NPR has stated, “Radium Girls spares us nothing of their suffering; though at times the foreshadowing reads more like a true-crime story, Moore is intent on making the reader viscerally understand the pain in which these young women were living, and through which they had to fight in order to get their problems unrecognized… The story of real women at the mercy of businesses who see them only as a potential risk to the bottom line is haunting precisely because of how little has changed; the glowing ghosts of the radium girls haunt us still.”
Have you ever read an entire book shaking your head at the subject matter? That’s what happened when I picked up The Radium Girls – and ultimately, couldn’t put it down. Wincing as one girl after another lost a tooth and another tooth and had jaw bones removed and suffered leg pain…limping, amputations, bedridden and then painful deaths. Radium poisoning that infiltrated the factory workers and slowly destroyed them from the inside out. And for many years there was nobody to help them fight for their rights, nobody to stand up to big business, and weak men who hid the truth so business could prosper at the expense of The Radium Girls. If only Erin Brockovich was alive in the early 1900s, as she would have been the activist these girls needed.
The Radium Girls were mostly teenagers and in their 20s; they were lucky enough to land well paying jobs in the factories painting numbers on watches out of radium paint. They were told to put the brushes in their mouths to make it fine and pointy so unknowingly the girls were ingesting dangerous radium everyday. The substance got on their clothes and made them glow; they were covered in it by days end everyday and never knew it was harmful. The executives insisted the paint was safe and they repeatedly tested the women throughout the years to confirm they were all in good health.
Unfortunately, it was obvious their health was failing them and many of the test results did show the girls were radioactive but the businessmen covered it up and hid the reports so the lucrative watch dial business could continue. Sadly for the girls, repercussions did not physically show up right away and many of them reported health issues years after they left the factory.
Some of the girls tried to hire lawyers and doctors to vouch for their claims that the job caused them to get sick but for a long time nobody really was able to take on the big company’s powerful legal and medical team, so one by one, girls were using all their family’s money for lawyers, healthcare and then ultimately dying, leaving their families destitute.
Author Kate Moore tells the tragic history of the Radium companies and the legal battles through stories of these important women who worked hard, cared for their families and friends, suffered the unthinkable health issues and experienced financial drain. The Radium Girls deserve recognition for fighting the big companies who insisted Radium was safe and illegally covered up the truth as they knew it. They fought for themselves, and the women who would be exposed to toxic chemicals in the future.
The Radium Girls is a tribute to these hard working, strong women and the generous lawyer who fought hard for justice. “Radium had been known to be harmful since 1901. Every death since was unnecessary.”
I highly recommend this informative and thought provoking book. Parallels can be drawn to current day when we look at the number of cases of cancer where we have not been able to connect them to any one instigating cause. One big difference is our current ability to share information, research and case studies in real time via everyday technology so time is not lost. With so many people suffering, there continues to be much to do.
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