Undark and the Radium Girls is a damn interesting story of corporate injustice brought to us by (who else?) Damn Interesting.Although all five litigants died as a result of radiation poisoning and their combined settlement amounted to only $10,000, the case established the right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse. The case led to passage of a bill in 1949 which made all occupational diseases compensable. Workers still have to fight tooth and nail to get fair compensation for work-related illnesses but their fight would be a lot tougher if not for the Radium Girls.
US Radium employed hundreds of women at their factory in Orange, New Jersey, including Grace Fryer. Few companies at that time were willing to employ women, and the pay was much higher than most alternatives, so the company had little trouble finding employees to occupy the rows and rows of desks. They were required to paint delicate lines with fine-tipped brushes, applying the Undark to the tiny numbers and indicator hands of wristwatches. After a few strokes a brush tended to lose its shape, so the women's managers encouraged them to use their lips and tongues to keep the tips of the camel hair brushes sharp and clean. The glowing paint was completely flavorless, and the supervisors assured them that rosy cheeks would be the only physical side effect to swallowing the radium-laced pigment.The owners and scientists at US Radium, familiar with the real hazards of radioactivity, naturally took extensive precautions to protect themselves. They knew that Undark's key ingredient was approximately one million times more active than uranium, so company chemists often used lead screens, masks, and tongs when working with the paint. US Radium had even distributed literature to the medical community describing the "injurious effects" of radium. But inside the factory, where nearly every surface sparkled with radioluminescence, these dangers were unknown. For a lark, some of the women even painted their
fingernails and teeth with radium paint on occasion, to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out.