At BuzzFeed, Kate Moore tells the story of the “radium girls,” the hundreds of women during WWI who worked painting watch dials with luminous radium paint — a substance that would eventually poison and kill them even though they were told it was perfectly safe. What followed was years of employers covering up and denying evidence that radium was killing workers, while berating the women for attempting to get help with their mounting medical bills.
Eventually, Moore writes, their fight for justice led to one of the first cases in which an employer was held responsible for the health of workers, helping lay the foundations of modern labor law. Among the many watch painters highlighted in the story was Molly Maggia, whose illness began with a toothache and then traveled to her limbs, eventually leaving her unable to walk:
By May 1922, Mollie was desperate. At that point, she had lost most of her teeth and the mysterious infection had spread: Her entire lower jaw, the roof of her mouth, and even some of the bones of her ears were said to be "one large abscess." But worse was to come. When her dentist prodded delicately at her jawbone in her mouth, to his horror and shock, it broke against his fingers. He removed it, "not by an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it out." Only days later, her entire lower jaw was removed in the same way.
Mollie was literally falling apart. And she wasn’t the only one; by now, Grace Fryer, too, was having trouble with her jaw and suffering pains in her feet, and so were the other radium girls.
On September 12, 1922, the strange infection that had plagued Mollie Maggia for less than a year spread to the tissues of her throat. The disease slowly ate its way through her jugular vein. At 5 p.m. that day, her mouth was flooded with blood as she hemorrhaged so fast that her nurse could not staunch it. She died at the age of 24. With her doctors flummoxed as to the cause of death, her death certificate, erroneously, said she’d died of syphilis, something her former company would later use against her.
As if by clockwork, one by one, Mollie’s former colleagues soon followed her to the grave.
Read the full story at BuzzFeed.
In other news:
Reveal (Center for Investigative Reporting): Jennifer Gollan reports that even though a new OSHA rule requires employers to electronically submit their injury and illness records by July 1, the agency doesn’t yet have a working website where employers can actually comply with the law. Instead, the OSHA site says: “OSHA is not accepting electronic submissions at this time.” The reporting rule, which also protects workers against retaliation for reporting injuries, is currently being contested in court by a number of industry groups, including the National Association of Home Builders and National Association of Manufacturers. Gollan quotes former OSHA chief David Michaels: “Because the secretary of labor is not allowing OSHA to post this website, it means tens of thousands of employers will be in violation of the law. …Law-abiding employers are asking where to send their information in. OSHA is ignoring the law.”
Mother Jones: Tom Philpott reports that local public health officials believe that more than 50 farmworkers outside of Bakersfield, California, were exposed to the highly toxic pesticide chlorphyrifos, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been close to banning. Then in March, agency Administrator Scott Pruitt decided to greenlight the chemical for continued agricultural use. After learning of the incident, Kern County public health officials urged anyone exposed to seek medical attention immediately. In humans, chlorphyrifos can cause a range of problems, from vomiting and diarrhea to tremors and blurred vision. Philpott reports: “A spokesman for (Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards) said test results pinpointing the chemical are pending but would not be done for at least a week. Dow AgroSciences, one of the main makers of the chemical, did not respond to phone calls and emails.”
Rewire: Nicole Knight reports that two former Walmart employees have filed a class-action lawsuit claiming the company discriminated against them and many more pregnant workers by failing to provide appropriate on-the-job accommodations. One of the pregnant workers said after her doctor said to avoid heavy lifting, her supervisor “told her she had seen a pregnant Demi Moore do a somersault on television, and pregnancy was therefore ‘no excuse.’” It was only after lifting a 35-pound tray sent her to the hospital that she was allowed to do more sedentary work. She was later fired after asking about pregnancy leave. Knight quoted a representative of A Better Balance, one of the groups filing the complaint: “In 2017, it’s incredible that major companies like Walmart are discriminating against pregnant women — who are simply asking to keep on working and have a healthy pregnancy.”
Texas Observer: Gus Bova reports that a much-needed bill to improve housing conditions for Texas’ 200,000 migrant farmworkers has died in the state legislature. According to a 2016 investigation by the Austin American-Statesman, nine out of 10 Texas farmworkers lack access to licensed housing, with many workers forced to sleep packed together on the floors of houses that lack running water, ventilation or electricity. The bill aimed at improving such conditions would have mandated state officials regularly inspect farmworker housing and follow up on complaints, increased fines for violators, and enabled workers and advocates to appeal state licensing decisions. Bova quoted state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr.: “The biggest takeaway for me is that 50 or 60 years after my dad came here as a farmworker, the state of Texas hasn’t improved farmworker conditions, and is actually going in the opposite direction.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.