“Radium girls?” What does that mean, you ask. Think “glow in the dark.” Now cast your mind back to the 1920s. Okay, my mind doesn’t go back that far, and I imagine, neither does yours.
Let’s start from the beginning. I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home of Hamilton Watch and in the past, another watch company. A local newspaper columnist, Jack Brubaker, has been following radium girls. He found several, one is 102 year-old Cora Bodkey. When she was fourteen, she worked for Hamilton Watch painting radium numbers on watches. They used pens instead of brushes and were warned not to put the pens in their mouths. Even then, in 1926, they knew that many women liked to point their brushes by mouth and some were getting sick. Other than that, they had no clue about radium, only that it glowed in the dark.
Eventually, watch companies switched to using tritium and the government began to strictly regulate its use, although it was less radioactive. One woman, who used a brush, remembers they tested her urine every week, and, although it was always high, nothing was ever done about it. Few locally knew about anyone being sick, but one remembered a woman who died of tongue cancer.
Radium girls were at work in other places before World War I. One always thinks of the world becoming more dangerous. But now, in 2014, we think of a person of fourteen as a child, and radium as definitely nothing to handle. Come to think of it, every time I read of the dangers of mercury poisoning, I remember the time, maybe I was fourteen, when one of us broke a thermometer. We had a lot of fun rolling those little gray dots around the floor in semi-liquid balls, pushing them with our fingers. Yep, mercury.