The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls

Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear

Albert Camus 1

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Remembrance Day on 11th November commemorates the armistice between the Allies and Germany at Compiègne in France and cessation of hostilities on the Western Front, which were chillingly depicted via the transcendental poetry of Wilfred Owen. The Treaty of Versailles was ratified the following year. However, the horrific plight of the Radium Girls in the United States of Amnesia is mostly forgotten. The vibrant ladies paid with their lives and the campaign for justice is reinforced by the paradoxical legacy of radium’s half-life, which lasts approximately 1,600 years.…History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul. 211

During 1917 hundreds of adolescent females flocked to work in factories throughout New Jersey and Illinois painting the dials of watches, clocks, compasses and other military instruments. There was plenty of competition for jobs and the naïve young women were lured via a prestigious and patriotic wartime crusade with offers of a lucrative salary. The work involved delicate painting with Undark, an intriguing luminous substance containing radioactive radium and lip pointing to hone the tips of their fine paint brushes. The ladies were told the substance was harmless and actually beneficial for their health. Marie Curie eventually succumbed to aplastic anaemia and ever since its discovery the deleterious health effects were well established. Male laboratory technicians who handled the radioactive substance were provided with ivory tipped tongs and lead aprons to reduce exposure although the female peons were never afforded such protection and hoodwinked by performance based remuneration. Indeed, radium was promoted as the elixir of life and often used as an ingredient in tonic water, toothpaste and countless cosmetics. 1223

After several years many of the dial painting pubescents became violently ill and symptoms included loose teeth, halitosis, excruciating pain and rotten jawbones. The first victim, Mollie Maggia, died in 1922 aged just 24 years and the mysterious infection became an enormous festering abscess, which spread throughout her lower jaw and inner ear. Her death was recorded as syphilis, much to the dismay of her family and close friends. Sickness continued amongst her colleagues with evidence of decaying teeth, friable bones and disintegrating spines. 2426

The owners denied it was happening and subsequent autopsies by company appointed doctors disguised the cause, whilst the death toll escalated. Radiation levels were falsified or concealed, although two victims were buried in lead-lined coffins at the Ottawa Oakwood Memorial Park in Illinois. In 1934 a small group of courageous female employees took legal action against their employer, the Radium Dial Company. Many were sick with anaemia, sarcomas, decaying jaws or amputated limbs and knew they were dying. Under a preferred sobriquet, entitled Society of the Living Dead, their tenacity prevailed with the establishment of legal protection via federal health standards for future generations. 2729

During the trial, the company ceased operating but the owner soon opened another factory under a different name at nearby premises. Safer conditions were promised but radioactive waste was emptied into toilets and ventilation shafts discharged near an infant playground. The sickness was unrelenting but the factory owner, city officials and most people in the region displayed a casual indifference. In 1978 federal inspectors found radiation levels significantly exceeded prescribed limits and the factory was closed. The response was reminiscent of many other deadly industrial diseases such as mesothelioma, black lung and silicosis. 3033

Indeed, most corporate behemoths have no memory and are merely an anthropomorphic fallacy without any soul to save or body to incarcerate. The death toll from asbestos related diseases in Australia will eventually exceed its First World War casualties. Those horrific events at Gallipoli inspired a tradition of annual remembrance but most victims of industrial diseases usually encounter subterfuge or a conspiracy of silence. Moreover, a quote from the existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre resonates….When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die. 3437

There are currently 89 confirmed cases of mine dust lung diseases in Queensland as its Department of Natural Resources Mines and Energy procrastinates over the establishment of an independent regulatory authority and its health surveillance unit received excoriating condemnation throughout the state parliamentary inquiry. Despite repeated assurances of cooperation and assistance the select committee frequently encountered obstruction, obfuscation and resistance from numerous panjandrums who sacrificed truth and accountability to protect reputations. It is somewhat intriguing but prevalence of the disease uncannily disappears on crossing the border into New South Wales. Indeed the sinister objectives of precarious employment arrangements via contingent labour hiring agencies may be masquerading the consequences and a medical profession axiom resonates……Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 3845

More recently an escalation of acute silicosis amongst tradesmen and stonemasons with the manufacture of fashionable stone kitchen benchtops has prompted health officials to warn of an impending public health emergency. The Queensland government recently issued an alert following the lodgement of 22 silicosis claims, which included six terminally ill victims. It has been described by a senior physician as the worst occupational lung disease crisis since asbestosis. Moreover, silica accounts for approximately 75% of the earth’s crust but epidemiological health studies amongst iron ore miners in Australia and the prevalence of silicosis, siderosis or other occupational lung diseases is fundamentally unexplored. 4653

The merger of state and corporate interests gathers momentum amidst a maelstrom of rampant unfettered catabolic neoliberalism with a malevolent freedom to harm that has screwed more miners than the late Jimmy Savile OBE. A collective solipsism of safety prevails with its festering culture of blame, fear, crime and punishment supplemented by a tyranny of bureaucracy. Most of its micturating factotums masquerading as professionals conveniently disregard the primary object of safety legislation, which is to secure the health and safety of people at work. Meanwhile in the real world, light years from the conga line of back scratching sycophants on the conference circuit or devout zero harm proselytes at formulaic and evangelical safety crusades, it has lost any skerrick of integrity and become morally bereft and philosophically rudderless. It is essential to speak the truth to power and every politician, public serpent, safety director, site senior executive or corporate safety manager must always be confronted with the following five questions: 54-64

1) What power have you got?

2) Where did you get it from?

3) In whose interests do you exercise it?

4) To whom are you accountable?

5) How do we get rid of you?

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