How Almost Six Million Cubic Feet of Radium-Enriched Soil Silently Poisoned the Residents of Glen Ridge, New Jersey for over 60 Years
by G. Weir
In the 1920s, on the border of Glen Ridge and Orange, NJ, the US Radium Company operated a factory where radium paint was applied to clock dials. Radium byproducts made their way into the soil surrounding the factory, which was then used to fill in the ground, as well as in cement for foundations and sidewalks. This radioactive refuse covered 130 acres, which today is mostly residential properties and a public park. In the 1980s, the state identified dangerous amounts of radon gas in homes, and excessive amounts of gamma radiation both inside and outside. The EPA established the area (along with its sister site in Montclair/West Orange) a superfund site, and cleanup went on from 1990 to 2004. Firstly, why was this radium-enriched soil used for anything? The case of the “Radium Girls” had already faced trial and shown the public the deadly effects that radium exposure can have on the human body. Why was this not acknowledged as dangerous, and does land value represent a possible culpability and acknowledgement of danger? How did this problem get recognized in the 1980s and what were health concerns from it that people in the area were exposed to? The US Radium Company was not the only clock face painter in the United States, and not the only one to run into legal trouble over girls at the factories becoming ill. Likely there are more situations where dangerous levels of radium made their way into soil in areas that could harm people; how did other sites differ and how might have the two sites on the borders of wealthier (white) communities received different treatment?
- This is a new york times article written during the cleanup that talks about the interaction with residents and the toxic site. It was written by Debbie Galant in 1996, in the middle of the cleanup. This article helps me understand the relationship between residents and the radioactivity as well as information on the grassroots activist group that arose from this issue. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/29/nyregion/living-with-a-radium-nightmare.html?ref=oembed
- This is an EPA publication from the early 1990s that discusses the steps that had been taken in remediation along with those that needed to be made already. This document is available on the state of NJ’s website. It is an important source for me as it tells me the component of the EPA/state government’s part in the story during the cleanup of the site. https://www.state.nj.us/health/ceohs/documents/eohap/haz_sites/essex/glen_ridge/glenridge_radium/grmtclwo_sru_6_93.pdf
- This website from the library of congress has two accounts of written and historical data of the US Radium CO factory where the radioactive waste came from. It also includes a bibliography including more information pertinent to this site and story. The website itself also includes photographs of the factory, which, while not helpful to this paper, is still interesting. These articles help me understand the situation ongoing in this area at the time and gives me a little more insight as to what happened in between when the factory shut its doors and when the EPA got involved with cleanup. https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.nj1644.photos?st=gallery
(Source 1) This source is a new york times article written during the time of the cleanup and it details interactions with Glen ridge citizens through interviews of homeowners both new and old. The point of this article is to show that citizens of Glen Ridge were largely unaware of the fact that there was any sort of danger posed to them.
The author achieves this goal from interviews. Firstly, “But in Glen Ridge, you could spend all day walking around the 90-acre site — this utterly typical neighborhood of 1930’s houses on shady streets, of flower gardens and jungle gyms and dogs — and never guess the source of the contamination” provides a juxtaposition of the idyllic suburb with the level of contamination, and also highlights how unapparent the danger is. “And there, in the box, was a letter from the E.P.A. Suddenly they understood why they got such a great price on the house. They tried to see if they could stop the deal, but it was too late. The lawyers were all gone and the seller was driving to Arizona” is a summary of a story told in an interview from a resident which gives insight into how some residents came to be aware of the issue on moving in and further shows how hidden they tried to keep the issue. “We got a notice in the mail from the E.P.A. about a meeting,” said Mr. Bergmanson. ”It said something like, ‘As you know, you are part of a Superfund site radium cleanup . . . .’ And we were like, ‘What the heck is this?” is a quote from an interview with another glen ridge resident and shows further how unaware people were of the danger that they were living on top of.
Galant, Debbie. “Living With A Radium Nightmare.” New York Times, 29 Sept. 1996, p. 13.
This is an article written specifically about Glen Ridge residents’ lack of knowledge, and response to, the radium buried under their properties.
This source talks about how people were originally unaware of the danger, or even presence, of radium in Glen Ridge. It talks about individual reactions (of people I personally know) to discovering the situation. It also introduces the Lorraine Coalition for Radium-Free Glen Ridge, which was a grassroots movement within the community that caused commotion about this danger, and got it established as an EPA Superfund Site. This article is an important insight into the personal side of the issue, and shows a lot about how individual families were burdened with it.
United States, Congress, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Remedial Programs Branch. Site Review and Update. June 2, 1993
This source is a government publication that gives an overview of the government side of the cleanup effort.
This source is important for my paper as it gives me insight to the government’s response in a factual manner. It details the EPA’s involvement in the case, and what actions were taken when, and why. It also talks about the site, the dangers, and the response. This source will help me understand what was going on with the government and EPA during the cleanup.
Willis, Carl. “U.S. Radium, Then and Now.” Special Nuclear Material, 10 Apr. 2017, https://carlwillis.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/u-s-radium-then-and-now/.
This source is a website maintained by a nuclear scientist who discusses the nature of the radiation and the factory in Orange it came from.
On this website, the author discusses the more scientific side of this issue. He talks about how the factories operated, and the dangers in them, as well as how the issue of the radium girls ties in. He also talks about how radioactive material was processed, and where it came from. This is important as it gives me insight into the more scientific side of the issue.