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Last surviving Radium Girl celebrates 100th birthday

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 cavities.

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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