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The Radium Girls: Poisoned for War-Profiteering

For many women, the two World Wars that the United States have participated in were a big opportunity for them to find their way into the workplace. Filling shells with explosives, operating switchboard and heading to the fields to harvest crops, women were tasked with many jobs that were traditionally not held by women when men were sent overseas to fight. Many of these jobs came with occupational hazards that would eventually lead to lawsuits by those very women doing their patriotic duty of picking up the slack left by the increasing war effort. One of the most well-known cases of occupational hazards faced by women was the radiation sickness faced by the women of the U.S. Radium Company’s factory in Orange, NJ.

The U.S. Radium Company was a major supplier of radio luminescent watches to the U.S. military. To fill their government contracts, U.S. Radium hired 70 women in New Jersey to paint the dials of watches and instruments with luminescent paint. Even though the owners and scientists of the company were well aware of the dangers of radium, the company instructed the women to keep the tip of their paintbrushes sharp with the phrase “lip, dip, paint.” These women were kept unaware of how large a dose of radiation they would be exposed to by using this method.

Some of the first to notice the problem of radiation exposure were dentists. Women would visit their dentists complaining of tooth pain, lesions, and failures of tooth extractions to heal properly. Many of the women would later suffer from anemia and necrosis of the jaw, later being named “radium jaw.” In 1923, the first woman who worked at the Orange, New Jersey watch factory died, but not before her jaw had fallen away from her skull.

Five years after she had started feeling ill, Grace Fryer, a native of Orange, decided to bring a lawsuit against U.S. Radium. After four coworkers joined her in the lawsuit, U.S. Radium settled out of court and issued a statement about the proceedings:

“We unfortunately gave work to a great many people who were physically unfit to procure employment in other lines of industry. Cripples and persons similarly incapacitated were engaged. What was then considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.”[KS1]

The courage and solidarity of the women from New Jersey eventually lead to the establishment of occupational disease labor law. Congress officially recognized their efforts in 1949 by passing a bill that made all occupational disease compensable. The bill also extended the time allowed for workers to discover an occupational illness and file a claim against their employer. By 1959, the number of deaths attributed to the factory had reached 45. Without the brave efforts of the women workers in the factories of U.S. Radium, countless other working class people have been spared of suffering by the hands of occupational illness.


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