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When I went off to first grade in the fall of 1955, one of the first things our teacher taught us was to tell time.  In recognition of my newly-acquired skill, I got my first watch for Christmas that year -- a Hopalong Cassidy wrist-watch, and yes, it would be worth a small fortune today if I still had it, mint condition, in the box.  But that possibility was pretty much shot after about the first thirty seconds.

Hoppy didn't last long -- drowned in a swimming accident, if I recall, his cold, dead eyes staring out from behind a fog of moisture on the inside of the crystal.  I don't think he even made it to the next Christmas.  My second watch was a marvel.  It had -- like every watch I would have for the next twenty years -- hands and numerals that glowed in the dark.  I could tell what time it was even when the lights were out.  How cool was that?

If  I'd known the history behind those glowing hands, I might not have been so enthusiastic.

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One of the items in the recently-passed stimulus bill -- one that raised the ire of a number of the "spending is not stimulus" Republican critics -- was an $800 million dollar allotment to the EPA (cut to $600 million at the insistence of our aisle-crossing bipartisan trio) for cleaning up "Superfund" sites, those highly-contaminated environmental time bombs festering across our country.  Illinois has a number of Superfund sites.  The closest to me is in Ottawa, La Salle county, Illinois about 50 miles northeast of my home.  The EPA's description of the site hints at a story far darker than a few acres of contaminated soil.

The contamination probably originated from processing wastes and demolition debris from two companies that once operated within four blocks of each other near the center of Ottawa -- Radium Dial Co. during 1918-36 and Luminous Processes, Inc. (LPI), during 1937-78. Both companies used radium-based paint to produce luminous dials for clocks and watches.
The dial painting industry got its start during World War I, two decades after the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie  in 1898.  It filled a government demand for watches and instruments with luminous dials and faces so military men in the trenches could read them without turning on a light or lantern and giving away their position.  After the war, the luminous watch faces and hands became a fashion fad and kept the industry going and the dialpainting executives prosperous into the Roaring Twenties.

The Radium Dial Company employed about one thousand local women to paint dials primarily for their largest customer, the Westclox clock factory in Peru, Illinois that made the ubiquitous "Big Ben" alarm clock.  In an era with few occupations open to women, the pay at the dialpainting factories was significantly better that most alternatives -- as much as three times more -- and the factories had little trouble filling positions.  The women, many of them girls fresh out of high school, became part of a phenomenon that would become  known collectively as the "Radium Girls".

The women working in Ottawa were assured that the luminous material was safe.  Their instructor, wife of the plant manager and teacher of the lip-pointing technique, once ate the radium-laced paint from a spatula to demonstrate its innocuousness.  The workers were told by their supervisor that the radium would "put a glow in our cheeks," that "the paint would make us goodlooking,"
Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform: 1910-1935
"Lip-pointing" was a technique of using the lips or the tip of the tongue to twirl a sharp point on the brushes the girls used to hand-paint the dials and hands.  Inevitably, some amount of radium was ingested in the process.  While in some cases the company itself did not officially teach or promote lip-pointing, which was often passed on from veteran worker to newcomer, they didn't do anything to stop it, either.  And even though plentiful evidence later surfaced to indicate they knew the dangers of the substance their employees were working with, when asked they were quick to characterize radium as 'harmless', even beneficial.  The falsehoods presented to the Ottawa dialpainters were echoed elsewhere.
...In the 1920s company managers told many employees that ingesting radium would add to their vitality, curl their hair, improve their complexions, and make them sexually attractive. The dial painters thus eagerly licked their paintbrushes to give them the fine point they needed to paint the watch dials. Many also applied the radioactive substance to their rings, buttons, and belts. One man even painted his teeth to make them glow...
H. Wasserman and N. Solomon, Killing Our Own
------------------------------------------------

"Radium Girls" is a term that has a dual usage.  It can refer to both the general population of clock- and watch-dial painters at several sites across the county, notably Ottawa; Orange, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; and on Long Island, New York;  but also specifically to a group of five dial-painters from the United States Radium Corporation factory in Orange, New Jersey.  It was in New Jersey that the wake of devastation being left by the dialpainting process first came to light.  

