In the first two parts of Radium Girls, How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part I and How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part II , we were introduced to the women employed in the dial painting industry in the nineteen-teens and nineteen-twenties, painting luminous faces on clocks and instruments with radium-based paint. As many of the women began to experience medical problems, New Jersey public health officials turned to an organization of social activists to investigate. That investigation led five New Jersey dialpainters to bring suit against U. S. Radium Corporation of Orange, New Jersey. With U.S. Radium engaging in stalling legal tactics as the girls' health pushed them inexorably toward death, the pioneering women of the National Consumers League fought back.
The story concludes inside.
The great fear of the team campaigning for justice for the New Jersey dialpainters seeking compensation from U. S. Radium Corporation of Orange, New Jersey for the illness they suffered as a result of their exposure to radium was that the girls would die before the case was ever settled. Their fears were well grounded, as U. S. Radium delivered a volley of delaying tactics. When their lawyers convinced the judge in the Radium Girls' case at an April 25, 1928 hearing to continue the case until September because many of their witnesses were going to Europe for the summer, and the judge consented, Alice Hamilton was ready.
Hamilton had worked with Walter Lippmann
editor of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World
during the public health controversy over tetraethyl lead exposure
of workers in gasoline refineries in 1925 (moral: the good guys don't always win). When the Radium Girls' case went to court she, Florence Kelley, and Kathleen Wiley had turned to him to help formulate contingency plans in the event the defendants tried to "run out the clock". Now, with the hearing delayed to September, it was time to unleash those plans.
Lippmann had a reputation in his writing for calm, reasonable, rational discourse. What blazed across the pages of the New York World was perhaps rational, but anything but calm and reasonable. In a proto-rant that would make even our own Hunter sit back in awe, Lippmann unloaded:
Walter Lippmann, the editor of the influential New York World newspaper, wrote of the judge's decision, calling it a "damnable travesty of justice... There is no possible excuse for such a delay. The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth." In a later editorial, he wrote, "This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice."
The national outrage over the delay prompted the court to reschedule the hearing for early June, but days before the trial, Raymond Berry and US Radium agreed to allow U.S. District Court Judge William Clark to mediate an out-of-court settlement. Berry and the Radium Girls accepted their opponent's offer reluctantly, despite learning that their mediator was a US Radium Corporation stockholder. Their situation was too desperate to refuse; the women were not expected to live much longer. Each woman would receive $10,000– equivalent to about $100,000 today– and have all of their medical and legal expenses paid. They would also receive a $600 per year annuity for as long as they lived. Unsurprisingly, few of the annuity payments were collected.
Alan Bellows, Undark and the Radium Girls
By the 1930's, all five of the New Jersey Radium Girls were dead.
In the immediate aftermath of the New Jersey settlement, the National Consumers League launched investigations of other dialpainting sites around the country. Medical examiners for New York and New Jersey met with Consumer's League principals and a general conference on radium factory safety standards was proposed and ultimately called by U.S. Surgeon General Hugh Cumming on December 20, 1928. Two committees were set up: one to investigate existing conditions and a second to recommend the best known means of protection for workers. And at dialpainting factories around the country, the practice of lip-pointing was quietly and discretely ended.
In the wake of the publicity over the New Jersey case, which had captured the attention of newspaper readers nationwide and in Europe, other ill dialpainters sought compensation for radium-related diseases at various sites across the country.
...It is estimated that sixteen women won compensation in Connecticut, ten or eleven in New Jersey, and thirteen in Illinois. The amounts awarded in Illinois are less than the five large New Jersey settlements, but the Donahue award of $5,700 was similar to the $5,600 calculated to have been spent per recompensed employee by the Connecticut watch companies. Other compensated women in Illinois likely received less that $1,000.
A good number of dialpainters who were affected the worst, and the earliest, were compensated. by 1940 fifteen Connecticut women were known to have died from radium poisoning, and all but three were compensated; sixteen New Jersey women were known dead, and eleven received settlements. of course, these figures neglect dialpainters who may have died unknowingly from radium poisoning and whose deaths were not tied to the disease, as well as those who became sick but did not die before 1940.
Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform: 1910-1935
Regulation, echoing Tip O'Neill's dictum about politics, is often local. As the litigation of radium poisoning cases moved across the country, they brought in their wake changes in state laws concerning worker safety protections, occupational diseases and workers' compensation. At the national level, a committee including (somewhat involuntarily [pdf] ) Robley Evans, who had been studying radium exposure at MIT since 1933, established standards of exposure for radium dialpainters in the U.S. Navy which, as often happens, also became the de facto standard for private business applications. The US Congress eventually passed a bill in 1949 making all occupational diseases compensable, and extended the time during which workers could discover illnesses and make a claim. As a result of the case, the right of individual workers to sue for damages as a result of labor abuse, with a baseline of "provable suffering", was established.
And our story now returns to where we started our journey, to the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois. Although the awards to the dialpainters in Illinois were comparatively modest, Radium Dial nonetheless declared bankruptcy and ceased operation by 1936. In 1937, a new dial-painting company named Luminous Processes opened in Ottawa. With the negative experience of the radium dial companies in their respective cases, one would have thought the new company would have taken notice and embraced improved safety practices. One would have been wrong.
