Monday, July 6, 2020

Radium Dial Painters in Ottawa, IL

Because radium-based paint was used to paint numbers on watch and clock dials from 1910-1978, the EPA identified 16 Superfund sites in Ottawa,IL. The radium caused the numbers on the dials to glow in the dark.  In 2019, the last of these 16 sites were processed. [1430wcmy] The women who painted the dials would frequently lick the tip of their brush to keep a fine tip on the end. Because radium is absorbed into bones like calcium, the women who painted the numbers on watch dials went "on to lose their teeth, jaws, and limbs to the radium poisoning. Many died." And residents of the town have suffered rare cancers and birth defects. [TheAtlantic]

Thomas Webb Jr., May 2017
[A statue in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of Jefferson & Clinton.]
As we can see in this street view, there is a sign  North of the statue.
Street View
[It looks like a Google privacy AI blurred the face of the statue.]
If you save the image and look at it with your favorite photo viewer, you should be able to zoom in to a more readable copy.
Ute Yi, Aug 2018

Ute Yi, Agu 2018

The Radium Dial Company started in 1910 and supplied dials to other manufactures such as Westclox. At that time the dangers of radium were unknown. In fact, it was used in "health products."
Rochelle Flagg Township Museum posted ten images with the comment:
Radium and the Rochelle Clock and Watch Manufacturing Company. With the pending release of the new movie, "The Radium Girls" , it is natural that questions would arise about any old clock factory and possible radium contamination. The Rochelle Clock and Watch Manufacturing Company operated from 1906 and ended in 1910, well before the introduction of radium painted dials for time pieces which first appeared during World War I (1914-1918). The first Radium Dial Company factory in Illinois appears to have begun operating in Chicago in 1918 and moved to Ottawa, Illinois by 1922 where the infamous "Radium Girls" story would unfold years later. There is virtually no chance that radium dials were ever used in the Rochelle factory. Radium was extremely expensive ($120,000 per gram) and before WW I the only known use seems to have been for medical treatment of cancer. Later as new sources of radium were found in Colorado and Utah mixed in with Uranium deposits the price would come down to a mere $38,000 per gram. The only real risk to Rochelle citizens from radium exposure would be from patent medicines who claimed health benefits from ingesting radium laced water or cosmetics laced with the radio active material.…/radium-girls-illinois-tragedy…









In addition to frequently licking the brush tip, they were surrounded all day with paint vials and glowing dials. They also took paint vials home to have "glow in the dark" parties were they painted fingernails, eyelids and lips. [nprillinois]

By the 1920s, management knew that they were killing the Radium Girls. (An Affirmative Action meeting at work taught us that female workers are not "girls," they are women. So now when I go into a doctor's office and they tell me that one of the girls will see me soon, I cringe. But politically correct terms like "associate" also rub me the wrong way. However, Radium Girls is appropriate because some started at 11 or 13 years old.) The company provided a hospital and doctor. This sounds good. But it becomes apparent that the doctor's job was not to cure the girls, but to hide the fact that they died of radium poisoning. They would not allow family to visit patients, and when they died they wanted to bury them right away. When Margaret Looney died, the family insisted on an autopsy, but it was finished before the family doctor could arrive. Margaret started work at 17 and was dead by 24. In 1978, with permission from the family, Argonne National Laboratory near Lemont exhumed her body as part of a study of the effect of radiation on humans. They sent her back encased in lead because she was still so radioactive. [nprillinois]

Catherine Donohue got fired in 1931 because her limping was bad publicity. It wasn't just the company doctor that was hiding the truth. "Donohue's maladies increased and worsened. She lost half of her body weight. Parts of her jaw fell out. She couldn't eat and became nearly bedridden. A local doctor couldn't diagnose her, but denied that Donohue had radium poisoning. Later, a Chicago doctor confirmed she did." She and other ghastly sick dial painters formed what became known as "the society of the living dead." They had trouble finding a lawyer because they were poor. But Leonard Grossman Sr. took their case for free. During the trail, Catherine learned that her condition was fatal and collapsed. The trail continued at her home because she was too weak to travel. The townspeople shunned the girls because Radium Dial was providing well-paying jobs during the depression. The girls won, but it was a small settlement and the company dodged most payments by moving to New York where Illinois law had no jurisdiction. [nprillinois]

Radium Dial's president, Joseph Kelly, was ousted in 1934. He started Luminous Processes just a few blocks away hiring a lot of the painters so Radium Dial went out of business in 1936. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission finally fined it in 1976 for having radiation levels 1,666 times the allowable amount. So the executives of Luminous Processes moved corporate assets to other holdings and closed the business in 1978. [nprillinois]

Grossman Jr. has followed in his Dad's footsteps. The many gruesome deaths caused by radiation poisoning "had helped start a 'movement that ultimately led, not until 1971, to the adoption of the federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Act, which was the big change in having federal workers' safety laws,' Grossman Jr. says. He worked for the U.S. Department of Labor for 30 years on workers' rights cases." Unfortunately, industries such as asbestos, coal mining and construction (e.g. Hard Rock Hotel Collapse) continued to prove that government oversight is needed to offset greed for the almighty dollar. [nprillinois]

Lost Illinois Manufacturing posted:

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