Education, Features, Health and Safety, Law and Politics, National

Remembering The ‘Radium Girls’ In The Anti-Science Era

June 13, 2018

By Jane LaTour

On Sunday, June 10, Coral Davenport’s front-page story in The New York Times provided a guide to the many government agencies where the Trump administration is eliminating science from their agendas. Let’s just look at one example – the workplace—to demonstrate why this is a very dangerous idea. DirtyDangerous_FullReport_Final In her bestselling book, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, author Kate Moore tells the story of the practices involved in painting dials that would glow in the dark –an industry that escalated during World War I with the demand for military instrumentation. As the factory workers illuminating the dials who were constantly exposed to radium became “mysteriously” ill and suffered to an appalling degree, they became embroiled in a scandal that preceded the asbestos cover-up. In the words of Paul Brodeur, the chronicler of the asbestos scandals, they too became “expendable Americans.” This is another similarly tragic example of employers and an industry that figured out the source of the diseases, but kept that knowledge to themselves. 

Thanks to the courage and tenacity of these women, the “radium girls” — their lives, their suffering, and their needless deaths — years of litigation led to life-saving regulations being introduced. Their persistence in the face of the opposition mounted against them, even as they suffered and experienced extreme distress, finally led to regulations that saved thousands of lives and advanced nuclear research.  Moore writes that, 50 days before this legal victory, World War II was declared in Europe, meaning that once again, there would be an enormous demand for luminous dials. 

Thanks to the courage and tenacity of these women, the ‘radium girls’ — their lives, their suffering, and their needless deaths — years of litigation led to life-saving regulations being introduced.

Moore’s book is a medical mystery tour de force with serious lessons for us, in this time of science denial.  Since we ignore science at our peril. Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, led to an outcry against conditions in the nation’s slaughterhouses and regulations were finally imposed to prevent food poisoning. Now, the Department of Agriculture. the agency charged with protecting our food, is undermining the whole history of science-based standards for food. 

There is a vast literature about workplace safety and health, and the costs to workers when scientific knowledge is ignored, when dangerous chemicals travel into workers’ bodies, into ground water, into our communities. Another current example of this animus toward science can be found at the Department of the Interior, under the leadership of Secretary Ryan Zinke, who, last August, ended a study by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine into links between surface mining and health, “specifically the exposure to coal dust in the air and drinking water.” Coal miners were central to Donald Trump’s campaign pledges. This is a strange and heartless way to demonstrate a commitment to the families of coal miners and their communities. 

While the diseased and the injured must cope with the fractured, faulty workers’ compensation “systems,” the dead should speak to us. We can learn from these workplace tragedies. Thirteen workers are killed on the job every day and 137 workers a day die from occupational diseases. ProPublica and National Public Radio (NPR) collaborated on a harrowing, in-depth investigation of the horrors of Workers’ Compensation. It’s worth visiting these sites to remind ourselves why it is we try to learn from experience and avoid lives catapulted into suffering. Here are the links—let’s all do what we can to resist deadly ignorance. 

www.propublica.org/article/the-demolition-of-workers-compensation and 

www.npr.org/2015/03/04/390441655/injured-workers-suffer-as-reforms-limit-workers-compensation-benefits .

  

June 13, 2018

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