A great many jobs have occupational hazards that employees need to know about. Police officers put their lives on the line each and every day, for example, while doctors have to watch out for their own well-being while caring for sick patients.

One of the important things to remember, though, is that these people are well aware of the risks involved, and thus are able to take protective measures against them. Moreover, they are provided with the tools and precautions necessary to make sure they are as safe as possible.

Yet things were not always this way, especially during the Industrial Revolution and right up to World War I. Young women known as the “Radium Girls,” who were responsible for painting dials on watches are an important example. They had high-paying jobs with an added perk: the material they used as paint was said to make them look gorgeous. Yet they would soon uncover a deadly secret—and it was one that would make them heroes.

This piece of land in Orange, New Jersey used to be the home of the United States Radium Corporation (USRC), which is where 18-year-old Grace Fryer began her job as a painter of radium dials on April 10, 1917.

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This was just four days after the United States began fighting in World War I. With two brothers involved in the conflict overseas, Grace was not only making a living at the factory, but she was also aiding in the war effort in painting watches and dials.

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Oh, and what a living it was! About 20 years prior, Marie Curie had discovered the element radium, which helped to kickstart a new industry of watches and military dials that were painted with the element. When war was declared, hundreds of women took up jobs in studios to paint dials. After all, it paid over three times more than the average job at a factory! Yet they’d soon discover that, just as the watches they painted, their time was short…

9-radiumMaterialScientist / Wikimedia Commons

There was no doubt that the job of a dial painter was appealing. Besides the relatively high pay, the radium they used made their skin glow—literally—giving them the nickname of “ghost girls.” As disturbing as it may sound, they thought that it was glamorous. They even wore nice dresses to the plant to impress their dates later at night when the radium on their clothes glowed.

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Furthermore, in order to paint the dials, they needed create a precise tip on their brushes. They did this by inserting between their lips. Because this made them shine, they would purposely brighten their teeth with radium, completely unaware of what they were doing to their own bodies.

What the young women like Grace hadn’t been told, though, was how dangerous the radium was, even though it later would be what killed Marie Curie herself. In fact, they were assured that it was perfectly safe. Yet there was a reason why the men in the radium laboratories wore aprons made of lead and used tongs to handle the material.

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Nonetheless, radium was often sold and advertised as something that could actually be beneficial to one’s health.

Shortly after, things started to change for the worse. In 1922, one of Grace’s co-workers, Mollie Maggia, became so sick that she had to quit her job at the studio. What began as a simple toothache soon required that two of her teeth be extracted. That’s when painful, pus-filled growths started forming in their place. Mollie then experienced pain in her limbs and she struggled to walk; her condition worsened with each passing day. Then Grace started to develop pain in her jaw…

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Mollie’s body deteriorated until she passed away at just 24 years old. Still, USRC denied that they were at all responsible, even when more and more young women started to become ill and die from similar symptoms. They even released an independent study to “prove” that radium was safe and beneficial, with their manager, “Mr. Savoy,” lying to the Department of Labor about the conclusions of earlier reports.

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This knee growth is just one example of the horrible effects of radium exposure and poisoning that the radium girls experienced.

What followed was an intense legal battle, as Grace Fryer and other radium girls found legal counsel to help them prove that deformities like this one were, in fact, directly linked to exposure to radium. A doctor named Harrison Martland helped take up their cause, proving that the radium was literally boring holes into their bones and creating abnormal growths in every part of their bodies.

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Grace and her colleagues were forced to settle out of court, but the fight wasn’t over. Catherine Donahue (née Wolfe), a radium painter, developed a massive tumor the size of a grapefruit on her hip in 1938. It was now the middle of the Great Depression, and she ultimately ended up providing evidence to the court from her own deathbed.

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Leonard Grossman, her lawyer (working pro-bono), helped her win the case. Though the story of the radium girls remains largely unknown, they are now credited with helping to prompt the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, which helps protect workers around the United States.

With a half-life of 1,600 years, women like Mollie, Grace, and Catherine will continue to glow in their graves for a long time. Hopefully, with enough attention, their incredible and heroic story will help their memories live on in a positive way.

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