Thursday, January 05, 2017

A chemical problem I hadn't heard of...

Quite a fascinating article appeared at the Atlantic recently, explaining the dire health effects of carbon disulphide, an important chemical in some industrial processes, but which I had never heard of.

As usual, the poor workers of 19th century factories which first started using it (in rubber manufacture) were the ones worst hit.  In 1887, for example:
Peterson had heard of carbon-disulfide insanity in Europe, so he alerted his colleagues in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (now known as The New England Journal of Medicine) that the problem had come to America. In England, the new term “gassed” had arisen, defined in the Liverpool Daily Post as “the term used in the India rubber business, and it meant dazed.” The British physician Thomas Oliver had recalled watching as people working in rubber factories left after their shifts and “simply staggered home,” apart from themselves. The effect could be deadly. “Some of them have become the victims of acute insanity,” Oliver wrote, “and in their frenzy have precipitated themselves from the top rooms of the factory to the ground.”
Obviously, occupational health and safety wasn't a thing that travelled fast in the 19th century, since the  dangers of the chemical had been known about in Europe for over 20 years:
Evidence piled on in 1856, when a professor of medicine at the University of Paris named Auguste Delpech reported several cases of carbon disulfide poisoning to the French Academy of Medicine. The symptoms ranged from disturbing dreams to compromised memory to mania. The cases were so fascinating that he turned the focus of his career to carbon disulfide. In a medical newspaper, he told of a 27-year-old who, after just three months of working with carbon disulfide in the rubber industry, appeared prematurely aged and whose “sexual desire and erections were abolished.”

By 1863, Delpech had accrued enough case studies to write a 100-plus-page paper on the dangers of carbon disulfide, particularly among workers in balloon and condom factories. He observed two distinct phases of intoxication: a period of mental disturbance followed by disruptions of the distal nerves, causing weakness and numbness in the extremities. Hypersexuality gave way to impotence, bypassing the middle ground. Chronicling these effects put Delpech at the front of the emerging discipline of the science of the mind.

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