Everything Is Bad for You

Everything Is Bad for You

by David N. Rogers, Production Dramaturg

It's easy to think of the New Jersey dialpainters who became known as the Radium Girls as being the victims of a lack of scientific progress. If only they had known, we might say to ourselves. Thank goodness we understand these things so much better now. But it’s important to note that — as D.W. Gregory’s play portrays — the cause of the dialpainters’ suffering is more complex than the absence of a certain scientific breakthrough. Some scientists had warned about the dangers of radium before the first dialpainter was ever hired. But that message wasn’t heard or accepted even by most scientists. Radium was already being sold as a health tonic, celebrated as a cure-all and, yes, used to make glow-in-the-dark watches. Radium was already part of people’s hopes; worse, it was already tied to people’s fortunes.

In other words, it wasn’t just a lack of information that made Grace Fryer, Kathryn Schaub and the others sick; it was the greed of those who stood to profit from radium — not just Arthur Roeder and the executives of US Radium, but also the government officials and scientists whose accomplishments and reputations were tied to radium, or to corporations that used it. And it was also the willful blindness of an America that desperately wanted to believe in a miracle cure.

And while we’ve learned some facts about radiation since the 1920s, greed and self-deception are still very much with us. Health fads still explode into the popular consciousness with the most tenuous scientific support (radium was the "one weird trick" of its day, after all), and we cling to them even when they’re disproven or thrown into doubt by further study. Experts employed to study a problem by private industry still tend to return results that are beneficial to their employers. And over and over again, corporations show they’re still willing to be reckless with the welfare of ordinary people, in any number of ways.

Yes, we know enough not to drink or eat radium, now — but who knows what mistakes we’re making today, in corporate board rooms or in laboratories or in what we choose to buy at the grocery store, that will seem horrifying with the benefit of hindsight?

If you want an emblem of how relevant the story of the New Jersey dialpainters still is, look no farther than the American obsession with the quality of our food. Is it organic? Is it genetically modified? How many calories? You’ll live longer if you stay away from fat; no, from carbohydrates; no, from gluten; no, from sugar. These questions and uncertainties and dogmas arise from a conviction that something must be wrong with many of the things we put in our bodies, and a scramble to find a safe way to eat and live amidst conflicting claims and information.

I tell the same joke every time someone tells me that a study shows some new food or activity is bad for you. You’ve probably heard it before: “That’s ok. Everything is bad for you.” Because the truth is, as a society, we still don’t really know what’s bad for us. Ultimately, we’re all just making choices and hoping — just like the dialpainters did.

Most of us will never be poisoned quite like the dialpainters were, but we all live in a world where health is at the center of a confusing amalgamation of knowledge, money, and politics. We can only hope to navigate it all with as much courage as the New Jersey dialpainters as portrayed in Radium Girls, holding to the truth and defending ourselves and our loved ones against powerful forces amid great uncertainty. And though we can’t predict perfectly what will turn out to be bad for us, we can recognize the poisonous actions and attitudes of the people who, intentionally or not, bedeviled the ailing dialpainters: complacency, prejudice, arrogance, and callousness. And those toxins, at least, we can strive never to imbibe.