America’s Radium Girls Who Glowed In The Dark, Fought From Deathbed To Defend Workers’ Rights

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In 1917, during the First World War, while the men were sent to battle foreign forces on strange soils, thousands of miles away from home, a new opportunity opened up for the working class women of USA. Only a lucky few were able to secure the coveted jobs as dial painters in watch factories. They used to paint the dials with radium-infused paints, a glowing element discovered by Madam Curie just over two decades ago from then. A job that demanded high precision and offered fairly high remuneration was soon the talk of the town. The women who got the coveted job soon started returning home at night with a heavenly glow that literally rendered them an angelic aura. Men would pursue them with magnetic attraction, while America’s ‘Radium Girls’ shone brightly in dimly-lit dance floors.

Little did they know that it was a fatal glow that gleamed through their skin and bones. While battling with radium poisoning much later, often at late nights they would find themselves glowing like a ghost in front of the mirror.

From being the fantasy for American men, the Radium Girls soon went on to become the face of workers’ rights, but not before they made the ultimate sacrifice with their precious lives.

Male workers wore protective aprons while women had to swallow radium

Madam Curie died from prolonged exposure to radium, the same element she dedicated her life’s work on. Curie’s death was not the only instance of radium poisoning, and the element was rumoured to be toxic to human health. As a matter of fact, male workers in radium factories wore lead aprons and used ivory tongs to handle the radium ore, to protect themselves. However, the scenario soon changed as the radium market grew, and corporates started misleading people to make their fortune.

The property of phosphorescence gave the luminous greenish glow to radium. It led people to fall for the idea that floated around – radium was a wonder element. Newspapers advertised radium water as a tonic for longer life. Even the food industry started adding some proportion of radium in butter, milk etc.

 

America's Radium Girls

Public awareness about toxic radioactivity of the substance did not come to light until the tragedy of the Radium Girls. In fact, there was a time when radium was even considered beneficial for health. The cosmetic industry struck gold by infusing radium in their skin creams, makeup items and even toothpaste.

United States Radium Corporation (USRC), who manufactured radium watches and equipment, was a key player among the radium-dependent corporate firms who helped build a false notion about radium, ignoring and tactfully secreting all its danger signs. The famed watchmakers would lure young women to work for them saying that exposure to radium would enhance their beauty, as Kate Moore writes in her book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. The company chose younger girls, who had just stepped into adulthood; and often teenagers as well, whose delicate fingers were thought to provide more precision in the work.

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For these dial painters, there were no lead aprons or ivory tongs. Rather, they were trained to use the method of lip-pointing while painting the dials. For this, they had to put the radium-laden paintbrushes to their mouth to sharpen the tips. The belief was that lip-pointing would give a finer tip than using a palette or a piece of cloth, as in normal painting.

The dial paints were prepared with gum arabic, water and a substantial amount of powdered radium. So, for every dip within the lips, the girls would unknowingly ingest a slight amount of radium. But, since their managers had assured them time and again about the benefits of radium, they would do it nonchalantly. Some of them also painted their nails, cheeks or teeth with it, to get that ethereal glow.

The tragic death of the first dial painter

Trouble did not come to prominence until early 1922 when Mollie Maggia, one of the first dial painters started feeling constantly sick, so much so that she had to leave the job. Aching tooth pain was the first sign, but even after her dentist plucked out damaged teeth one after another, the pain was increasing. Soon, her gums started ulcerating into dark red, swollen and severely painful infections. Doctors failed to diagnose her condition and brushed it off after prescribing some aspirin.

Kate Moore describes the shocking incident which made Mollie realise that something had gone horribly wrong at her work. A few months into her aggravating sickness, her entire lower jaw broke off like a fragile piece of item when her dentist tried to examine it. Adding to her horror, the infection had proliferated to her throat and veins as well. By then, a few of her former colleagues also started experiencing similar symptoms, jaw pain, swelling legs and brittle bones.

In September 1922, 24-year-old Mollie passed away from yet-unknown radium poisoning, but the doctors quoted ‘syphilis’ as the cause of death in her death certificate, naturally bringing her to a bad light for the society and giving an upper hand to the company responsible for her untimely tragic death.

