I recently listened to a podcast on the Radium Girls and it broke my heart.
Cut from Wikipedia:
The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey around 1917. The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them; some also painted their fingernails and teeth with the glowing substance.
They mixed glue, water and radium powder, and then used camel hair brushes to apply the glowing paint onto dials. The then-current rate of pay, for painting 250 dials a day, was about a penny and a half per dial. The brushes would lose shape after a few strokes, so the U.S. Radium supervisors encouraged their workers to point the brushes with their lips, or use their tongues to keep them sharp.
The U.S. Radium Corporation hired some 70 women to perform various tasks including the handling of radium, while the owners and the scientists familiar with the effects of radium carefully avoided any exposure to it themselves; chemists at the plant used lead screens, masks and tongs. US Radium had even distributed literature to the medical community describing the “injurious effects” of radium.
Many of the workers became sick. It is unknown how many died from exposure to radiation. The factory sites became Superfund cleanup sites. Five of the women challenged their employer in a court case that established the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers.
The podcast that I listened to can be found here. (“The Radium Girls,” airdate 9/7/11)
The image above is for a band (whose music I am definitely not into) but the image was too good not to use. From what I heard on the podcast, I think it’s about accurate too… within a few years of working there the women began to lose their teeth and hair, and several of them had to have their entire jaws removed. They were told that accidentally swallowing it would make their cheeks rosy.