In the early 1920's, dentists near Orange, New Jersey began to notice an unusual number of patients suffering necrosis of the jaw, a deterioration of the bone in the jaw that left it porous and honeycombed, accompanied by tooth loss, and other ailments.  Between 1922 and 1924 four dialpainters died and many others were ill.  Causes of death were attributed on death certificates to phosphorous poisoning, mouth ulcers and syphilis, but suspicion was beginning to be cast on a common element in all the cases -- their employer, U. S. Radium.

By 1924 news that four employees of the U.S. Radium Corporation had died of necrosis of the jaw--a rare degenerative disease--reached the Board of Health of Orange County, New Jersey. Eight other women were seriously ill, and local dentists were reporting still more cases. But when Katherine Wiley of the National Consumers League approached the company, she was told the problem was due to poor dental hygiene.
H. Wasserman and N. Solomon, Killing Our Own
Grace Fryer worked as a dialpainter at the United States Radium Corporation factory in Orange, New Jersey from 1917 until 1920, when she left for a job as a bank teller.  In 1923 she began to experience health problems.
About two years later, [Grace Fryer's] teeth started falling out and her jaw developed a painful abscess. The hazel eyes that had charmed her friends now clouded with pain. She consulted a series of doctors, but none had seen a problem like it. X-ray photos of her mouth and back showed the development of a serious bone decay. Finally, in July 1925, one doctor suggested that the problems may have been caused by her former occupation.
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls
As Grace Fryer considered what to do next, she had a seeming stroke of luck.  She was approached by a specialist from prestigious Columbia University, contacted by friends, he said, who offered to examine her.  Not only that, but there happened to be, coincidentally, a colleague available who reviewed and confirmed his findings, that Grace was in perfect health and had nothing to worry about.
...Columbia University specialist Frederick Flynn, who said he was referred by friends, asked to examine her. The results, he said, showed that her health was as good as his. A consultant who happened to be present emphatically agreed. Later, Fryer found out that this examination was part of a campaign of misinformation started by the U.S. Radium Corporation. The Columbia specialist was not licensed to practice medicine -- he was an industrial toxicologist on contract with her former employer. The colleague had no medical training either -- he was a vice president of U.S. Radium.
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls
Now Grace Fryer faced an uphill battle.  As a bank teller she had limited resources for either medical treatment or legal fees, and few lawyers were willing to invest resources in what they viewed as a quixotic battle  against a major corporation unlikely to yield a favorable outcome.  In addition, in the early decades of the century, radium was viewed by many as a miracle cure for any number of ailments.
[Radium] was often seen as a scientific miracle with enormous curative powers. The "radium craze" in America, which began around 1903, familiarized the public with the word "radium."  One historian said: "The spectacular properties of this element and its envisioned uses were heralded without restraint in newspapers, magazines and books and by lecturers, poets, novelists, choreographers, bartenders, society matrons, croupiers, physicians and the United States government."  Stomach cancer could be cured, it was imagined, by drinking a radium concoction that bathed the affected parts in "liquid sunshine."  One of the medical drinks sold over the counter until 1931, "Radithor," contained enough radium to kill hundreds or possibly thousands of unsuspecting health enthusiasts who drank it regularly for several years.  An overview of newspaper and magazine articles on radium in the first decades of the 20th century found their tone strongly positive.
Bill Kovarik,  The Radium Girls
It might have ended there, and Grace Fryer might have become another anonymous victim of the  radium industry had it not been for the intercession of a formidable combination --  (gasp!) social activists and muckraking journalists.  
NOTE: In Part II, the story of the Radium Girls enters the domain of an tenacious sisterhood, popular media and eventually the courts, and weaves its way through a labyrinth of business, governmental, scientific, and institutional entanglements.  This is, I hope, Part One of two, but there are a lot of side streets and digressive detours ahead that could keep the curious occupied for a long, long time, and a lot of rooms you can step into and have the eerie feeling that you've been there before (I remember this!  Isn't this...?  Yes, the Bush administration.  But wait!  That calendar on the wall says  -- 1927! {cue "Twilight Zone" theme...})
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part II
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part III

Update 3/1/09 Fixed mis-located paragraph.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun Mar 01, 2009 at 02:11 PM PST.

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