The Revolutionary Story of Radium Girls and Shocking Radium Beauty

vintage handwatches
Photo: Alex Guillaume

Are you familiar with the Radium Girl story? The first time I heard about it was a few years ago when I stumbled upon the 'Radium Girls' movie trailer on YouTube. Only a few years later, I could enjoy the movie and take a deeper look into this heart-breaking story. However, there is always a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, even in a story like this.

collage from vintage newspaper articles about radium girls

Who were Radium Girls?

Radium Girls were a group of female workers hired by the United States Radium Corporation in the early 1920s. In these factories, women performed various tasks. They included handling the chemical element radium and applying radium paint onto dials for a glow-in-the-dark effect. Unlike owners of the factories and scientists, who were familiar with the effect of radium, women workers were not aware of the danger.

But radium and its wondrous properties, discovered by Marie Skłodowska-Curie, were used not only in the production of watches and airplane instruments. It was aggressively promoted as a miraculous beauty ingredient. Soon, radioactive face creams and the famous energizing tonic Radithor overwhelmed drugstore shelves. Beauty and medical brands couldn't miss a chance to capitalize on this discovery.

a picture of energy drink radithor

As a result of the "lip, dip, paint" technique, which Radium Girls used to paint dials, more than 50 women died of radioactive poisoning. Although, the exact number of people, who suffered from the impact is unknown. The radiation sickness and even death caused by radium exposure didn't affect the popularity of radium watches and other radioactive products.

The final dot in the case was put in the spring of 1938 when the justice ruled in favor of workers. The whole case of Radium Girls holds a revolutionary place in labor in the field of human health and the movement for labor rights. It turned the system upside down, establishing the right of the individual worker to sue big corporations and the occupational disease labor law. All thanks to the courageous women, human rights activists, and other caring people, who were not afraid to fight for their rights.

a cast of the Radium Girls movie

In 1938, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act finally outlawed several dangerous products and fake medical devices, including radium-containing drinks. The Center for Human Radiobiology was founded thirty years later in 1968, where scientists collected medical information, and samples, and provided examinations for living dial painters. This research made an extensive contribution to health physics and radiology.

The Takeaway

What is the takeaway of this story? I believe there are multiple things we have to learn from it. First, we should fight for our rights no matter if we are going to win. It is important to stand up for yourself, and for the people around you who need protection. Second, capitalism has its own ways and morality, when it comes to financial interest. We should be smart and responsible for our health. And, third, even the saddest story can teach us something important. The Radium Girls epopee must become an unfortunate example that can guide millions.
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