Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mae Keane, The Last 'Radium Girl,' Dies At 107 : NPR

Employees of the U.S. Radium Corp. paint numbers on the faces of wristwatches using dangerous radioactive paint. Dozens of women, known as "radium girls," later died of radium poisoning. The last radium girl died this year at 107.

Mae Keane, The Last 'Radium Girl,' Dies At 107 : NPR


"In the early 1920s, the hot new gadget was a wristwatch with a glow-in-the-dark dial.

"Made possible by the magic of radium!" bragged one advertisement.

And it did seem magical. Radium was the latest miracle substance — an element that glowed and fizzed, which salesmen promised could extend people's lives, pump up their sex drive and make women more beautiful. Doctors used it to treat everything from colds to cancer.

 In the 1920s, a young working-class woman could land a job working with the miracle substance. Radium wristwatches were manufactured right here in America, and the U.S. Radium Corp. was hiring dial people to paint the tiny numbers onto watch faces for about 5 cents a watch.

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They became known as the radium girls.

 In order to get the numbers small enough, new hires were taught to do something called "lip pointing." After painting each number, they were to put the tip of the paintbrush between their lips to sharpen it.

Twelve numbers per watch, upwards of 200 watches per day — and with every digit, the girls swallowed a little bit of radium.

"Of course, no one thought it was dangerous in these first couple of years," explains Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook."

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