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Xavier Magazine | June 18, 2018

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Brush with Cancer

By the time Richard Toohey got to know the radium dial painters, many were old and suffering from cancer. Others were already dead.

The women were casualties of World Wars I and II—at least indirectly. During the wars, women were hired to paint the dials of watches, clocks and airplane gauges with a glow-in-the-dark paint made of zinc sulphide and radium. To ease the difficulty of painting the tiny details, the women often sharpened the points of their paint brushes with their lips. What no one knew at the time was the paint they were using was radioactive.

Toohey, a 1968 physics graduate, became familiar with the women when he joined a research team at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago that was doing a long-term study of the painters. Toohey spent 22 years on the project, digging up the living and the dead to document radiation exposure levels, which eventually led to modern radiation safety standards.

“Because of them and the Japanese, we know more about the health risks of radiation than any other hazard to which people are exposed.” Today, Toohey uses his radiation knowledge at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Tennessee, where he’s director of Dose Reconstruction Projects. Instead of women painters, though, he deals with people who developed cancer after working at various atomic and nuclear weapons facilities.

Each one is seeking the $150,000 payments authorized by Congress. To date, Toohey’s team has processed more than 14,000 claims, of which 2,500 totaling $373 million have been awarded. The young women who tipped their brushes to their lips should have been so lucky.

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