[Marxism] Our foremothers and the creation of capital

lshan at bcn.net lshan at bcn.net
Sun Feb 8 22:32:23 MST 2004

The AP service picked this up, but apparently it remains confined to
Connecticut papers. Because it is limited to subscribers (although free), I
have included more than usual.

The Radium Girls
[Hartford] Courant Staff Writer
January 26, 2004

WATERBURY -- They are scrubbing down Apartment 507. Men and women in white
lab coats, protected by plastic masks, are vacuuming radioactive dust from
the wooden floorboards and scraping radium off the walls.

Particles of radium and radioactive watch dials were left there almost a
century ago by young women who swallowed radium-laden paint used by the
Waterbury Clock Co. from 1919 to 1927.

The clock company where the women worked is gone, and the building now
houses the low-income Enterprise Apartments. And most of the young women are
long dead from cancerous bone and jaw tumors, poisoned by the radium.

Mae Keane, at 97, is one of the last surviving dial painters in Waterbury.
And for her, the cleanup at Apartment 507 is the final chapter in an
overlooked story from Waterbury's industrial past.

"We were young. We didn't know anything about the paint," said Keane, who at
19 took a summer job at the clock company painting glow-in-the-dark

About 15 young dial painters in Waterbury died from radium poisoning during
the 1920s and '30s, their deaths and funerals chronicled in local
newspapers. Scores of other women would die later after suffering for years
from crumbling bones and rotted jaws. Dial painters in Orange, N.J., and
Ottawa, Ill., would also die around the same time.

Paid eight cents a dial, Keane and the other women were told they could
paint faster if they dipped their brushes into the radium-laden paint and
sharpened the bristles with their lips.

The paint's bitter taste may have saved Keane's life. She didn't lippoint,
as the technique was called. She was fired at the end of the summer because
of low productivity. "I made 62 cents one day. That's when my boss came to
me and said I better find another job," Keane said.

Keane learned of radium's deadly effects years later when the women with
whom she worked began to die. Her friend Elsie, a dial painter, warned Keane
not to have a tooth pulled because the wound would never heal.

Keane lost all her teeth in her late 30s. She won't say what other ailments
she suffered. She never returned to the factory site after that summer.

The Waterbury Clock Co., which later became Timex, never admitted that the
women died from radium poisoning but compensated the dial painters and
promised them free medical care.

William Lamb, whose mother, Josephine Pascucci, went blind from radium
poisoning at 24, is pushing the Timexpo Museum in Waterbury to include the
women among its exhibits.

There is no mention of the dial painters, who painted thousands of
illuminated instruments for airplanes and warships, as well as wristwatches.

"A museum is supposed to be a true account of history. I want those girls
remembered," said Lamb, 71, a retired Waterbury police chief.

Two books about the dial painters were published in the last five years.
"Radium Girls," by Claudia Clark, an assistant professor of history at
Central Michigan University, and "Deadly Glow" by Ross Mullner, an associate
professor of public health at the University of Illinois.

Many of the former dial painters suffered silently for years. Some died from
radium-related illnesses that were never documented. Lamb said his mother
rarely complained about her fate, fearful she would lose the $8 a week --
half what she earned when she was working -- and the free medical care the
clock company promised to provide.

Lamb said his mother was blind when he was born, and his father deserted the
family. Lamb cared for his frail mother until her death in 1979. Her
radioactive bones were so brittle she broke them turning over in bed, Lamb

The dial painters in Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois unknowingly became
human guinea pigs for the coming Atomic Age.

In the 1950s, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and
Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois studied the women to set up
standards for nuclear and atomic safety. Their case also led to a federal
law putting industrial diseases under workers' compensation, and extended
the time a worker could file a claim.

No one at the state Department of Environmental Protection knew the
Enterprise Apartments on Cherry Street were former radium dial studios until
Mullner called the agency in 1998, said Mike Firsick, a radiation physicist
with the DEP. "I don't think people put two and two together that there was
radium. You lose sight when people start dying and people no longer work
there," Firsick said.

The DEP confirmed traces of radium in five apartments, as well as offices
and a leather clothier on the site. Very low levels of radium are present at
the site, but long-term exposure could be a cause for concern. Radium's
half-life is 1,600 years. Three tenants have been evacuated from their

Traces of radium were also found in clock factories in Bristol, Thomaston
and New Haven and will be cleaned this year.

Two floors down from Apartment 507, Ruby Williams considers her ailments as
she thinks about the industrial poisoning that occurred in her building
almost a century ago. Williams, 53, suffers from Bell's palsy and chronic
aches and pains. She believes her ailments are due to her exposure to
beryllium she received while working at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford.
She feels a connection to the young dial painters. "Those girls should be
remembered," Williams said.

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