I sat in the dentist chair while the technician placed a heavy leaden blanket from my chin to my waist. Then, she walked into another room, and the X-ray machine took pictures of my teeth.
Grace Fryer never had that luxury.
At eighteen, Grace took a job at the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey. America had just entered WWI (1917), and Grace wanted to help her family financially since her two military brothers were going overseas.
There were other factories near her home, but the USRC paid three times the going wage. And, Grace was the perfect candidate – she was young and had small hands.
The USRC made watches with the new element of radium to illuminate the dial faces. Discovered less than twenty years before by Marie Curie, the exact danger of radium was not completely understood.
Grace worked side by side with other girls. They obediently followed the painting technique. First, they moistened the tip of the paint bristles in their mouth. Then, they dipped the brush into the glowing green paint. Finally, they hunched over their workspaces and carefully painted the dials.
They repeated this procedure of lip, dip, and paint, over and over. By day’s end, they each painted 250 dials. In the process, they swallowed a bit of the radium paint each time they placed the paintbrush in their mouth.
At first, the girls were excited because, in addition to the high pay, their teeth took on a glow that gave them a dazzling smile. None of them realized they were slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning – all for $3.75 in daily wages.
Questions were initially raised by the girls, as to the safety of the procedure. The managers assured them that it was not dangerous and they shouldn’t worry.
However, the male chemists in the factory all wore masks and lead aprons and handled the radium with tongs.
Four years later, one of Grace’s friends, Molly Maggia became so sick she had to quit her job at USRC. At first, it seemed she needed only to have a tooth pulled. But soon after, an agonizing ulcer appeared on her gums, seeping blood and pus.
Next, Molly’s limbs began to ache so severely she was unable to walk. Baffled, the local doctor had never seen anything like it. Within months, Molly lost all her teeth, and the ulcers had spread to her lower jaw and roof of her mouth. Eventually, her lower jaw was removed.
Grace must have watched in horror as her friend deteriorated. Molly died several months later when the infection spread to her throat and ate its way through her jugular vein. She was twenty-four years old.
After Molly’s death, other factory girls developed the strange infection; including Grace Fryer.
Residents questioned about the number of female workers falling sick. For two years the USRC denied any connection between the girls’ deaths and the workplace.
As deaths increased, an independent firm was hired to investigate. When the horrifying results were made clear, the USRC refused to accept the findings and had the report hushed. After two more years, doctors were consulted. The announcement came that the workers had ingested radium which had honeycombed itself throughout their bones.
Grace had her spine collapse; another girl had her jaw eaten away. Several girls had spontaneous fractures of their legs.
Once the doctors pinpointed the radium as the poisoning agent, then they had to acknowledge to the girls that nothing could be done to save them. One by one, the girls died horrible deaths.
Grace, however, survived, and she began a campaign to have the USRC acknowledge that the girls were due medical compensation. Discovering that there were other radium factories in the U.S., Grace decided that she, and the other surviving girls at USRC, needed to bring awareness about their radium poisoning to the American public.
In New Jersey, however, there was a statute of limitations. Victims of occupational poisoning only had two years to bring a law suit. Unfortunately, the radium poisoning was not evident until five years after being ingested, so the USRC skated clear of all accusations.
Grace, determined, fought on. With the help of her father, she found a lawyer. Although the girls eventually settled out of court, they made America aware of the travesty.
As newspaper headlines raged across America about radium poisoning, factory girls at other radium firms realized the danger of their jobs and began to seek legal counsel. The radium firms denied any culpability, even when their female dial painters showed acute signs of radium poisoning. The firms insisted the girls were dying of syphilis since this announcement would smear their reputations and hopefully dissuade other workers from filing any suits.
By 1928, radium girls from three prominent factories in Orange, NJ, Ottawa, IL, and Waterbury, CT were suing the radium firms. Many of these girls had huge cancerous bone tumors that had grown all over their bodies and were too ill to testify in court. However, in each lawsuit, the judges found the companies culpable.
Thanks to Grace Fryer and her fellow Radium Girls, the right of individual workers to sue their employers for labor abuse was established. Today, we have OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure the protection of labor rights.
Grace died five years after the lawsuits. She was only 34 years old. The cause was complications from radium poisoning. If we exhumed her skeleton today, the bones would still have radium embedded in them, because radium has a half-life of 1,600 years.
Thanks to Kate Moore, whose new book, Radium Girls, debuted on Amazon this spring.
Catch me on Twitter @lhsittig, my website LindaSittig.com, and Amazon for my two novels, Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call.