A quick decision to quit her job may very well have saved a young woman named Mae Keane from suffering from horrific health problems and an early death.
In 1924, Keane was hired to work at a factory that made wristwatches in Waterbury Connecticut. At the time, these hip new time pieces were spruced up with glow-in-the-dark dials and were all the rage. Advertisements threw out catchy phrases like “Made possible by the magic of radium!” to reflect the fascination around the element, which hadn’t been established as the toxic and deadly substance we now know it to be.
In fact, in the 1920s Radium was the latest cure-all. It was used to treat everything from colds to cancer, and was touted as a miracle potion to help people live longer, have better sex lives, and make women more attractive, according to NPR.
“Of course, no one thought it was dangerous in these first couple of years,” says Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook.
This lack of knowledge is what led many young working-class women, including Keane, to work for the U.S. Radium Corporation, which was manufacturing the popular new glow-in-the-dark wristwatches.
These women, known as the radium girls, were paid to hand paint tiny numbers onto watch faces, with very specific instructions. “Lip pointing” was a technique employees used in order to make the numbers small enough for the dial and consisted of the women putting the tip of the paintbrush between their lips to sharpen it after painting each number.
The math here is astounding: With over 12 numbers on each of the around 200 watches the women worked on each day, they were swallowing bits of radium up to 2,400 times on a daily basis.
While many of the workers followed instructions, Keane realized on her very first day on the job that she didn’t like the gritty texture and taste of the radium paint.
“I wouldn’t put the brush in my mouth,” she recalled many years later.
Noticing she wasn’t following instructions or enjoying the work after only a few days at the factory, her boss asked her if she would like to quit and she instantly obliged – a decision she would be always be grateful for.
“I often wish I had met him after to thank him” she said of her ex-boss, “because I would have been like the rest of them.”
The rest of them fell horrendously ill and developed awful diseases. By the mid-1920s, the radium had eaten up these factory workers’ bones from the inside out.
“There was one women who the dentist went to pull a tooth and he pulled her entire jaw out when he did it,” explains Blum. “Their legs broke underneath them. Their spines collapsed.”
By 1927, more than 50 women had died due to radium paint poisoning. Even though the U.S. Radium Corporation was sued for poisoning and paid out money to the victims, much of it went into paying for these women’s funerals.
Keane survived through all this. Although she dealt with health problems over the years, including two bouts with cancer, it’s not known for sure if her time at the wristwatch factory contributed at all.
“I was left with different things, but I lived through them” she said, adding “You just don’t know what to blame.”
Earlier this year, Keane died at 107 years of age. She was the last of the radium girls still alive.
Keane’s story, as well as the other radium girls – those who survived, and those who didn’t – made a huge impact on workplace regulations, according to Blum, who says there are still lessons to be learned to this day about how to protect workers who are exposed to new and untested substances.