A dial painter suffered from radium-induced sarcoma of the chin. The workers, mostly young women, used their mouthes to form sharp points on the brush that they would dip in and out of radium paint. Image from the book "Deadly Glow - The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy."
Story by Ann Quigley
(This article was first published The Waterbury Observer in September 2002)
It was 1921 when 17-year –old Frances Splettstocher landed a job at the Waterbury Clock Company on Cherry Street. It was a glamorous job, for she and her young colleagues worked with radium – the wonder substance of the new century. The girls used their keen eyes and nimble fingers to paint tiny numbers on glow-in-the-dark watches that were all the rage at the moment. World War I soldiers had worn the futuristic devices in the trenches, and now in peacetime everyone wanted one, so Splettstocher and dozens like her were hired to help produce millions of the watches during the early 1920s.
Many of the women pressed their brushes between their lips before dipping them in the radium-laced paint to give their small brushes a nice, fine point. The gritty-textured paint tasted no worse than Elmer’s glue, but it had a strange effect: It made their mouths glow in the dark. This didn’t bother the girls, who stole moments at work to paint their dress buttons and fingernails, and glowing rings on their fingers. “They loved their jobs,” said Claudia Clark, author of a book about the dial-painters called “Radium Girls”. “These were the best jobs working-class girls could get.”
But some would pay for these jobs with their lives.
Even as Splettstocher and her friends bent over long workbenches painting dials, evidence was mounting that this naturally occurring radioactive element had a dark side. But few listened. Even when young women painting dials in Waterbury and places like Orange, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois, began to develop horrific symptoms, no one wanted to hear that radium was the cause.
Workers in Waterbury, New Jersey and Illinois were poisoned while they painted luminous numbers on watches. The illustration above was published in the American Weekly Sunday newspaper. The tragedy received wide media attention in New Jersey and New York, but in Waterbury it was never reported, until the Observer published this story in 2002.
Recognition of the dial workers came much later, when they helped scientists understand the long-term effects of radiation, and their suffering led to safety measures for World War II atomic-bomb workers. “The suffering and deaths of these workers greatly increased the world’s knowledge of the hazards of radioactivity, ultimately saving countless lives of future generations, “ writes Ross Mullner, Author of “Deadly Glow”.
Despite their contributions, the dial painters have largely been forgotten. The massive Waterbury Clock complex on Cherry Street now holds other lives and other dreams, like the low-income Enterprise Apartments and New Opportunities for Waterbury (NOW), a human-services center largely focused on assisting the needy. But it also contains invisible, odorless radiation – a map of where Splettstocher and her coworkers mixed and spilled drops of radium paint with a half-life of 1,600 years. This fluke discovery occurred in 1988, when University of Illinois researchers told the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that several Connecticut factories had been used for radium dial painting. This realization came at the end of a century in which the dangerous side effects of “wonder” nuclear elements like radium, uranium and plutonium became as obvious as a billowing mushroom cloud on a clear day.
More than 40 dial painters died in Ottawa, Illinois. Photo from "Deadly Glow."
The radium contamination doesn’t pose an immediate public health threat, like, say, benzene gas billowing into the air, or mercury leaching into the groundwater, so the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected these old factories as Superfund sites.
“To make sure, I had the EPA test the sidewalks,” said Dr. Dada Jabbour, a physical chemist and the hazardous materials director for the Waterbury Health Department. But that’s not to say the radium lurking in the buildings is harmless. The danger of low-dose radiation is more long term than immediate. It can inflict tiny cellular changes over time that eventually can lead to cancer. This summer, a $750,000 clean-up effort, funded by the state bonding commission, begins at two former clock factories in Waterbury as well as three others in Bristol, Thomaston and New Haven.
“We cannot walk away from it, from a public health perspective, “ Jabbour said. “You realize you have a cancer in your body and you don’t ignore it. You treat it”
Today, a section of worn wooden floorboards on a third-floor hallway of the old Cherry Street factory is draped in plastic sheeting. Nothing looks unusual – you can’t see or smell radiation-but this spot is where the highest radiation levels were detected. The quantity is so small, you’d practically have to stand on the spot around the clock to be harmed by it.
“If someone was pushing a cart through the hall, he wouldn’t receive any dose,” said Denny Galloway, a DEP health physicist. “There’s not enough there.” The hallway, leading to a loading dock, gets little traffic.”No offices are nearby and no one hangs out here,” Galloway says of the space, now owned by the neck ware and leatherworks company M.Aron/Belco.
