The Glow-in-the-Dark Watches That Killed People

Throughout human history, we’ve tried our best to bring light into dark places. A century ago, being able to tell time in the dark was nearly impossible. Then, manufacturers of timepieces discovered they could illuminate the dials of watches and clocks with a miracle material: radium. While it was very popular, it was also deadly. Radium, as we now know, is a radioactive element that causes cancer in humans. In the very early 1900s, though, the dangers of radium weren’t well known. Watch manufacturers began promoting their watches with the phrase “The Power of Radium at Your Disposal.” Unfortunately, to make the glow-in-the-dark watches, that power had to be harnessed with precision, and that often meant creating a tiny point with a paint brush. “Lip-pointing” — the practice of bringing a paintbrush to one’s lips — would create a finer point than you would normally get. Of course, the paintbrushes were dipped in radium, which meant scores of women were ingesting a little bit of radioactive carcinogens with every brush stroke. The women didn’t mind because they were making 2-3 times what they would have made at other factory jobs. They were even referred to as “ghost girls” because by the time they finished their shifts, they themselves would glow in the dark. Many of the women — later called “Radium Girls” — began falling ill. The first death of a Radium Girl came in 1922, and by 1925 many of the women had filed lawsuits against their employers, claiming they negligently exposed them to the toxic material. By 1927, more than 50 women had died as a direct result of radium paint poisoning. The practice led to the adoption of a number of occupational safety laws, particularly around the handling of radioactive materials.