One of the reasons I really, really liked my job as an environmental scientist in the ’80s and ’90s was that it gave me a heavy dose (I’ll explain the pun later) of an American history that many We the Peoples don’t get to see: Superfund Sites and a few of the National Laboratories. I worked in INEL, Sandia, Los Alamos, and spent time training in Oakridge and Savannah River.

Most Americans know by heart the saga of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the Pacific version of World War II. Many have also seen the scratchy videos of atomic detonations after the war as our country continued to experiment with its new toy, blowing up vast stretches of the American Southwest and several Pacific Islands. These experiments were attempts to figure out just how much radiation was too much, or at least very, very bad, to humans. Of course, we already knew that even just a little bit was bad for you. After all, Marie Skłodowska-Curie a half-century before had discovered radioactive isotopes, and died for her efforts.

But the wonders of that isotope and continued research involving uranium, radium, thorium, and polonium transformed the scientific community. About that time, along came Albert Einstein. And then along came World War II and the race to develop a super-bomb. America was certain the Germans had it. The Germans were confident they would have it. Secrecy was paramount and the U.S. military decided one of the best ways to achieve this was to spread the atomic wealth around the country. From Savannah River in South Carolina to Los Alamos in New Mexico, compounds sprang up and thousands of workers, from construction laborers to PhD scientists, were trucked in, sworn to secrecy, and set to work on formulas, theories, detonators, and bombs. The code name for the collective work was The Manhattan Project.

None of this was greatly important to me until 1989, when I was assigned as a report writer to the Denver Radium Sites, which had been named a Superfund Site in 1983. Superfund sites were the U.S. government’s way to declare – with money – how really badly an area had been polluted. Remember the Love Canal in the late 70s? That’s what started it all.

The Denver Radium Site was actually dozens of properties spread out across the city. Many of the properties were used as chemical dumps by various companies and government testing facilities, before folks realized there might be a connection between what’s seeping into the ground and what’s ending up in drinking water. Back in the day, they simply dug holes, then bigger holes, then deeper holes, tossed vials, jars, bottles, and barrels into those holes, then covered them up with dirt. Of course, through the subsequent decades, buildings, and businesses and houses got built on most of these lumps of dirt. “Discoveries” were made of the bad dirt, containing not only poisons and toxins but also radioactive elements. Hence the need to dig up and truck away the bad stuff.

One of the more interesting locations was in a city block partly owned by the International House of Pancakes. It became known as IHOP Operable Unit 6. How did IHOP earn a place as a Superfund Site? It didn’t – but a business before it some 70 years ago caused the problems. It was a watch-making place, specifically, a dial-making place.

One of the wonders of radium is that it glows in the dark, and even when diluted with water or oil, it still glows in the dark. What possible use can be made of this? Watches! The world needs watches that glow in the dark. And, well, it thought it did, as well as instrument panels that glowed in the dark. Hundreds of dial-painting shops sprung up throughout the U.S. and Europe to meet the demand in the early 1900s.

Most of the employees were young women, who painted the little numbers, letters, and ticks denoting minutes and seconds with fine paintbrushes. And how do you get those brushes even finer? Why, you put the tip between your lips, twist and “point” it with your tongue, and now you have the ability to paint those tiny, tiny ticks.

And you’ve just swallowed some really bad stuff.*

Many of the details are well-chronicled in Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy by Ross Mullner, and the women died horrible, ghastly, prolonged deaths. Tumors, skin ulcers, and necrosis – meaning tissue, bone, teeth, and muscles were eaten away – of the jaw were common. As Mullner’s book points out, the radium dial workers’ exposure and deaths were the first known cases of “atomic deaths” on a mass scale. It is unknown how many of the “Radium Girls” died – hundreds, probably thousands – before public outrage and lawsuits in the mid-1920s forced companies to ensure that workers did not continue the practice of pointing the brushes with their mouths.

*Let’s talk about dosage just a bit, if nothing else to round up the dose pun I made earlier. Basically, the formula is time x distance x shielding. So, if you’re next to a big bag of kryptonite for a couple of hours and you’re Superman, you’re in trouble. But put up a lead shield and you’re OK. It’s common sense. Get really close to Bad Stuff that’s making a Geiger counter go nuts, hang around a while, and get naked, that’s not good. And, if you eat it or breath it in, that’s about as bad as it can get.

Denver      Idaho Falls      Albuquerque       Los Alamos