But step back 80 years and you would likely hear wooden heels of young women’s lace-up boots clattering on the floorboards. The factories in Bristol, Thomaston and New Haven hired dial painters as well, but the massive Waterbury Clock complex stretching from North Elm Street to Cherry Street on Cherry Avenue in the North End was the place to go if you wanted a dial-painting job.
Perhaps this hallway was where they gathered the supplies for their shift: a tray of unpainted dials, a camelhair brush, and a small crucible. Working side-by-side at long tables, the girls mixed water-based glue with yellow powder – a blend of radium and zinc sulfide. The energy, or radiation, emitted by radium made the zinc crystals flash, giving the illusion of glowing. Then it was time to paint, and at eight cents per dial, the faster they painted, the more money they earned. Some women finished only 30 dials per day, while the best painted 300. Most of the women pointed their brush between their lips before moving from one dial to the next, ingesting a little paint each time. “The sad thing is that the best employees, the good workers, were the most likely to get sick, said Clark.
The radium accumulated in the workers bodies and without warning began to bombard and destroy teeth, jaws and finger bones. Photo from "Deadly Glow."
The symptoms that would afflict them later were unimaginable to the early dial painters. The devastation of Hiroshima was years away, and America was in love with the rare white metal discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie on the cusp of the 20th century. These women were told radium would put a glow in their cheeks, and there was little reason to doubt it. The few voices noting radium’s potential dangers were drowned out by louder voices hailing this naturally occurring radioactive substance which tirelessly releases energy as a sensation, a key to the future. Doctors recommended it for everything from arthritis to impotence to senility. Dr. J. Evertt Field administrated thousand of radium injections to wealthy patients at his Radium Institute in New York City. Some “claimed the miracle element was the legendary fountain of youth,” writes Ross Mullner. “A few even claimed radium was the source of life itself.”
Frances Splettstocher lived on Oak Street, less than a mile from the Waterbury Clock Company, with her mother, father, three sisters and three brothers. She had been painting dials for four years when, in 1925, she developed anemia, a low blood-iron condition that left her extremely weak. The left side of her face felt tender and painful to touch, and she had a severe sore throat. When her teeth and jaw began to ache, she saw a dentist. The dentist tried to relieve her pain by pulling a tooth, but part of her jaw came with it. The tissue in her mouth then began to rot until she had a hole in her cheek.
Frances, in excruciating pain, died a month after falling ill. She was 21 years old and “had a large circle of friends, to whom the news of her death brings deep sorrow,” read her obituary in the Waterbury Republican on February 22, 1925. Her funeral was held at the Church of St. Stanislus. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Frances was the first dial painter to die in Waterbury , and her family, friends and physician were horrified and utterly mystified by her symptoms, but she was not alone in experiencing them. Just 100 miles away in Orange, New Jersey, four dial painters had died and eight were ill with equally strange symptoms, often involving severe tooth and jaw problems. When dentists removed their teeth, the socket did not heal, but became infected; eventually the bone and skin tissue around it would die, a condition known as necrosis.
Parts of the women’s jaws rotted away, and had to be surgically removed. Many of the girls also had anemia, and experienced arthritis-like joint pain. Some, like Elizabeth Dunn, suffered from spontaneous bone fractures of her arms and legs. In 1925, Elizabeth tripped on a dance floor and broke her leg without falling to the ground. She died from jaw necrosis in 1927, the second Connecticut dial-painter to die.
Now we understand what happened when the women swallowed radium: since it’s chemically similar to calcium, radium masqueraded as calcium in the bones. But instead of strengthening bones as calcium does, radium slowly kills bone tissue. The women suffered from dental problems because in the jaw, it’s easy for dead bone to be contaminated with bacteria. By swallowing radium, the women were giving alpha particles easy access to their bodies’ soft interior.
One dial painter experienced a gruesome radium-induced cancer of the knee. Image from "Deadly Glow."
Of the three types of radiation emitted by radium – alpha and beta particles, and gamma rays – alpha particles are the least dangerous outside the body. They are so bulky and weak they can’t penetrate a piece of paper, let alone skin. But once inside they can’t get out, and release all their energy inside the body, especially affecting blood, the liver and spleen.
