A Century Later, the Factory That Poisoned the ‘Radium Girls’ Is Still a Superfund Site

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the 1920s, young women worked in an Ottawa, Illinois, factory painting radioactive glow-in-the-dark numbers onto watches. They were told to lick their brushes to a fine point. They were told that the glowing radium in the paint was safe.

Radium is extremely dangerous. The element gets absorbed into the bones like calcium, and these women would go on to lose their teeth, jaws, and limbs to the radium poisoning. Many died. Earlier this month, I spoke with Kate Moore, author of the new book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, about how the surviving women fought for justice in court in the 1930s.

That seems like it should be the end of the story, but it isn’t.

While the women were taking their case through court, the Radium Dial Company, where they worked, went out of business. Its owner opened up another radium-dial factory nearby, called Luminous Processes, which operated until 1978. The old Radium Dial Company building became a meatpacking plant and then a farmer’s co-op. It was finally demolished in 1968, when its radium-contaminated rubble was used as landfill around Ottawa. The Luminous Processes building was later used a meat locker after that company closed. These buildings were full of radium particles from the days of dial-painting.

Today, 16 sites in and around the city comprise the Ottawa Radiation Areas Superfund site. Moore recalled driving to the cleanup site with the niece of one of the dial-painters, a hundred years after her aunt was first poisoned. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the sites still pose a hazard to human health, but groundwater contamination should be under control. Concerns remain.

After publishing my interview with Moore about the dial painters, I received a letter from a reader who lived in the area:

I have just completed reading your article, “The Girls With Radioactive Bones,” and I want to share an incident in Ottawa in the late 1990s. My wife and I were there looking for an apartment for her. She was to begin her postdoctoral work at an Illinois state prison nearby. Unbeknownst to us, the Radium Dial Company (1918-1936) and Luminous Processes, Inc. (1937-1978) had been manufacturing radium-based luminous dials in Ottawa.

After a morning of unsuccessful apartment hunting, we broke for lunch. As we were entering the restaurant, I saw a passenger in a car driving by with the physical manifestations of a rare birth defect. During lunch we decided to find a realtor to help in our search. As she drove us to rental properties, I observed a second individual with the same birth defect as the first.

Now alarm bells were ringing in the back of my head.

Our last stop was to see the realtor’s husband, who owned a rental unit. He was recovering from brain cancer surgery. When he asked what I did for a living, I said I was a cancer researcher. His chilling reply was, “You’ve come to the right place.”

When we finally returned to the realtor’s office, she shut off her car, turned to us and said, “I have to tell you something.” She revealed a closely guarded secret in Ottawa. The Radium Dial company had come to Ottawa during the First World War and, after a few years, dial painters began to suffer cancers. Her grandmother worked at the factory and died from cancer. (The realtor told us that the EPA disinterred her grandmother’s body and it was so radioactive she was reburied in a lead-lined casket.) When the old factory was torn down and replaced, some of the rubble was used as fill for public buildings—schools, municipal buildings, Section 8 housing, etc. There are currently 16 radioactive EPA Superfund sites in Ottawa. Some of these sites are fenced off with warning signs and some are completely accessible to the public.

After all of this, we drove to DeKalb and found an apartment.

Has the radium from the Superfund sites migrated into the groundwater? Is it airborne? If yes, how is it affecting the reproductive activity of the town’s population and the growth of its children? The realtor revealed that, after the new factory was opened, cancer clusters developed in the nearby residential neighborhoods. Are these neighborhoods still contaminated?