The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore delves into the lives of the women who painted dials and clocks for the U.S. military during World War I. The paint they used contained radium, a radioactive substance that glowed in the dark, thus its use for aircraft indicators. The girls, hired by U.S. Radium Corporation (USRC), were unaware of the dangers of the radium compound they used, and the company reassured them frequently that the substance was perfectly safe. The girls, mostly teenagers and early-twenty-somethings, developed a technique to make their lines straight. They put the brushes with the radium compound into their mouth so the bristles could produce the tiny lines required by the company.
The girls also painted their fingernails with the compound and put it on their eyelashes, loving the glow-in-the-dark effect it had. Their jobs were lucrative and they enjoyed having parties and wearing fashionable clothes. Even after the war ended, there was a demand for radium painted products.
After a few years, some of the women began developing serious health problems and then dying. It took a while for them, their dentists, and their doctors to make the connection between their jobs and the radium. Naturally, they went after USRC, whom they claimed knew about the dangers of radium but withheld the information from them.
Naturally, the company did everything it could denying any responsibility and would not claim liability. The women spent years fighting USRC and time, realizing that they might not live long enough to see justice served.
Moore based her book on a number of interviews with the relatives of the radium girls, and plenty of court records. Most disturbing, though, was the details in which she describes the deteriorating health of the radium girls, chronicling their rapid declines and suffering to death meticulously. It got rather stomach-churning in some instances to read what was happening to these women. In fact, there were times in the book, I thought Moore might be putting too much detail in their symptoms but it does illustrate how poorly these women were treated by their employers, doctors and even townsfolk.
What is chilling about this book is the corruption of the USRC to deny these girls the lives they should have had all for the sake of making a buck. The dangers of radium had been known since 1901 when the Curies first discovered it. The company knew of those dangers but deliberately lied to the girls to cover their complicity.