BATTLE FOR COMPENSATION
Initially, doctors and dentists repeatedly misdiagnosed the women’s conditions as trench mouth, ulcers, and even syphilis. But eventually they began to catch on that the dial painters’ illnesses were somehow connected to their work.
This happened in New Jersey, where dial-painting operations got started several years before Waterbury’s. In March 1925, just a month after Frances died, a group of dial painters filed a suit against Orange, New Jersey dial-painting studio called U.S. Radium. And in September 1925, a research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked the maladies of the New Jersey dial painters to radium poisoning. Waterbury Clock never admitted Frances’s illness was linked to her job, but after her death in February and the New Jersey publicity in March, the company issued a new rule: no lip-pointing.
Frances’s father, who also worked at the clock company, told a visiting official that “though he was sure” radium poisoning had killed his daughter, “he dare not make any kick about it” because he wanted to keep his job, according to” Radium Girls”. It would be two years before the next dial painters, Elizabeth Dunn and Helen Wall, died in Waterbury.
By this time, no one could deny radium was the cause. From 1926 to 1936 the Waterbury Clock Company spent almost $90,000 on settlements, support and medical costs for sixteen women, and it put aside a reserve of $10,000 a year to cover future costs, according to” Radium Girls”.
Little is known about the Connecticut dial painters compared to their counterparts in New Jersey and Illinois because no newspaper stories were written about them. Their cases never reached the courts and were never referred to the state Board of Health. They were settled privately, and a company-hired doctor treated the women. Clark says she searched hard for documentation of the personal experiences of the Connecticut dial painters, the sort she found by the boxful in New Jersey, but with no luck. “I never found any documents that use their voices,” she said.
In 1927, the clock companies’ influence led to a change in the worker’s compensation act. After leaving a job, workers now had just three years, instead of five, to file for compensation for an occupational disease, according to “Radium Girls”. The New Jersey dial painters were stymied by similar legislation, but they had allies who helped get their cases into court, and their stories into newspapers.
“No one in Connecticut with power was willing to help those women,” Clark said. “The state was so anti-labor and pro-business. Even the women’s organizations wouldn’t help. It would have been great if someone with power and authority got involved, but it didn’t happen.”
The Connecticut dial painters were compensated similarly to the Illinois and New Jersey women, but they had to be willing to keep quiet about their experiences – and stay out of court. “You can’t blame them for selling out,” Clark said. “At least they got their medical bills covered.”
Such stonewalling isn’t unusual when it comes to occupational diseases. Coal miners with black lung disease endured similar silencing tactics, as did asbestos workers with silicosis.
“This is a classic case in the history of occupational disease,” said Victor Archer, MD, of the University of Utah’s School of Medicine in Salt Lake City. The pattern goes like this: First a group of workers gets sick; second, someone makes the work-illness connection; and third, advocacy groups clamor to get societal recognition, and worker protection and compensation. “It’s typical for the recognition of a new occupational disease to go through these stages, with social resistance at each step,” Archer said.
The Consumers’ League of New Jersey was the social agitator for the dial painters, helping five women from the Orange factory bring their case to court in 1927. A scientist testified that the women suffered from radium poisoning, and predicted they’d all be dead within a year.
U.S. Radium managed to win a 14-month adjournment, which enraged Walter Lippmann, a journalist who later became a famous political columnist. “This is one of the most damnable travesties of justice that has ever come to our attention,” he wrote in the New York World. “It is an outrage that the company should attempt to keep these women from suing. It is an even greater outrage that Jersey justice should tease them along for 14 months before deciding whether they have a right to sue.”
The case settled out of court in 1928. U.S. Radium never accepted any liability, but agreed to give each woman a lump sum of $10,000 and an annual pension of $600, and to pay their medical and legal expenses. The company said it settled not because the women were poisoned by radium, but because it couldn’t get a fair trial.
“We unfortunately gave work to a great many people who were physically unfit to procure employment in other lines of industry,” wrote Clarence Lee, U.S. Radium’s president, according to the book “Deadly Glow”. “Cripples and persons similarly incapacitated were engaged. What was then considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.”
Scientists at Argonne National Laboratories now say that hiring women to apply radium paint under poor sanitary conditions was no act of kindness; it led to the deaths of 30 women in Connecticut, 35 in Illinois, and 41 in New Jersey.
Some of these women died young from horrific effects of radium poisoning, while others survived for years, but died later from bone or sinus cancer, or leukemia, or developed painful bone lesions.
