The Radium Girls were a group of women who brought a suit against their employer, the United States Radium Corporation, in the 1920s. The women charged that dangerous working conditions in the Corporation's New Jersey factory had exposed them to harmful radiation, leading to sickness. The girls ultimately won their suit, laying the groundwork for future individual suits about working conditions, and capturing the attention of the American public.
Members of this group worked at the factory between 1917 and the mid-1920s. They were employed to paint watch dials with a luminous radium-based paint. Tellingly, the company knew that radium was harmful, and it took steps to protect the chemists and researchers who formulated and compounded the paint. The women, however, worked with no protection at all, and they were assured that radium was perfectly safe.
Many of the Radium Girls would paint their nails, teeth, and bodies with radium for fun, startling friends and family when the paint glowed in the dark. They also routinely licked the brushes they used to shape them, thereby ingesting large quantities of radium.
In 1923, a bank teller named Grace Fryer started to experience considerable jaw pain, and she went to the dentist for treatment. The dentist discovered that her jaw had been severely damaged, looking more like a sponge than bone, and after discovering that Grace used to work for the United States Radium Corporation, he started to connect her condition with other cases he had seen.
The Radium Girls experienced necrosis of the jaw, tooth loss, anemia, and a variety of other radiation-related health problems. Some of them were so radioactive that their jaws could leave traces on dental film even without x-rays. In confidential testing performed by the United States Radium Corporation, many of the Radium Girls showed high levels of radiation in their bodies, but this fact was concealed from them.
Fryer ended up suing, and five other women joined the suit. They came to be known as the Radium Girls, and their case became a topic of immense public interest. The defense attempted to smear the reputations of the Radium Girls by suggesting that they had syphilis, and companies which worked with radium pressured medical professions to suppress medical records suggesting that radium exposure was harmful. The women were ultimately successful, and their fight was used to lay groundwork for better worker protections from radiation. Many former dial-painters from United States Radium and other companies were also participants in long-term studies designed to provide more information about the effects of radium exposure.