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This was an illuminating read

All puns aside, this book chronicles the plight of the young women who worked with radium, mostly painting the hands on watch and clock dials. It is a sad story, detailing the lives (and deaths) of these young women, some as young as 13, who were so proud to have a job and be able to contribute to their family. What they didn’t know, and what many others did not know, is that radium is a silent but efficient killer. Your body mistakes radium for calcium, so it enters your bones and destroys them. And believe it or not, there was a lot of hype surrounding the purported health benefits of radium consumption. Doctors recommended radium as a health cure-all, much like cocaine before it and cigarettes after it. Everyone was so sure that this glowing material was harmless, even healthy, that there was no issue seen with the painting technique the girls used. Just being in the factory where the dials were produced ensured that some of the powder got on your cloths, hair, and skin. The girls also moistened the tip of their brushed my putting them in their mouth, ensuring they steadily ingested a small amount of radium every day.

It didn’t take long for the horrible side effects of radium exposure became known. The bones, jaws and teeth of the workers started breaking, falling out and rotting. Doctors didn’t know how to treat these issues, because little was known about the harmful effects of radium. But before long, it because apparent that workers who were exposed to radium had the very real possibility of dying from that exposure. It was hard to win compensation from the companies that owned the factories these women worked in, and it took a long time for doctors to take the complaints seriously. There was a lawsuit filed, and it was settled, but it took many more decades before science and the medical profession really stood up to radium use. The factories closed, and now one of them, located in Ottawa, Illinois is a super-fund site. All of this for a pretty little watch face that glowed.

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