If education rather than regulation was the best solution, and if workers were largely to blame for their radium body-burdens then employee education would seem to have been a logical priority. Yet apparently dialpainters [at Luminous Processes] were not told about the dangers of radium. One employee of the war years, who was hospitalized and examined by radiation experts in 1952, reported, "That was the first time I knew that radium might be dangerous. The company had never told us a thing."
Luminous Processes employees interviewed by a journalist in 1978 had been left ignorant of radium's dangers. They were told that eliminating lippointing had ended earlier problems. They worked in unvented rooms, they wore smocks that they laundered at home. Geiger counters could pick up readings from pants returned from a dry cleaner and from clothes stored away in a cedar chest. Workers reported that their callouses would glow in the dark from deposited radium and that, for fun, they would paint their nails with the luminous paint. "We slapped radium around like cake frosting," remembered one employee.
Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform: 1910-1935
However, it's perhaps not surprising that Luminous Processes operated in a manner so similar to its dialpainting predecessor in Ottawa. Luminous Processes president, Joseph Kelley, Sr., had been president of the defunct Radium Dial Company.
Perhaps something might have been done had it not been for the intervention of World War II, War has a way of suspending the rules -- witness our own struggles with accountability-exempt mercenaries, kidnapping and torture, blatant profiteering and fraud by well-connected companies, and pallets of shrink-wrapped currency flown in on transport planes that just (poof!) disappear into thin air once unloaded. Instead of a crack-down to force Luminous Processes to comply with safety standards and regulations,
...with World War II Luminous Processes grew even more unassailable. Its president met with Albert Einstein and President Roosevelt about helping the war effort, and Luminous began using its facilities to turn out polonium, for possible use in atomic bombs.
Meanwhile, the death toll continued to rise, and an ever-greater shroud of mystery surrounded Ottawa. Three elderly women recall the death of their sister and the doctors' efforts to have her buried immediately, in the middle of the night, before an autopsy could be performed.
New York Times: "Radium City (1987) Film Festival; A View of the Radium Dial Horror"
Finally, after forty years of such activity, Luminous Processes finally ran afoul of an agency called -- ever so appropriately for a story about regulation -- the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
...In 1976 the NRC fined Luminous for sloppy practices at its Illinois factory. In 1978 the commission ordered the plant shut.
Luminous responded by hastily ordering its equipment trucked to Georgia, where it had a plant free of NRC jurisdiction. The commission caught the trucks and confiscated the equipment. The Georgia plant was closed soon thereafter; local officials were still reporting high radiation levels on site in 1980. [Anna] Mayo [of the Village Voice] later visited the Illinois site and reported that seven of the ten former Luminous workers she interviewed there were suffering from breast cancer and tumors on their feet.
Harvey Wasserman & Norman Solomon, Killing Our Own
The five New Jersey Radium Girls who first captured the nation's attention in 1927 have been dead now for three-quarters of a century. A hypothetical radium girl who entered the workforce by the mid-thirties, about the time the last of the lawsuits spawned by the exposure of the radium problem was being settled, assuming she went to work straight out of high school, would now be in her early nineties. It's safe to say that the population we think of as the original Radium Girls are all but gone now. But thanks to companies like Luminous Processes, there are other, younger Radium Girls still out there. Perhaps you know one.
Kossack Pariah Dog in the comments to Part I mentioned that she knew a Radium Girl while working at an airport in the 1980's. Both the woman and her daughter had worked as dialpainters, and both were regularly tested for radiation-related health problems stemming from their days as radium workers. From 1968 until 1993 the Center for Human Radiobiology operated at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. According to Wikipedia, "The primary purpose of the Center was providing medical examinations for living dial painters. The project also focused on collection of information, and, in some cases, tissue samples from the radium dial painters. When the project ended in 1993, detailed information of 2,403 cases had been collected."
There were Radium Girls in many, many more places than the four sites that are mentioned prominently in the literature. In the comments of Part I, marykk pointed out that the Elgin watch factory in Elgin, IL also had Radium Girls, while gchaucer2 mentioned the Seth Thomas operation in Thomaston, CT in addition to the better-known Waterbury, CT operation. Comments attached to one of the online articles I read in researching this mentioned Waltham, MA, and another source mentioned another site near Boston. The two primary suppliers of radium at the time, the U.S. Radium Corporation and the Radium Chemical Company, acknowledged that they each had over a hundred customers for their product in the 1920's and 1930's. Most are assumed to have been small dialpainting operations. There may be a site near you.
Few know of these lesser sites. Perhaps it's because the girls there escaped the fates of the workers at the larger and more prominent dialpainting factories, or perhaps they lacked the resources to fight back, or perhaps the girls who worked there, if they suffered the same afflictions as their better-known sisters, never knew what was happening to them. They may have met the same fate as Margaret Looney of Ottawa, who went to work at Radium Dial right out of high school in 1922 and died in 1929 of what the Radium Dial company doctor identified on her death certificate as "diphtheria". As her younger sister told AP writer Martha Irvine seventy years after Margret's death,
"I'm angry because they knew years before she died that she was full of radium," her sister says. "And then they lied."
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part I
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part II
So that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from, not from some bored bureaucrat sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit. They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again. We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along. That's how Regulation came to be.