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The Radium Girls

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Grace Fryer was one of 70 women working on creating glow-in-the-dark watch and clock dials in a US  factory in the 1910s. They mixed radium powder into glue to make the luminous paint and used camel hair brushes that needed repointing regularly to make the fine lines needed.

Grace reports  Our instructors told us to point them with our lips,Close quote:
she said. I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn't taste funny. It didn't have any taste, and I didn't know it was harmful.Close quote:

Though scientists at the US Radium Corporation and those working with Marie Curie in France knew radium was damaging the general public were not aware of the dangers and luminous watches were much sought after. Many believed radium was a tonic or cure-all, a radium drink was advertised as a cure for stomach cancer. The girls even played around painting their nails and teeth with the radioactive glowing paint for a laugh when it got dark.

As time went by, in the 1920s, the girls became ill and two died. One of whom's dentist became suspicious of the way her jaw had decayed and radiation poisoning was diagnosed. Grace Fryer, by then quite ill, and the other dying girls sued the company involved. Grace's attorney was furious when he discovered the company knew of the hazards of working with the green radium powder and in other parts of the factory, especially the laboratory, scientists used lead screens, masks and tongs. However, the management "in no way screened, protected or warned the dial painters". He accused the company of treating the radium girls as expendable.

The case was well publicised and Marie Curie was horrified to hear of the factory's procedures however, she inadvertently caused more furore by telling the press that there was no means of curing the girls, the best they could do was to eat raw liver to help them cope with the anaemia accompanying radiation sickness.

The media was full of stories about the fate of the dying girls which led to some of the first concerns about the impact mass media reporting could have on individuals.however, in 1928, the girls finally settled out of court for a sum of $10,000 and a further $600 a year for each year they lived.

Shared responsibility ?

Who is more responsible for the radiation poisoning - the company who didn't tell the girls of the dangers of radiation or the girls who didn't ask about the content of the paint they were licking from their brushes?

Put your hand on your heart if you answered immediately wihout thinking or on your head if you thought your answer through.

Does your answer differ if you consider the different approaches: deontological - what is right and consquentialist - what about the outcomes?


Text equivalent:

Do no harm

Anyone who works with dangerous materials should be given safety instructions and protective clothing.
Text equivalent:

Value of life

Did the factory owners not value the workers enough to protect them? How valuable is a life?
Text equivalent:

Precautionary principle

If there is any doubt over the safety of a course of action, we should err on the side of caution.


For more details on the radium girls see Mass Media and Environmental Conflict by Bill Kovarik