They were never told how to safely handle the paint and they were never told it was unsafe.
Soon they began to get very sick.
Radium would soon be known to the public for what it is - an incredibly radioactive and lethal substance - but not before many illnesses and deaths were attributed to it.
Radium mixed with zinc sulfide and a little glue became luminous paint. When applied to a watches hands and face the dull glow allowed it to be read in the dark, but the glow was not bright enough to be seen from any real distance. It was a perfect solution for those fighting in the trenches.
The amount of Radium painted onto these watch faces was minuscule and posed no health problems for those wearing them. However, those who applied the paint to the watches were not so lucky...
The Radium Girls
These women dial painters were expected to paint approximately 250 watch faces a day, each watch face taking several strokes from a very fine tipped camel hair brush coated with the luminous paint. However, every few strokes a few brush hairs would pull away from the point, losing the shape of the tip. Supervisors encouraged the women to re-point the brushes with their lips and tongues, taking the brush between their lips and slowly drawing it away from the mouth, fixing the tip. This would of course cause the luminous paint to come in contact with the lips and tongue, and even ingested.
Once again this was never questioned as the dial painters were always told it was safe, regardless of the fact that scientists and higher ups used safety equipment – lead screens, special gloves and avoided exposure themselves. The scientists and owners of the plant knew of the potential hazards.
Sometimes the dial painters would apply the paint to their nails, teeth, hair and clothing if they were heading out on the town for the evening. This would literally cause them to radiate light and would have made for quite a show. However, all of this was killing them slowly, as they were soon to discover.
In some cases the jaws were so far gone pieces of the bone could be picked out of the mouth cavity by hand. Later studies would show the jaw bones were so radioactive that when placed on photographic film there was sufficient energy to leave an imprint.
In the end one of the factories dial painters, Grace Fryer, decided to sue. It took her two years to find a lawyer who would take on the case and then another few months for the courts to begin the process. Five women all up would join in the suit but by the time of their first appearance two were bedridden, and none could take the oath – they were too weak to raise their arms.
US Radium was dragging its heals. At one point the case was adjourned several months as several US Radium witnesses were on holiday in Europe!
Luminous radium paint was continued to be used on watch dials into the 1960's, however, using much safer procedures.
It is not known how many women (and men) died as a result of working with the self luminous paint. It was also sold as a do it yourself at home kit....
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Ashley founded, owns and operates The Paranormal Guide.