If They Didn't Tell The Ghost Girls, They Aren't Going to Tell You
The town called them the ghost girls.
At first, it was cute.
Amelia and her friends glowed in the dark. It made them popular. It made them unique. It made them heroes. They were making watches for soldiers. A hundred years later, they're still glowing in their graves.
Maybe you've never heard of the radium girls. Maybe you think a doctor would never lie to you. Maybe you think a doctor would never smear your reputation in public or blame your death on promiscuity.
You'd be wrong.
In 1917, a corporation hired 70 girls to make watches that glowed in the dark. Some of them were as young as 14. They used radium paint. The girls earned about 1.5 cents per dial, good money back then.
They told the girls it was safe.
Their supervisors instructed them to lick the brushes between strokes to help them keep their fine points. They could've used rags and a solution rinse, but the CEOs thought it wasted time and resources.
It's not like they didn't know better.
Scientists already had loads of evidence that radium was poison. The big whigs at the U.S. Radium Corporation never exposed themselves. Their chemists always used tongs and masks when handling it.
Meanwhile, the general public thought radium was good for you. For years, they'd been using it as a cleanse. There were even spas for the rich where you could bathe in radium water. Newspapers published articles with "experts" who speculated that it could turn metal into gold. Corporations even sold byproducts from radium extraction to schools and playgrounds.
They used it in sandboxes.
For Amelia, it started with jaw pain.
Dentists started noticing loose teeth and ulcers in the girls' gums. Their health deteriorated. Some of them developed radium jaw, a condition where their skin and gums died. It was horrific stuff. Instead of admitting fault, the radium corporation doubled down on their denial. They begged and bribed doctors and scientists not to release any of their data on the cases. They listened. The medical community aided the coverup.
The corporation engineered a campaign to discredit the girls. Doctors lied to the public, blaming their sickness on syphilis.
They became complicit.
By the mid-1920s, the radium business employed hundreds of women, all of them making luminous dials. Factory workers and even chemists were getting sick and dying from radiation poisoning.
Her jaw fell off.
She'd started working at the factory when she was 19. Five years later, she was dead. Her body still glowed from radium poisoning.
The rising death toll eventually brought in the Department of Labor. They inspected the plant, but they did nothing.
Lawsuits mounted against the U.S. Radium Corporation and similar companies. They used every stalling tactic they could, hoping the girls would die before causing too much trouble. The ghost girls defied them. Some testified from their deathbeds in order to hold the corporations accountable. Finally, the inventor of radium dial paint himself died from radiation. So did at least one chemist. Only then did anyone take the girls seriously.
In the end, radiation poisoning killed dozens of young women and gave dozens more lifelong health conditions. Those are just the ones doctors could confirm. There were probably hundreds of cases.
We'll never know for sure.
Even now, the media sometimes tries to paint the ghost girls as heroes who sacrificed their lives for a greater cause.
Did we really learn anything as a culture?
It's looking like a hard no.
Over the last hundred years, corporations have continued to market unsafe products with full knowledge of their risks. Government agencies and public health institutions have continued lying for them and helping them cover up their crimes. You can wade through history to find dozens of examples. Consider digging through the details of the HIV epidemic, in which the U.S. government spent a decade shrugging off mass death.
They're doing it now.
The average middle-class American just can't believe that corporations and governments would collude against them for the sake of profits. It doesn't seem to matter how many times the corruption is exposed.
Your life matters, just not to them.