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They would, quite literally, glow. During World War I and the years thereafter, dozens of teenage girls and young women worked in radium-dial factories, painting glow-in-the-dark numbers onto watches and airplane instruments. The paint got onto their hands, into their hair, and settled on their clothes. And so, they glowed.

The young women had no reason to worry about radium then. The factories assured them it was safe. They were even taught to paint tiny numbers on the dials by licking their paintbrushes to a fine point. Plus, radium was supposed to be good for you. You could buy radium water, radium face cream, radium toothpaste, and even Radium Brand Creamery Butter. These products didn’t actually all contain the expensive and precious element, but the evocation of radium gave them a healthful glow.

Then years later, after they stopped working the factories, the women started getting mysteriously ill. Their teeth started to fall out. Their jaw bones—brittle and degraded—broke at a light touch. Their hips locked into place. Their skin wouldn’t heal.

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The Atlantic

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