A large number of dial painters lived their lives apparently unharmed by their radiation exposure. Perhaps their exposure was lower because they didn’t point their brush and swallow paint, or perhaps they were just lucky.
“Cancer from radiation is a random event,” said Archer. “Of thousands of cells struck by radiation, only a rare one will develop cancerous changes – the unlucky one hit in a certain way, by a shot from the ‘radiation shotgun’.”
An ad appeared in the Saturday Evening Post touting the glow-in-the-dark watches. Image from "Deadly Glow."
Dial painting became much safer over time. Lip pointing was forbidden, and the women were encouraged to wear hairnets, and use rubber gloves and fume hoods. Obviously these things helped; no cancers in dial painters hired after 1927 are officially blamed on radiation. (Actually, some researchers suspect radiation did cause cancers in later dial painters, but it’s much trickier to prove a link exists between lower doses of radiation and cancer.)
The dial painters played a crucial role as canaries in the coal mine. Their suffering motivated atomic bomb workers in the 1940s to take safety precautions they might not have taken otherwise, according to Mullner’s “Deadly Glow” which quotes an official of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission: “If it hadn’t been for those dial painters thousands of workers might well have been, and might still be, in great danger.”
Still, few know the story of the dial painters today. “No monuments have ever been erected to honor their memory. Even in the cities where the tragedies took place, local histories fail to mention them,” Mullner wrote in “Deadly Glow”. Waterbury is no exception. When Middlebury-based Timex, Inc., the corporate successor of Waterbury Clock recently opened the Timexpo Museum in Waterbury, radium dials and the young women who painted them got no mention. “They are trying to forget past unpleasantness,” said Victor Archer. “Would you expect otherwise from a company-sponsored museum?”
But others think these Waterbury-area residents, who died without raising their voices about their suffering, deserve mention in more enlightened times. “I think it’s a mistake the museum doesn’t mention the dial painters,” Dr. Jabbour said.
That may change someday, according to Carl Rosa, the curator of Timexpo Museum. “To the extent that future exhibits and presentations are possible,” he said, “we may consider commemorating the dial painters in some fashion.”
Timexpo covers 150 years of timepiece history and can’t include everything, Rosa said. “Our exhibits highlight the major themes of Timex’s history, starting with Waterbury Clock Company and leading up to modern-day Timex. Because of this limited space, any of the text panel that discuss the manufacturing process relate to clock and watch movements, and specifically ‘brass movements’.”
Indeed, it was brass and not glow-in-the-dark watches that made Waterbury famous, and the Waterbury Clock Company was started by a brass company, but dial painting was more than just a blip on the screen of the company’s history. Waterbury Clock dial painters produced glowing watches for nearly ten years, and the company was one of the only three major players nationwide to satisfy the America’s hunger for 4 million radium-dial watches in 1920 alone.
“Glow-in-the-dark watches were among the most popular watches after World War I because they were inexpensive,” Clark said, “and at some point, the majority of glow-in-the dark watches were produced in Connecticut.
This summer, Connecticut began dipping into a $750,000 allotment from the state bonding commission to start cleaning up the 80-year-old mess. The DEP is sharing clean-up responsibility with the Lower Valley Council of Governments (COG) a regional cooperative organization. The plan is to start with Enterprise Apartments in Waterbury, the only residential space in the massive factory complex. Officials found low-level radiation in two apartments and relocated the tenants.
“Even though apartments are vacant, the city wanted to get those addressed as quickly as possible,” Arthur Boland, a consultant on the radium project.
Next, other Waterbury Clock occupants like Ville Swiss Automatics and M.Aron/Belco will get scrubbed clean. Crews then will move on to the old Lux Clock site (the 15-foot clock on the Green was designed by Paul Lux), now occupied by Anchor Advanced Products, as well as to the Sessions Clock site in Bristol, the New Haven Clock site, and the Seth Thomas Clock site in Thomaston.
These sites weren’t considered enough of a public health risk to qualify for Superfund cleanup money, even though a number of spots in the Waterbury Clock site have radiation levels above the EPA cleanup levels.
So why didn’t the federal government lend a hand with its expertise and money?
“That’s a question we’ve asked them a number of times,” said Dr. Edward Wilds, director of the Connecticut DEP’s division of radiation. “In their criteria, the radiation has to affect people and the environment,” and its effects weren’t deemed dangerous enough to merit federal assistance.
