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Katherine Schaub Posing in ChairThe death of Katherine Schaub (1902-1933), a watch dial painter at the U.S. Radium Corporation plant in Orange and an early victim of radium poisoning, alerted authorities to the dangers of radio-activity. During World War I, young women at the U. S. Radium Corporation in Orange were employed to paint luminous numbers on watch faces. The women were directed to point up the brushes with their tongues which led to the consequent ingestion of radioactive paint. After the war, doctors discovered that these women were dying of anemia and a disease called radium necrosis (radium poisoning)which ate away their jawbones.

In the fall of 1923, Schaub began to have trouble with her teeth. Although she had two teeth removed in order to ease the pain, Schaub was constantly plagued by “gloomy” thoughts and bouts of nervousness. An investigation was made by the Consumers League of New Jersey into Schaub’s illness and similar illnesses as they had been described by young women who had worked alongside her. Findings demonstrated that the radium Schaub had ingested at work was plated in her bones, causing necroses, joint deterioration, anemia and cancers from which she and other painters suffered.

The League campaigned successfully to have radium necrosis recognized as an occupational disease by the State Workmen’s Compensation Board in 1926. This measure occurred too late, according to a two-year statute of limitations, to actually benefit the women who had suffered from radium poisoning. The universal horror caused by this case contributed to a 1941 bill that made all industrial diseases compensable and extended the time during which workers could discover illness. Schaub succumbed to radium poisoning in 1933 at the age of 31.

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