‘Radium Girls’ who worked in a factory where they worked with luminescent radium. Not knowing it was dangerous, they often painted it on their lips and teeth for fun. They began to develop radium necrosis, causing their jaws to rot and develop disfiguring tumors, and eventually died
The Radium Girls were so contaminated that if you stood over their graves today with a Geiger counter, the radiation levels would still cause the needles to jump more than 80 years later. They were small-town girls from New Jersey who had been hired by a local factory to paint the clock faces of luminous watches, the latest new army gadget used by American soldiers. The women were told that the glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint was harmless, and so they painted 250 dials a day, licking their brushes every few strokes with their lips and tongue to give them a fine point.
With the help of doctors and dentists on their payroll, the company rejected claims that their workers were sick from radium exposure. They tried to pin the girls’ deaths on syphilis to smear the reputations of the young unmarried women who had come to work for them. Inexplicably, the medical community went along with all of it, fully cooperating with the powerful companies.
It took two years for Grace Fryer to find a lawyer who would go up against U.S. Radium and the trial was dragged on for months. Four other factory girls joined the suit and the media took an interest in the case, sensationally nicknaming them, “the Radium Girls”. But at their first court appearance, their health had so rapidly deteriorated that none could even raise their arms to take the oath. By the second hearing, all were too ill to attend and the case was adjourned for several months because several US Radium witnesses were summering in Europe. Not expecting to live much longer, the women eventually settled out of court each receiving the equivalent of about $100,000 today, and all of their medical and legal expenses paid. They would also receive a $600 per year annuity for as long as they lived. The last of the girls only lived two years after the settlement was agreed.