Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (Review)

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore
This true story of young girls and women poisoned by radium while working in dial-painting factories in the early 1900s reads like a novel.

The jobs paid remarkably well, especially for women. They were even fun and glamorous, as the young women got to work with the expensive, trendy, wonder-substance radium.

Looming beneath the glowing veneer of the job, however, lurked a danger that would lead to excruciating illnesses and, in many cases, death.

The women were taught to point their brushes with their lips to tame the splayed bristles, something they did repeatedly as they coated watch dials with radium. Even as the companies became aware of the danger, they ignored and hid it from the women, wishing to continue their lucrative business, all the while poisoning more young women. They also used every means possible to avoid taking financial responsibility for massive medical costs and suffering the women incurred.

The full title of Kate Moore's fascinating and moving book is The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. And true to the title, the story is dark and sad, yet so vital to know and understand this chapter in history.

Moore focuses on the lives of the girls lest their stories and sacrifice be lost to time. And they did make sacrifices that would go on to help the greater good. Just by bringing the court cases, in spite of very poor health and severe pain, and in spite of all the lies and accusations thrown at them by the companies and even in some cases their communities, they shed light on the problem and led to changes in the use of radium that would save lives. They even sacrificed through the study of their bones, by both the dead and living victims of radium poisoning, which would go on to broaden understanding of the dangers of radium and limit the use and testing of radioactive materials.

I would've liked to hear more about why the factory owners and managers weren't held to account by criminal charges, but this issue isn't discussed. I assume it's because it just wasn't possible – after all, these men got away with paying little or nothing to many of the victims. But I still would've liked a little insight into that.

I understand why Moore didn't do this, however; her research into the women's lives, radium poisoning, and resulting court cases was exhaustive, and I'm sure it would've been another deep rabbit-hole to go down to look into criminality. Perhaps no one even thought of pursuing such charges at the time, though the men who knowingly let workers handle deadly substances, especially after if became clear that once healthy young women were suffering horrible ailments in their bones, were surely guilty of horrible crimes.

This century-old tale was a real page-turner and a reminder that, even today, if you think corporations and business leaders are looking out for your best interests, think again.

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