Radium Girls: Unlikely Industrial Pioneers

By Trish Taylor

I grew up in a small town and the thought of someday working for the federal government never crossed my mind as a kid. And Superfund? What’s that? Superfund cleanups were something that happened other places. Not Bloomsburg, Pa. Not my hometown. But, I’ve now been with EPA’s Philadelphia office for over 10 years and I’ve learned that that’s exactly where Superfund cleanups happen. There’s even one in my hometown, about 1 ½ miles from my mother’s house, called the Safety Light Corp. Superfund Site.

It turns out, an innocent looking brick building that seems to have been part of the landscape for as long as I can remember, has quite an interesting history linked to it. Ask any nearby neighbor and they’ll tell you that the old U.S. Radium plant has been around for decades. Some of the older neighbors may have even worked there, or have relatives who worked there. It was one of many facilities owned by U.S. Radium Corporation. In Bloomsburg, U.S. Radium turned into Metreal, Inc., which eventually turned into the Safety Light Corporation. But, long-timer locals still just call it the radium plant.

Some of that interesting history was discovered during the Superfund process. Boxes and boxes of old files have been removed from the building as part of the cleanup. Files are dated from the 1940’s, with black and white photos, work products like deck markers, and other gadgets.

It turns out that U.S. Radium workers are famous, or should I say infamous. In the 1920’s, workers who painted the dials were mostly women between the ages of 18 – 30. A handful of these women from the Orange, New Jersey plant became known as the Radium Girls. These five young women changed working safety standards in America for the better. Unfortunately, the change came as a result of their ill health.

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It was customary for workers who applied the glow-in-the-dark paint (paint that glowed because it was in fact radioactive!) to use their lips to sharpen the tips of the paintbrushes to get a finer point for more precise application. The radium-activated paint was used on marine deck markers and other dials and gadgets that needed to be read in dark, unlit conditions. That’s where the radioactive component comes in. Exposure to (and in some cases, consumption of) the radium-activated paint resulted in radiation poisoning in many of the workers. Five of the women challenged their employer and filed a lawsuit. Four of the five Radium Girls died of radioactive-related illnesses before their 40th birthdays. The fifth passed away at the age of 51. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, but the industry was changed forever. It set precedent for workers to sue for damages caused by labor abuse and industrial safety standards were improved through federal law.

The Radium Girls have a tragic but significant legacy. Their story isn’t just a cautionary tale. It a nationwide-change-to-industry-as-we-knew-it tale. Big time. Not to mention the increased level of public awareness of the dangers associated with radium.

It’s interesting to see that big things can come from seemingly small places. That local plant is a piece of a much bigger story, and every day we’re working at the EPA to ensure that communities like Bloomsburg are protected and stay healthy.

About the author: Trish Taylor is a Community Involvement Coordinator, Hazardous Site Cleanup Division, in EPA’s Philadelphia office.

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