In this way, the EPA is like the St. Vincent de Paul Society: It only has the resources for those most in need. Like a group of Orange, New Jersey residents who in the 1980s discovered high radon levels (radon is released when radium decays) in their houses and traced it to the sand used as fill during construction.
It turned out this was no ordinary sand, but remnants of the radium extraction process at U.S. Radium, a company which, unlike Waterbury Clock, manufactured its own radium from ore. The neighborhood became a Superfund site, with 75 homes partly demolished to scrape out the radium contamination. With their lives in pieces around them, 63 residents joined together to sue Safety Light Corporation, a corporate successor to U.S. Radium.
As Waterbury Clock Company’s successor, Timex could potentially have been held responsible for part of the clean-up. “But that’s a lengthy legal process-it could have taken five or 10 years,” said Galloway, of the DEP. “And then we found out we could get some bond money. In the end, that was a quicker solution that protected public health and safety.”
It would be costly and time-consuming to prove Timex’s culpability, and if the courts found Timex responsible for only part of the cleanup, it might not be worth it. “It doesn’t deal with the justice question,” Bogan said, “but we decided to take a pragmatic approach.”
Bogan said he’s impressed with the DEP and with Jabbour, who was influential in making the case with the municipalities. “She really deserves credit; she wouldn’t let it go,” he said. “Since this was a problem from 80 years ago, a legacy issue, there was no directly responsible party to blame, so everyone stepped forward.”
WHAT’S THE RISK?
With radium already lurking in the Naugatuck Valley for 80 years, the EPA thinking the sites don’t merit federal funds, and no current exposures presenting an immediate public health concern, did officials consider leaving the radium where it sits, to continue its glacial 1,600-year decay process undisturbed?
Absolutely not, said Galloway. “Down the road, if someone were to be exposed on a continuous basis “-for example, if someone was born in a contaminated Enterprise apartment, and spent 24 hours a day there for 30 years- “he would have an increased risk above the acceptable limit.” The cleanup is essentially for that theoretical person, that worst-case scenario.
Galloway said the highest exposure level in an Enterprise apartment was 30 millirems (a unit of radiation exposure) per year. A roundtrip flight to California at 35,000 feet exposes one to about 5 millirems of cosmic radiation. The EPA’s exposure standard is 15 millirems. Above that level they recommend cleanup, since 15 millirems a year increases one’s lifetime cancer risk by 3 in 10,000.
So 30 millirems per year bumps up one’s cancer risk to 6 in 10,000, but only with continuous exposure for about 30 years. To come up with the 30-millirem exposure level, Galloway said DEP researchers figured out exactly how many hours the residents in the two quarantined apartments spent at home over a period of years. No one spent 30 years there because the apartments were created 20 years ago, according to Enterprise Apartment manager Carol Greenslade.
But that’s not to say there is zero risk; just low risk. It’s impossible to say with 100 percent certainty that no one will develop cancer as a result of their exposure to radium contamination in the Naugatuck Valley. Susceptibility to cancer varies, and some people increase their risk through their activities. For example, smokers living in the buildings with elevated radon levels may be at a higher risk of developing lung cancer (which is the danger of radon) than non-smokers, since radon acts in a synergistic way with tobacco, meaning they worsen each other’s effects.
In the end Frances Splettstocher and other early dial painters endured crumbling bones and rotting tissue and died horrible deaths all for dollar wrist watches. Today, eighty years later, the state is spending $750,000 to clean up the “miracle substance,” the “fountain of youth” that made these novelty watches glow. For the dollar wrist watches of another generation, those who live or work in the factories sites today are enduring disruptions of their home or work lives, and worry about their radiation exposure levels. The lesson of the dial painters, as of Hiroshima and Chernobyl, is that nature’s elements, like human nature, have a dark side – but the cost of that lesson has been far too high.
A partial list of radium victims who worked at Waterbury Clock Company and the years they died, from “Radium Girls.”
Francis Splettstocher, 1925
Elizabeth Dunn, 1927
Helen Wall, 1927
Marjorie Domschott, 1931
Mildred Williams Cardow, 1929
Marion Demolis, 1929
Louise Pine, 1931
Edith Lapiana, 1931 or 1932
Mable Adkins, 1934
Anna Mullenite, 1935
Florence Koss, 1935
Katherine Moore, 1936
Ethel Daniels, 1937