The Radium Girls

Kate Moore, Sourcebooks, 479 pages, $26.99. The young women sat in rows, heads bent, painting numbers on watch and clock faces with luminous paint. The numbers were so tiny, the workers needed a very fine brush to complete their work. They were shown how to pinch the bristles between their lips or teeth to get a superfine point for painting each number. But the paint that the workers were using in the first decades of the 20th century contained radium, a highly radioactive element. Kate Moore honors the lives of the painters — as well as their horrifying deaths — in her compelling chronicle "The Radium Girls." The painters at the Radium Dial Co. and the Radium Luminous Materials Corp. were told repeatedly that radium wasn't dangerous, even though warnings about radioactivity had been trickling out since 1906. However, after other attempts failed, a determined group of sick women — knowing their days were numbered, they were dubbed "the Suicide Club" — took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939 and won against Radium Dial. Survivors would be compensated, and their death certificates would state their demise was workplace-related. By the time World War II broke out, and the demand for luminous dials jumped, "dial-painting was now the most feared occupation among young women," Moore writes in "The Radium Girls," and the government introduced new safety standards for those working with radium. A Manhattan Project scientist insisted that the same protections be offered to those working with an equally lethal substance, plutonium, because of them.