[ RadSafe ] Last surviving Radium Girl celebrates 100th birthday

Susan Gawarecki loc at icx.net
Tue Jun 13 13:43:23 CDT 2006

Last surviving Radium Girl celebrates 100th birthday
By Robyn Adams, Republican-American  |  June 1, 2006

WATERBURY, Conn. --Mae Keane, the last surviving Radium Girl, was all 
aglow as she celebrated her 100th birthday recently.

At age 18, fresh out of Wilby High School, she went to work at the old 
Waterbury Clock Co. factory off Cherry Street. She was among the women 
dubbed the Radium Girls after the greenish radium paint used to make the 
watch dials glow in the dark. It later caused significant health 
problems for many. They were encouraged to apply the paint by moistening 
the bristles on their lips before dipping the brush into the paint.

Though Keane worked at the clock factory just a couple of months, she 
lost her teeth and suffered skin and eye problems. Doctors could never 
pinpoint the exact cause of her ailments. "I don't think the bosses even 
knew it was poison," she said. "The foreman would tell us it was very 
expensive, and to be careful. We had no idea. But when they did find 
out, they hid it."

Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive material used from the 1900s 
to the 1940s to paint glow-in-the-dark dials on clocks, watches and 
aircraft navigation equipment. Significant exposure can cause leukemia 
and anemia and has been linked to cancer of the bones, mouth and sinus 

About 20 Waterbury Clock factory workers, mostly women hired because of 
their smaller fingers, died from exposure to radium in 1927.

"The girls (sneaked) the radium to paint their toe nails to make them 
glow," Keane said.

Perhaps it is her sense of humor that has helped her live a long life. 
The only prescription medication she takes is to control her blood 
pressure, though she was diagnosed with colon cancer at one point. "The 
doctor wanted to give me chemotherapy," Keane said. "I told him 'no.' I 
wanted radium." After five weeks of radiation, she was on the mend.

Keane isn't quite sure what led her to work at the clock factory. The 
pay was $18 a week for a 40-hour work week, and the women earned an 
average of six cents for each dial painted.

In 2004, Keane and the late Josephine Lamb, another Radium Girl, were 
featured in a dance and video production that explored the work done by 
young women in clock factories. Josephine Lamb was bedridden for 50 
years from the radium poisoning. She died in 1974 at the age of 79.

Keane, a Red Sox fan, laughs when asked about her secret to longevity. 
"I'm lazy," Keane said, adding she never smoked, loved to walk and 
dance, and enjoys caramel candy, chocolate and an occasional apricot 
sour or Bailey's Irish Cream. "I didn't get old until I was 98," she said.

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