We are the Radium Girls
Little remembered snippets from our history provide illuminating insights for today.
The calomel story is one example. From the 1890s to the 1940s, calomel or mercury chloride, was used in powders to ease the pain of teething in babies. The powders contained 0.21 percent mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Children sensitive to calomel were prone to infantile acrodynia, or pink disease, a painful discoloration of the hands and feet linked to heavy metal poisoning. The FDA did not ban these powders until the 1950s. Descendants of these children have a higher risk for autism, which has also been linked to mercury contamination.
Using X-rays to fit shoes is another example. The following was the pitch for a deadly product sold to shoe store owners beginning in the 1920s: “Want a better fitting shoe, one that lasts longer?” The machine being advertised was the X-ray fluoroscope. Until the 1970s, when most states banned their use, these machines were found in shoe stores across the nation. The radiation far exceeded allowable limits for customers and sales personnel.
That brings us to “The Radium Girls” and a book by that same name. This recently published book tells the story of a group of women who painted radium-laced paint in watches and dials from the 1920s to 1940s. Managers instructed the women to put the brush in their mouths to get a finer point. The women asked their managers if doing this was safe. They said it was. When they began losing their teeth, their hair, their bone strength, even their lives, their employers continued to assure the women that they were perfectly safe. Not only did the watches glow in the dark. The corpse of one woman disinterred also glowed. This book describes how the company, doctors and the law failed these women, as they are doing today for all of us. The first lawsuit against an offending company was filed in 1925. In 1939, 14 years later, a single lawyer won the lawsuit for the women, after persevering through nine appeals.
History is repeating itself today. Harmful effects from electromagnetic frequencies (EMF), while less dramatic than those of radium poisoning, do exist. EMF doesn’t make your hair fall out. It causes your blood to clump together, restricting circulation. It causes heart arrhythmias. EMF doesn’t make your teeth fall out. It creates micronuclei, precancerous cells in the body. EMF doesn’t directly cause death like radium did. According to Lennart Hardell, professor of oncology at Orebro University in Sweden, cell phone users are 2.5 times more likely to have a brain tumor on the side of the head where the phone is used. Use of mobile phones for up to 10 years increased the risk of brain cancer by 26 percent. The risk jumped to 77 percent after more than a decade of use.
One of the strategies used by the telecommunications companies is to warn, in fine print, or somewhere in your cell phone, that you should keep the device some distance from your body while using it so you don’t exceed allowable standards for EMF. Devices are safety-tested 5-15 millimeters (mm) from the testing instrument, even though most put cell phones to their ears.
However, this bit of subterfuge is really beside the point since the FCC-verified safety standards themselves are obsolete, geared only to thermal radiation and not to the actual effects of the EMF. Ever wonder why telecom companies can’t get liability insurance for their products? The insurance companies know the health risks. So do the telecoms. Hence the obscure warnings in the bowels of your cell phone you probably have never read.
This topic is particularly relevant now because of SB 649, a bill currently being considered by our state legislature. This bill will force distributed antennas on telephone poles across from homes and businesses. The public will have nothing to say about it. Apparently, the powers that be don’t think we have enough EMF already. Learn about these risks and advocate against SB 649.
The radium girls waited 14 years before prevailing in a court of law. How long will we have to wait?
David Moyer, Lt. Col. USAF, LCSW, retired, lives in Penn Valley.
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