From: Ralph Stuart <rstuartcih**At_Symbol_Here**>
Subject: [DCHAS-L] C&EN SafetyZone blog: 'OopsÕ is never good occupational health policy
Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2014 08:24:42 -0500
Reply-To: DCHAS-L <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**MED.CORNELL.EDU>
Message-ID: AB165147-9D93-4F85-9A65-BF7BAF0195A5**At_Symbol_Here**

‰??‰??Oops‰?? is never good occupational health policy‰??
by Jyllian Kemsley

The headline is from Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook," as quoted in an NPR story about Mae Keane. Keane was briefly one of the "Radium Girls" who painted glow-in-the-dark wristwatches in the 1920s. Here's a bit more context, plus the full quote:

In order to get the numbers small enough, new hires were taught to do something called "lip pointing." After painting each number [with radium paint], they were to put the tip of the paintbrush between their lips to sharpen it.

Twelve numbers per watch, upwards of 200 watches per day ‰?? and with every digit, the girls swallowed a little bit of radium.

"Of course, no one thought it was dangerous in these first couple of years," explains Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook.


Deborah Blum says the radium girls had a profound impact on workplace regulations. By the time World War II came around, the federal government had set basic safety limits for handling radiation.

And, she says, there are still lessons to be learned about how we protect people who work with new, untested substances.

"We really don't want our factory workers to be the guinea pigs for discovery. 'Oops' is never good occupational health policy."

Searching C&EN archives, it seems that it took a while for people to embrace those basic radiation safety limits. From a 1951 story from the American Industrial Hygiene Association's 12th annual meeting:

Unsafe working conditions were found in the handling of radium, x-ray, and fluoroscopic equipment in every one of 12 hospitals surveyed recently, William LaRocque, of the Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., told a mixed group of scientists and medical specialists at this meeting. In some cases, he said, radiation in excess of maximum permissable doses was detected in hospital offices as well as in laboratories and operating rooms.

LaRocque found physicians handling radium sources with virtually no protection whatever. Between uses radium was stored in everything from water glasses to tin cans. Because of the value of the radium it was often stored in office safes which afforded little resistance to the radiation. Some dental x-ray equipment surveyed irradiated the operator to a maximum permissable dose after as few as five exposures had been made. Fluoroscopes and diagnostic x-ray apparatus were often inadequately shielded or were used in a dangerous manner. In one case reported, the lead glass on a fluoroscope screen had not been replaced although it had been cracked "for years."

Contrary to experience reported by earlier investigators, LaRocque said that the medical men and roetgenologists involved seemed anxious to learn about these hazards and to take steps to correct the dangerous conditions. LaRocque attributed the situation to ignorance rather than lethargy. He said that in none of these cases had there ever been any planned system of health protection in connection with radiation hazards and he made a strong plea to the assembled industrial hygienists to take positive steps to overcome the present complacency about these hazards.

Jyllian Kemsley | December 30, 2014 at 8:30 am |

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