Covering up the scandal by tainting the women’s ‘character’

Within the next two years, several of Mollie’s coworkers died in a manner identical to hers. By that time, people started suspecting USRC for their uncanny deaths, causing quite a downslide in their business. Compelled by the increasing protests, USRC in 1924 commissioned a probe, assigning an expert scientist to look into the possibility of radium poisoning as the reason for the death of dial painters. The expert confirmed the linkage, much to the resentment of the company director, who then conducted a new paid study that brushed aside the truth.

To cover up the scam, the company also circulated word that those women were trying to extort money from USRC for treating diseases they acquired on their own.

America's Radium Girls
Dial painters working at a factory

However, the group of sick women were not ones to give up. Despite failing health, they teamed up with a common aim, to prove to the public how dangerous radium was for humans. Though the company somewhat succeeded in silencing the rumours by staining the ‘characters’ of these women, the death of a male worker at the firm sprouted the controversy once again.

The start of a prolonged legal battle

The year 1925 remains significant as this was when popular doctor Harrison Martland explicitly claimed with concrete evidence that it was indeed radium that had poisoned the women. He explained how the radium was corroding every bits and pieces inside their bodies.

Backed with certified medical proof, the Radium Girls now began their final and most powerful fight. They dismissed all efforts to invalidate Dr Martland’s research results. Led by Grace Fryer, one of Mollie Maggia’s colleagues, these women became the poster girls for workers’ rights across all USA. They knew their own destiny was determined already; there was no cure for their health condition. But, their fight was to save hundreds of other girls who were still being recruited as dial-painters all over America.

No lawyers agreed to fight for the cause of the girls, risking their career by going against such a huge corporate firm. There were other legal obstacles as well. The existing laws mandated the women to come forward with their case of radium poisoning within two years of their recruitment by the company. But, for most, the visible symptoms of the poisoning had started to appear around five years after the employment. Nevertheless, Grace and her girls did not step back a single inch and continued their fight, in every little way possible.

Two years later, a young advocate, Raymond Berry agreed to fight for the girls. By that time, Grace and four of her most trusted associates have been told by the doctors that they had at most four months to live. This was when their final legal battle began, which, like any other case of this stature, was predicted to last for years. The company also wanted to delay and drag the proceedings, hoping that soon the death of the Radium Girls would shut down the case altogether.

Companies hid the radium-ridden bones of their dead employees in fear

However, the case had already stirred up controversy not just in native New Jersey, but the whole of the USA. As the news spread, dial-painters across the country shivered in horror, realising how their fate has been sealed the moment they stepped inside these factories. As expected, employing radium firms continued to reject the accusations and tried to hush up medical test results that went against them. As gruesome as greed can turn, the companies even hid the radium-ridden bones of their dead employees, to prevent autopsies from spilling out the truth.

The trial lasted for years, even after the death of Grace and her supporters, as the onus was taken up by other dial painters. The next prominent leader of the movement was Catherine Wolfe (Donohue) who came to the limelight in the mid-1930s. Even with a physique distorted by multiple tumours and fatal infection, Catherine did not shudder to see her friends die one after another; rather it only solidified her fiery spirit.

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The final victory and the everlasting impact

At this time, America was reeling under the Great Depression, which only made the struggle harder for the Radium Girls. As people were already losing jobs due to factories shutting down one after another, people no more backed a group of ailing women who were fighting to close down radium factories that offered jobs.

Eventually, in 1938, Catherine gave evidence from her deathbed, which led to the case going in favour of the Radium Girls. The women got all their medical and other expenses covered by the convicted company.

But, the impact of the victory was more far-reaching than ever imagined, as for the first time the USA government passed the Occupational Disease Labour Law and established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which continues to protect the lives of workers in the industrial sector.

Dial painters did not go out of the picture instantly, but they were provided with ample protective gear to rule out any chances of poisoning and the practice of lip-pointing was immediately abolished. The case also initiated further research on the dangers of radium.

Radium Girls have faded over time in history, but it would be a disgrace to ever forget their unparalleled contribution to the safety of the future workers. Even after a tragic death from the ‘killer’ element, the Radium Girls continue to shine through their sacrifice.

