,  companies have put "sales over safety and profits of principles."  You think in 90 years they would have learned better.

Mae Keane's New York Times obituary.

Two articles about the Radium Girls: Undark and the Radium Girls and After Glow.

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