Ottawa Illinois: A Superfund Site and Home to the Radium Girls

January 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm in Superfunds, Uncategorized by IfLizWereQueen


When the first wristwatches were being made for WW1 and WW2, it was decided that glow in the dark dials would be very useful. The new wonder substance at the time was a radioactive element called radium. Given the huge lack of knowledge of the effects of radiation, radium was used for everything from pepping up soft drinks to bathing in for therapeutic effects. [So typical of the enthusiasm of new technologies and unknown materials, even today.  I remember touring the bath houses in Hot Springs and learning to my horror that among the treatments at the turn of the last century were mercury rubs. It's a wonder that the entire population of the USA is not genetically mutated beyond repair--perhaps we are and the rest of the world is too kind to let us know.  That could certainly explain a lot.]



The Radium Girls, who were they?

In 1922 The Radium Dial Company (RDC) moved from Peru, Illinois to a former high school building in Ottawa. The company employed hundreds of young women who painted watch dials using a paint called “Luna” for watch maker Westclox.  RDC went out of business in 1936, two years after the company’s president, Joseph Kelly Sr., left to start a competing company, Luminous Processes Inc., a few blocks away.

Nationwide there were an estimated 4,000 workers who were affected. I’m sure in my research of Superfund sites that I’ll come across more towns that were (and still are) affected by the carelessness from almost 100 years ago. My research on Radium Girls indicates that there are several other radium “hot spots” in the USA.  It has been reported that as part of their training the young women were encouraged to make a fine point on their brushes by rolling the tips on their tongues before dipping them in the radium-laced paint.  Their bosses told them not to worry, that it would just make their cheeks rosy.  The women at Radium Dial sometimes even painted their teeth and turned out the lights for a joke. By 1925, the company was aware of the toxic radiation workers were exposed to, but it did not inform the young women.  Instead, the company continued to encourage its female workers to run their paintbrushes through their lips to get a sharper point for neater work. [This is from court records that the girls later filed.]

Many of the Radium Girls ended up with tumors bulging from their jaws and their teeth falling out. Many of them died from cancer. When women started becoming sick, company doctors said they had syphilis, typhus and pneumonia. By 1934, seven women called “The Society of the Living Dead” began a legal battle with the company. The Depression was gripping the country, and jobs were scarce. There was little public support for the women just as there is little public support for many workers today in the USA.

Radium exposure caused cancer that left the women’s bones honeycombed. During the course of their illnesses, some had amputations. Some had teeth extracted and chunks of their jawbones also came out. Some developed large tumors on their jaws or legs where radium settled. Death was painful. The buildings where the girls worker were destroyed in 1969 and 1984 but the radium was scattered and it remains in Ottawa.  In 1997 a study conducted by Northern Illinois documented an above-average cancer rat for the area. But no follow-up study has been done.

Officials at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection have found contamination — including in apartment buildings that are former dial painting studios — in Waterbury, Bristol, New Haven and other towns. Cleanup on a radium-laced landfill in Glen Ridge, N.J. — one of four sites that had to be dealt with in that state began in 1998. In all, the EPA expects to spend more than $144 million for radium cleanup in New Jersey and New York, with detoxification begun in West Orange and Orange, site of the now-defunct U.S. Radium Co. A site in Montclair, N.J., is now free of radium as is the site of the former Radium Chemical Co. in New York’s borough of Queen according to reports from EPA officials.


Cleaning up Radium

In Ottawa, Federal money to clean up four remaining Superfund sites laced with radium has run out.Even after the Radium Dial Co. building was demolished, people took bricks from the site to reuse and desks from the factory were donated to area schools, spreading the contamination.

In the 1970s, when federal Superfund cleanup money started coming to the community, the radium hot spots were gradually remediated. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to monitor one site at the edge of town that could cost $80 million to clean up.  SOURCE [The other sources include data gathered from the Environmental Protection Agency site linked below as well as Wikipedia.]

Go HERE to read EPA work as the agency continues to clean up and remediate the Ottawa Radium sites. Be sure to read the March 2010 report. Since there is not enough money left.  This is the solution to be followed.


In Conclusion

Please remember the pain and early deaths of the Radium Girls.  Few of them ever made it past the age of 30 and they died a horrible, painful disfiguring death.  Please remember that the Radium contamination lives on–almost a 100 years later.  Please remember that there are 1,280 sites like this and worse that have been identified with other types of contamination all over the USA.  And even more importantly, remember that hundreds more are in the making each year.  The only way to stop such mayhem is with regulation.

The path seems to be a narrow one here:  either people cling to their right-wing ideology of the “free” market, or you make room for some regulations to protect citizens like the Radium Girls.

Proclaim the Queen!