Also Read: The Syrian Archaeologist Who Was Brutalised & Beheaded By ISIS For Saving His City’s 2000-Yr-Old History

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‘Happy Fridge’: The Key To Bridge Food Wastage And Hunger Problem In India

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Rahul Khera and Gautam Jindal, volunteers (aka hunger heroes) at Feeding India, were among the many Delhi NCR residents accustomed to seeing hungry children pick up half-eaten burgers or stale sandwiches from the dustbin and savour those with the brightest smiles. Like many others, they also had the will to promote equitable food distribution but was perplexed about the approach, until they learnt about the community fridge initiative which has gained unprecedented success in Saudi Arabia and few other European countries. Meanwhile, community fridges were already being installed outside restaurants or in public places in a handful of cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Coimbatore and Kochi.

Say Goodbye To Throwing Away Excess Food Because Now You Can Donate The Food To The Needy – Happy Fridge

Thank you for overwhelming response for the Happy Fridge concept. We need more funds from you to install more fridges like this across India. With the limited funds avaialble Feeding India was able to install three fridges only. Kindly donate here http://bit.ly/happyfridge

Posted by The Logical Indian on Saturday, October 27, 2018

Needless to mention, with a shocking 103rd rank in the Global Hunger Index and a food wastage estimate of around Rs 58,000 crore – India was perhaps the best country to implement such an initiative. With Gautam’s help, an enthusiastic Rahul invested his own savings to install a ‘Happy Fridge’ outside his residence at Sun City, Sector 54 in Gurgaon. Set up in 2017 by these Feeding India volunteers, the fridge in Gurgaon has inspired the NGO to scale up the project across India.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

‘Happy Fridge’ fostered many smiles

It didn’t take long for the local residents to learn about this laudable endeavour. They welcomed it, as wastage of excess food was a recurring problem in almost every household. “Intimating the localities was no mammoth task, thanks to social media. However, it was difficult to spread the word among those who actually needed the food,” shares Rahul, who went from auto stands to slums, inviting rickshaw pullers, ragpickers or roadside vendors to avail the community fridge any time they feel hungry. “The security guards of our residential complex played a huge role in explaining how the fridge works to the beneficiaries,” he adds.

The operational and maintenance costs of the ‘ happy fridge ‘ are being maintained diligently by the community members.

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Making memories, sprouting awareness

“I remember one young man who had arrived from a village looking for some menial day job. Somehow he had run out of his paltry savings and had no money to buy one decent meal a day. For about a month, our happy fridge was his solace, till he earned his first salary from a housekeeping job,” shares a jubilant Rahul.

In another incident, a truck driver returning in the wee hours of midnight was starving after a whole day’s hard work. He had run out of cooking fuel at his home, so our fridge was at his rescue.

“The residents keep all sorts of palatable dishes in the happy fridge, ranging from dry snacks, fruits to cooked meals. Sometimes, they even keep raw vegetables, to ensure not a single bit of good food ends up in their trash while other people go hungry to bed,” reveals Rahul.

On an average, each happy fridge supplies around 10-15 meals in a day. The gratitude and pure smiles of the hungry souls after a fulfilling meal are more than enough to continue to motivate Rahul and his neighbours. In fact, inspired by him, many other communities in the Delhi-NCR region set up community fridges in their areas.

Feeding India will set up 500 Happy Fridges

Since the past few years, Feeding India has been a prominent organisation working in the forefront to solve the hunger problem in India. Primarily, they were involved in redistributing leftover food from weddings and parties among the underprivileged people in different cities of India. Their volunteers, better known as “Hunger Heroes of India”, worked actively to bridge the gap between food wastage and food crisis.

“We used to get a lot of calls from individual households to collect their excess food. However, unfortunately, we lacked the manpower and planning to launch our programme on a door to door basis. We were desperately looking for an alternative when we learnt about the community fridges,” shares Srishti Jain, co-founder of Feeding India.

After interacting with Rahul Khera and other campaigners of community fridges, Feeding India decided to amplify this extraordinary project throughout the length and breadth of India. Presently, they have launched the #FightFoodWaste campaign to install 500 community fridges – nicknamed ‘ Happy Fridge ’. So any passer-by – be it a kid going to school without a lunchbox, or a labourer returning home late at night with no promise of a dinner – can now grab a pack of biscuits or a bowl of ‘dal-chawal’ (rice & lentil soup) to satiate their hunger. Click here to contribute for ‘ Happy Fridge ‘ and ensure India never sleeps hungry again.

Feeding India also urges everyone to make a promise to stop wasting food and instead consider donating it to those in need.

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