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In Focus

This month’s book club book was Radium Girls: The Dark History of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. This historical compendium was great. Granted, there are many people to try to follow in this book. 

This book not only delves into the dark history but shares the history about the women themselves, who they were, and what they were like, giving more life to the book than just a list of names. It does a great job of explaining everything without delving too deep into legalese and scientific languages which makes it easier to understand. 

For me, this book angered me. It reminded me that corporate greed is very real, and they don’t care who gets hurt or killed along the way as long as they satisfy their bottom line. 

From the early 1900s, when radium was touted as a magical cure-all, dial painters in New Jersey and Illinois were covered in the substance by ingesting it daily, using their lips to point the radium-coated paint brushes to paint clock faces and other items to ensure they glowed in the dark. It was no surprise when the women became sick, sometimes years after working as a radium dial painter, developing fatal sarcomas. Their first indications something was wrong were the loss of their teeth, ulcers in their mouths that would never heal, and many losing their lower jaw bone. And none of them knew why. 

It took a dentist to figure out something was wrong and to attribute the symptoms to the radium. But it would take years...YEARS before anything was remotely done about it. As lawsuits began to roll in against these dial companies, the belief was that radium poisoning was just a fairy tale. The companies started losing cases, but their payouts were menial, and the companies fought to get them appealed time and again, delaying the payouts, all of why the women awaited their fate and succumbed to the radium. Let’s say I have screamed several profanities reading the injustice done to these women. 

Despite the hell these women endured, their plight was integral to the formation of OSHA. As well as the infamous Manhattan Project, learning that Stratum 9 was highly radioactive while creating the atom bomb using the history of the “Radium Girls” to protect themselves from contact with the material, and laying out the symptoms for radium poisoning. 

The book is another dark chapter in America’s history and how it took women years to be heard that something was wrong, and they were constantly shrugged off. The town of Ottowa, Illinois, is still radioactive. After the demolition of the dial factory, the remains were used as fill around the city, and it is still being cleaned up today. 

There was also a similar situation in Orange, New Jersey. It  took a student in 2006 to ask why there wasn’t a memorial for the Radium Girls. The statue was unveiled in Ottowa in 2011. 

I believe everyone should read this book lest we forget the dark chapters of our nation’s history and work to avoid repeating them. We may joke about “Living in a land of OSHA violations,” but, it’s there for a reason, and we have the Radium Girls to thank for our safety today. 


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