As is the case with many chemicals, Radium started out as a supposedly harmless chemical, that would later prove to be horrifically dangerous and even deadly. In the early 1920s, a company called U.S. Radium Corp was hiring girls to paint watch faces with radium. It was considered a “plum new gig” because the work was easy, and it paid well for the times. The purpose of painting the watch faces was to make them glow, which the chemical Radium did quite well. No one thought about exposure to Radium might do to the people doing this work. I’m sure it was like the exposure to lead in paint.

In the end, the easy work came at terrible price. As the girls worked on the watch faces, they licked their paint brushes in between watches. This was to give the brush a sharper point. Each time they did this, they swallowed a tiny bit of the chemical. I can’t say that I would be inclined to lick the tip of a paintbrush, but at that time, no one gave it a second thought. To them, it made sense to get the best point on their brush, and thereby, do the best job on the face of the watch.

At first, everything was going along well. The girls made good money, and the glow in the dark watches were a big hit. Still, as often happens with dangerous chemicals, the side effects began to present themselves in the form of horrifying health conditions. “There was one woman who the dentist went to pull a tooth and he pulled her entire jaw out when he did it,” explained Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook. “Their legs broke underneath them. Their spines collapsed.” Unfortunately, many of the so-called Radium Girls died young, and U.S. Radium Corp tried to dodge responsibility.

The U.S. Radium Corp was founded in 1914 in New York City, by Dr Sabin Arnold von Sochocky and Dr George S Willis, as the Radium Luminous Material Corporation. In essence, the company produced uranium from carnotite ore. Eventually, they moved into the business of producing radioluminescent paint, and then to the application of that paint. As the business grew, they opened facilities in Newark, Jersey City, and Orange. In August 1921, in a hostile action, von Sochocky was forced from the presidency, and the company was renamed the United States Radium Corporation, Arthur Roeder became the president of the company. The company was highly successful. In Orange, where radium was extracted from 1917 to 1926, the U.S. Radium facility processed half a ton of ore per day. The ore was obtained from “Undark mines” in Paradox Valley, Colorado and in Utah. Of course, these days, we know that uranium ore and most of its components are deadly, but back then, these innocent Radium Girls simply placed their trust in the wrong people, and it cost them their lives.

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