Radium Girls The Terrible Time Of Using Radioactive Paint

 | Grace Higgins

Just about a century ago the rage was, of course, to have a glow in the dark watch, nobody could resist them. It was a novelty that was being marketed heavily and making watch companies millions, it was like any of the hot social media trends of modern times. They did not need to charge in the sunlight at all due to special luminous paint so it really was like having a magic watch.


In 1916 the first factory in New Jersey started to produce these watches and to do so it hired around 70 women. It was actually a well paid and glamorous job, one of the first places to start employing a woman. Due to the task being very delicate, to paint onto the tiny dials, the woman was told that the best way to proceed was to hold the brush in their lips.

But this is where everything took a rather gruesome turn, the paint contained an element called Radium which made it glow in the dark. Radium is a radioactive element that was only discovered 20 years earlier and nobody really understood how it worked. Bear in mind that the woman was ingesting a bit of Radium with every stroke! They later became known as the Radium Girls.

When Radium was discovered it was used as a cure for cancer and because it actually worked, suddenly it was told to be a powerful treatment for any illness: a sort of health tonic, we, of course, know now that radioactive elements are poisonous. As you can imagine these woman’s mouths started to fall apart, their teeth crumbled and their jaws became weak.

It was a slow and painful killer, a chemical that took its time. Toothaches and fatigue became regular in the factories, so many years of pain but it took until 1922 for the first woman to die of Radium poisoning. And it took another two years before it was finally shut down due to the declining health of workers.