Nowadays, most people know that radium products are incredibly harmful, and that radiation can kill you. However, this wasn't always the case. In the early 20th century, radium paint was used on many household objects, and no one gave it a second thought. That is, until factory workers who were exposed to radium paint started to die. These Radium Girls, as they're referred to, often perished from radiation poisoning, and those who didn't fought stringently against it. They eventually won the battle, but at a great cost.
Interestingly, when radium was first discovered, it was actually thought to be healthy. Radioactive medicine was all the rage, and no one suspected that it was actually slowly killing them. Dangerous x-rays conducted at the time further exacerbated the effects of this radioactive quackery, so if you had been exposed to the poison, seeing a doctor actually made it worse. When the Radium Girls found that they had this sickness, they chose to fight back against those who inflicted it upon them - the corporations.
These women were heroic, tragic, and important figures in our history, and their stories should never be forgotten for as long as they remain glowing in their graves.
Radium Was Once Used To Make Watch Faces Light Up
Back when radium was first introduced to the world in 1902, it was viewed as a sort of miracle substance. People even thought that it might have healing properties, so everyone wanted to study or use it - and one inventor, William J. Hammer, knew it would have numerous useful applications. People didn't fully understand it yet, but they did know that it glowed in the dark and gave off slight warmth.
It wasn't long before Hammer invented glow-in-the-dark paint made of, you guessed it, radium. During World War I, a company called Undark (how clever) used the paint to create instrument panels and watch faces that could be read at night without having to turn on additional lights.
Almost All Radium Factory Workers Were Women
One of the main reasons that radium usage was so common during this time was that everyone thought it was perfectly safe for the public - and for factory workers. Factory workers in the early 20th century included men and women, young and old; however, the Undark factory, that made radium-coated watches, employed primarily women. It might seem like pretty lowly work for women in that day, but it came with some pretty good perks, plus the pay was much higher than many other jobs available to women at the time, so, if you wanted to save money for your family or future, working for Undark was the way to go.
Workers Were Told It Was Safe
All of the hype around radium was happening at the same time that Marie Curie was studying the mysterious glowing substance, and she quickly discovered that it led to some serious issues involving radiation. Other scholars, including managing authorities in the factories, also knew that something was amiss, so they avoided handling any of the radium, getting too close to it, or even using any of the products that they were making. They even took special safety precautions whenever they got close to the paint.
But what about the workers? The women working at the Undark factory were assured that the radium paint was perfectly safe. They could even take samples of it home, paint their nails or faces with it, and were told that it might even be good for them. This was backed up by the fact that radium was often sold to the public as a curative substance, and was an ingredient in many health drinks and medicines. None of the women suspected a thing.
Radium Exposure Actually Made The Women Glow In The Dark
Women thought the radium paint was absolutely the bee's-knees, and that the only side effect was that it could make their cheeks rosy. They were happy to paint their nails with it, use it on their clothes, and even apply it as makeup. Some women would also paint their teeth with the paint before going home so that they would have a glowing smile. But even for those who did not put the substance all over their bodies, just being around the stuff every day was enough. The exposure alone was known to actually make their bodies glow in the dark after a hard day's work. At the time, none of the women were all that concerned, and they even thought it was quite fun to glow on the dance floor at night.
What the women did not know was that the paint they were lathering themselves in was approximately one million times more active than uranium! And even though the business owners and scientists knew so at the time, they still kept quiet.