Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore, narrated by Angela Brazil (audio)

Sometimes history makes me mad. Probably the best kinds of history does that. History that killed people, and changed laws.

In the 1910s and 1920s, women in New Jersey (not far at all from where I live) and Illinois painted dials for watches and airplanes and other military instruments, with radium, to make them glow in the dark. Radium is highly radioactive, and the women were instructed to lick the paintbrushes to "point" them to make them more accurate. So they were licking radium at work all day. To no contemporary reader's shock, they all started to get sick, in strange and weird ways, pretty quickly. (The younger women were more susceptible.) Their teeth started falling out and not healing. Their jawbones started falling out. They developed enormous, frightening tumors. Their legs started shrinking. They suffered terribly, through amputations, disfigurement, and unfailing pain. What had initially been a glamorous job with a funny side benefit of making these "girls" seem to shine, quickly became death sentences for many of them.

And a few of them decided to fight back. First, no one knew what was wrong with them at all. Radium was thought to not only not be harmful, but to be healthful. People drank radium drinks for their health. When it was finally figured out what was going on, the statute of limitation for suing the company had expired. When they got around that, the law covering worker's compensation did not cover poisonings. The law was amended, and then the company argued it wasn't poisoning after all. The lead plaintiff in the final suit, Catherine, was at the end only 61 pounds, missing most of her teeth, with a tumor the size of a grapefruit on her hip, and she testified from her home as she wasn't able to continue to attend the trial. (She'd collapsed in the courtroom after she found out for the first time from a doctor testifying, that her condition was terminal and she didn't have long to live.)

Their lawsuits changed the laws. OSHA was founded as a result. Worker's compensation laws were strengthened. I shudder to think what would have been the lax working conditions of the (mostly women) workers who were dealing with polonium and other radioactive substances just a few years later in WWII in Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, if it weren't for these strong, brave women. Most of them, like Catherine towards the end, knew there was no hope, no cure, but fought on anyway for their friends and colleagues, and their families.

A compelling story, powerfully told, about unsung American victims who fought to become heroes in their own life stories. Should be a must-read.

I downloaded this eaudiobook through my library via Cloud Library.

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