Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Diagnosing Radium Poisoning

The challenge of diagnosing radium poisoning caused the suffering of those who worked with it to go on for decades and enabled companies to avoid liability for its deadly impact. The first challenge was realizing that radium was, in fact, harmful when it had been initially lauded as a miracle cure-all. However, the more significant barrier to overcome was corporate greed. Even when radium was known to be dangerous, those who profited from it hid the truth at the expense of many lives.

How were they able to get away with such a thing?

Dial painters at Luminous Processes - 1939
Partly because the worst effects of radium poisoning became evident between the World Wars. While the 1920's were roaring, the 1930's saw families and entire communities suffering. Few wanted to be the one to speak out against a well-paying company like those that worked with radium.

Another factor was the problem with diagnosing radium poisoning. Dozens of deaths were attributed to other diseases and conditions for years before the truth was accepted. Radium was killing people.

One of the populations hardest hit was young, working-class women who worked as dial painters, using radium infused paint to make clock faces and other instrument dials glow in the dark. They would point the tips of their paintbrushes with their lips to complete the fine work, and, all the while, they were introducing fatal poison to their systems.

Girls in their teens and twenties working in dial painting studios started suffering from fatigue, headaches, digestive issues, and pain in their joints, but one of the worst symptoms of radium poisoning affected their mouths and jaws. They noticed loose teeth that eventually fell out, leaving behind sores that wouldn't heal. Several women eventually died from so much of their mouths rotting away that they bled to death.

Bedside hearing of Catherine Donohue - 1938
It was eventually discovered that radium took calcium's place in the women's bones, making them fragile and radioactive. Broken and disintegrating bones left some bedridden and others in stiff braces to hold their spines in place. If the early symptoms did not prove fatal, the women started developing tumors and cancers that left them infertile, required amputations, or caused their bodies to simply waste away.

This wide variety of symptoms and illnesses provided companies utilizing radium to argue that there was no single illness - no such thing as radium poisoning. Workers' Compensation laws were in early stages in the states where they existed at all, so most women and their families struggled with medical bills and loss of income as well as the illness itself.

The first test for diagnosing radium poisoning was developed after a male employee of US Radium Corp died. No one had listened to the female dial painters,  but the death of a male scientist was more difficult to ignore. During the autopsy, the victim's bones were reduced to ashes so that they could be tested with an electrometer, and radium poisoning was officially diagnosed for the first time.

This didn't help those who were sick, since their bones couldn't be removed and tested, so work began in earnest to develop additional tests. In 1925, decades after the discovery of radium, scientists and doctors finally determined ways to measure radioactivity in bones and breath. The dial painters who were tested had results that indicated radium deposits within their bodies at extraordinarily high levels.

Ottawa, IL EPA Superfund Site
Unfortunately, there was still no cure. While those who had worked with radium knew what was killing them, the information was bittersweet. Symptoms could be treated, but there was no way to remove the radium that was deposited into bones where calcium should have been. Women continued to sicken and die, while companies continued to profit from their labor for about two more decades before the nation's laws caught up with the needs of those who were vulnerable to exploitation and misinformation.

Environmental Protection Agency cleanup sites caused by radium deposits continue to cause health problems and cost taxpayers millions to this day.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Luminous Cover Reveal

Coming this summer . . . . 

Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl

Catherine Donohue was a quiet Catholic girl from a small Midwestern town, but she stood up to the radium industry, workers' compensation laws, and the Illinois Industrial Commission when her work as a dial painter left her body ravaged by radium poisoning. Her quest for social justice in the era between World Wars is emotive and inspiring.

It’s too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others.
~ Catherine Wolfe Donohue

Available soon in paperback and on Kindle.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Radium's Death Toll

Pierre and Marie Curie
When discovered by science's power couple, Pierre and Marie Curie, in 1898, radium was considered a magical element. It's characteristics were not replicated elsewhere in nature, and it was believed to have miraculous healing properties.

Radium treatments were used to kill cancer cells and reduce the size of tumors. Potions and infusions were sold to improve digestion or use as a beauty tonic. Radium also had a peculiar glow that led to its use in paint for dials and instruments used in World War I. Instead of a pocket watch, soldiers began wearing wrist watches, which were easily accessed in most circumstances and could be read at night because of the radium mixture used to paint the dials.

Then it started killing people.

It is difficult to shift people's opinion of something from one extreme to the other, especially if those people are profiting from its sale. Such was the case with radium, and countless people died before the radioactive element was treated with appropriate control and safety standards.

Marie Curie, who had exposed herself and her assistants to radium for years, was anemic and suffered from leukemia when she died. Both were most likely caused by radium. Sabin von Sochocky was the inventor of the glowing paint that was used by thousands of young women as part of the war effort. He, too, died of aplastic anemia caused by radium exposure. We will never know how many of those dial painters died of conditions caused by radium poisoning because their complaints were ignored for decades as a wide variety of diseases and cancers resulted from their exposure.

Sabin von Sochocky knew he was taking a risk. He had cut off part of his own finger when it became damaged by radium. Those working in his New Jersey lab wore lead-lined aprons and handled radium with caution. However, the young women working as dial painters for the same company used no protection and pointed brushes dipped in radium paint with their lips in order to accurately trace the tiny numbers.

Grace Fryer
Grace Fryer was shocked when Sabin von Sochocky admonished her not to put the brush in her mouth. That was how all the dial painters did it. Later, when Grace Fryer and others were suing US Radium Corp for damages, he tried to backtrack on this comment, not because he believed radium was harmless but because he didn't want his company to have to pay the medical expenses for the sick and dying employees.

The same thing was happening at Radium Dial in Illinois. Young women were dying, and it was contributed to everything from syphilis to diphtheria. No doctor wanted to be the first to say that radium was poisonous, even if those who had worked closely with it for years already knew that to be the case.

It is unknown how many dial painters, including Grace Fryer, died of radium poisoning because so many were denied justice and some didn't die until decades later of cancers that likely had radium at their source. But few seemed concerned until the death of Eben Byers in 1932, fourteen years after the end of World War I. A rich, well-known socialite, Byers took to the radium trend with gusto, drinking Radithor (radium infused water) by the case. He died painfully, his mouth and jaw rotting away, just as the poor dial painters had been doing for over a decade.

With the death of one more valued by society than dozens of working-class girls, radium products were removed from shelves. Finally, a discussion of radium's hidden dangers began, but the health and environmental impact of radium use continues to this day. In Orange, New Jersey, and Ottawa, Illinois, where dial painting studios once stood, the Environmental Protection Agency is still working to clean up Superfund sites, and both towns suffer high rates of cancers and other health issues in residents and wildlife.


Additional Reading:
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark