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We have learned much about radiation’s affect on the body from the first human test subjects on radiation exposure —the radium girls. 


Radium Girls
Radium the miracle health product

In The Simpson's opening credits we see Homer drop yellowish-coloured fuel cells. In truth, fuel cells are not actually that colour,  but we know he is using something radioactive because of what we know of radium based self-luminous paint. “Undark” paint it was called. It was used by thousands of women in factories in America to paint clock-faces, aeroplane-dials, gauges and gun-sights.


These workers included girls as young as eleven and thirteen. They were taught to 'point' their radium paint coated brushes with their lips between strokes, to maintain the quality of stroke needed. They were paid by the watch face so did as many as they could, painting as many as  250 dials a day and pointing their brushes with their lips several times each watch. Of course, they asked if the product they were putting in their mouths was safe and they were told that it was and in fact that it would make them healthy and that it would make their cheeks rosy. So the women would often paint their teeth with the paint in order to get a laugh from friends and partners. They would even come to work in dresses they would wear later to social events to get a bit of a shine on them.


At the time (around 1917) Radium was getting media coverage as a miracle substance: with no negative side effects. Research proving radium’s tumour-shrinking powers gave birth to an entire industry of consumer products. It was used in over a hundred “health-giving” products including pendants, toothpaste, cosmetics, suppositories, condoms and blankets. People were ingesting elixirs (Radithor) containing trace amounts of it daily for a cure against all sorts of things: acne, arthritis, the flu, you name it―radium would help it. The marketeers of the time made a big point of explaining how genuine, and of what high quality, their elixirs were because of the higher amount of radium in the products. 

Advertising for radium inclusive beauty products

The women were proud of their jobs: in a time of scarcity of jobs for women,  theirs was a high-paying one which would ensure the safety of military personal. They were also working with what was the most expensive most material in the world. 


Radium behaves a bit like calcium in the blood and it gets incorporated into the bone. The women started having problems with their teeth and jaws—.Frances Splettscher and Amelia “Mollie” Maggia actually had their jawbones break off in their dentist's hands! Mollie Maggia’s dentist had her come back for another appointment and he scooped the whole crumbled left jaw out of her mouth with nothing but his fingers. Eight months after her first tooth-ache she was dead. 

Despite the fact that their jaws looked like sponge-cake under x-ray and that they were being fired because their ill-health affected their ability to work, or their impairment might scare the other workers, the painters were deemed by industry-paid doctors such as Columbia University specialist Frederick Flynn, to be in perfect health.


But the sad fact is that even before the painters picked up a brush it was known there was danger, US Radium's own literature cautioned on injurious effects in 1906. Instead of putting precautions in place for the workers, the US Radium company began a concerted effort to conceal the cause of the disease. They paid for safety studies to be done which proved there was no problem. They even paid for a study finding that radium was healthful. The Illinois newspaper ran a full-page advertisement saying "If we had any reason to believe operations endangered women's health we would have suspended operations." Charles Norris chief medical examiner of New York, who was also an ore agent and partner in US Radium wrote that the bone problems the women were experiencing could not possibly be attributed to radium and blamed the glue the women were using.

Character Assassination

When one of the women Grace Fryer decided to take US Radium to court, it appeared she was flying in the face of medical opinion. She was joined by four other women with severe medical problems.They were Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice who were sisters of Amelia Maggia. It took two years to find a lawyer that would even take on a US Radium and deep-pocketed opponent, well-thought-of in the community.


The industry used many shockingly dirty tactics against the victims, including eight appeals all the way up to the supreme court and then a six-month delay of those court proceedings to avoid paying compensation. The women were in danger of dying before getting justice while US Radium's witnesses apparently needed to go on overseas holidays at a time the would have testified. By the time of the hearing, the women were too weak to be able to raise their arms to take their oaths. They looked skeletal, Katherine Wolfe-Donahue collapsed in the court as she heard that her disease was a death sentence. The hearing had to be completed at her home with her lying on what was to be her death-bed. She died in 1938 before the appeals were completed. By 1939, the radium industry lost its final appeal at the Supreme Court, which officially verified the existence of radium poisoning as a cause of death. Many of the women, but not all, won compensation, for some it was only just in time to pay for their funerals.


Not only did they have to contend with dirty tricks of the industry, but there is also evidence in letters that the women's neighbours, the clergy and business people kind of shunned them." It was the Great Depression and Radium Dial was providing well-paying jobs. All in all the women suffered enormouslythey had to bear the indignity of monstrously deforming tumours to the face and legs, Grace Fryer underwent numerous surgeries to try and save her mobility, another woman had an arm amputated, their hips, spines and ankles crumpled. They had crippling anaemia and produced still-born babies. Their skin bled at the slightest touch. Death, when it came, was usually accompanied by violent haemorrhaging. If all of the pain and fear wasn't hellish enough the women's' characters were completely assassinated. They were labelled as hysterical women and their  “mysterious” deaths were blamed on "loose-living" causing syphilis.  Mollie Maggia's death certificate initially recorded the cause of her death as due to syphilis (later altered to ulcerative stomatitis). Many doctors and dentists were paid by, bribed or simply co-operated with the powerful industry. In fact, Mollie Maggia’s family actually had her body dug up to confirm the radiation poisoning as cause of death.. 

"It was mind-boggling what was actually known at the Time."
―Kate Moore; author of Radium Girls
The chemists wore masks while the women were told the radium was safe

Kate Moore, author of “The Radium Girls” says that “It is mind-boggling what was actually known a the time.” There are published papers on injurious effects of radium dating from 1906 onwards. Precautions were taken by the male chemists at one part of the factory where the paint was made and the men typically used lead screens, wore lead aprons, used masks and tongs. However, US Radium's chemist Edward Lehman was cavalier about handling the paint, despite lesions on his own hands and scoffed when informed of the future dangers, by investigating physiologist Dr Cecil Drinker. (Lehman died a year after his dismissal of the advice). That cavalier attitude of Lehman was held by the president of the US radium who also refused to take up the advice of Drinker's report to introduce measures to protect workers.

Todays landmark court cas

A century later we have a situation of far too many similarities in the area of non-ionizing radiation. The on-going subterfuge is well-documented in Dr Martin Blank's book Overpowered, and on-line. Harm is being done and the health effects and electro-sensitivity are being denied. Telecomms paid communications people to scoff in the media about valid concerns just as US Radium bosses and scientists scoffed when warned about future effects.

However, In Italy, we recently had a cell-phone radiation victims case heard at the court of appeal in Turin. On the 15th of January, The Court of Appeal of Turin confirmed the link between a head tumour and mobile phone use. It is historic particularly because the judge called out the conflicts of interest of certain experts close to the mobile phone industry.“Much of the scientific literature that excludes carcinogenicity from RF exposure, or at least argue that research to the contrary cannot be considered conclusive… is in a position of conflict of interest, which is not always asserted: see, in particular, on page 94 of the report, the Applicant’s defence (not contested by the other party) that the authors of the studies indicated by INAIL, who are mentioned by name, are members of ICNIRP and/or SCENIHR, which have received, directly or indirectly, funding from industry. P. 33.”

In 2019 in the court of Rome, the judge ordered the Italian government to begin an information campaign, addressed to the entire population, concerning the identification of correct methods of use of mobile telephone devices (cellular and wireless phones) and information on the health and environmental risks related to the misuse of these devices.

With this decision, Italy is one of the leading European countries in protecting the public health of mobile phone users, let us hope New Zealand can  also be an exemplar in public health policy soon.

Multiple references have been consulted to write this article including

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