Where Poison Haunts Man’s Daily Work.
William Hard in Munsey’s
MODERN science, in the service of modern industry, has set itself the task of developing the “natural resources” of the earth. Some of these resources, like coal or stone, are comparatively simple and harmless. Others, like lead and phosphorus and arsenic, are fraught with great danger to the men who handle them; but all are needed by modern industry. Science, therefore, cannot distinguish between them. It must attack them all and bring them all into subjection.
Just as we must have coal for our furnaces and stone for our office-buildings, so we must have lead for the white paint that goes on our houses, phosphorus for the matches with which we start our fires, and arsenic for the tanning and the finishing of felt. And prosaic articles of daily use like matches and white paint and felt hats have behind them a background of picturesque, if not romantic, danger for the men and women who get them ready for the market.
It is not often that the ordinary observer can go behind the scenes of this modern drama and stand in the factory in which an apparently innocent substance like white paint plays the role of a dangerous and successful villain. But it sometimes, happens that the effects of white lead, and of other such substances, present themselves even to the ordinary observer in the course of his daily travels. For instance, as you go home from business the man across the aisle of your car smiles over a joke on the back page of his newspaper. As his mirth broadens you notice that along his gums, looking like some hideous band of metal placed there by the dentist, there runs a distinct line of deep blue. That line is lead. That man works in lead—and lead works in him.
The street-car passes a factory. Out of its heat and roar come four or five dripping men. You notice that th
perspiration on their bare arms shows greenish ; and their hair, sprouting green from its roots, gives each man’s head the appearance of a grotesque vegetable. That factory turns out a certain kind of brass.
The lead man across the aisle drops a button. His neighbor stoops to pick it up. As his fingers gather around the button they suddenly quiver and stop. Their master urges them on. They refuse to obey him. They will not come together. Their master—their former master—grins. When he first saw danger he saw it with terror. Now that he sees, it every day, terror is distilled to ironic humor.-
Turning toward the lead man, the humorist with the rebellious fingers conducts a little physical experiment. He tries to place the tip of his little finger on the tip of his thumb. When he has done his best, an amusing gap of half an inch remains. The lead man displays the blue line on his gums in an appreciative smile. He recognizes that gap. He knows the handiwork of dinitrobenzin. He is familiar with the consequences of helping to make certain explosives.
Copper colic, hatter’s shakers, diver’s paralysis, shoemaker’s chest, miller’s itch, hammerman’s palsy, potter’s rot, shoddy fever—with these names and many others, modern medicine tries to catch up with modern industry, the doctor endeavors to keep pace with the inventor.
The inventor has a happy thought. He will construct tunnels under compressed air. A year or two later the doctor is at his heels with a book about “caisson disease.” Meanwhile, the engineer and the workman, more imaginative than the doctor, have announced that their new disease is “the bends.”
The stranger who ventures under compressed air is likely to experience an automatic convulsion of terror. Hie weight of the atmosphere fills
him with a vague sensation of unnaturalness and of foreboding. Ordinary air had rested upon him with a pressure of about fifteen pounds to the square inch ; and to this he had been accustomed from childhood. But the air used in the construction of a tunnel has been condensed till it has acquired twice or thrice as much weight.
Such air lays a heavy hand upon the stranger. It oppresses him with a weight of from thirty to forty-five pounds on every inch of his body. His head swims. His ear-drums quiver painfully under the assaults of an invisible pneumatic pugilist. He puts his hands over his ears. He feels like crouching beneath his punishment. His guides give him some advice. They tell him to hold his nose with his fingers and then try to expel his breath. He obeys. The air from his lungs and from his mouth runs through his eustachian tubes and plunges against the interior of his eardrums. In this way a pressure within combats the pressure from without.
In a few minutes the stranger becomes more at ease. He may even begin to feel elated. A candle in compressed air burns brighter than a candle in ordinary air. Man’s body, for the same reason, may become capable of abnormally brilliant exertion ; but, like most abnormal brilliance, it brings its reaction.
Just in front of the stranger, where, between wooden lagging and clay sides, a concrete wall is being pounded home, an assistant engineer falls limp into a puddle on the flat bed of the bore. In an instant his limpness is changed to tautness. He draws himself together, convulsed, till his feet meet his head. He has “the bends.”
Sometimes, after proper treatment, he recovers completely. Sometimes his limbs are twisted and paralyzed forever. Sometimes he makes a partial recovery to find that one of his legs has become three inches shorter than the other. Always he suffers, for hours, the pains of an exquisite rheumatism.
The defiant irony of the dinitrobenzin man in the street-car is displayed
with an even greater flaunting of foolhardiness by many men who work in compressed-air tunnels. When Ajax, in the old Greek fable, defied the lightning he established a very human precedent. The compressed-air man takes liberties with three atmospheres.
When the compressed-air man wishes to leave his tunnel he enters the compression-chamber, which stands between the tunnel and the outer air. The door between the compressionchamber and the tunnel is securely closed. A small hole leading to the outer air is slightly opened, and through this the compressed air escapes from the compression-chamber. The more slowly it is allowed to escape, the less danger is there that the compressed-air man will have convulsions.
When the Blackwall tunnel was built, in London, there was a rule devised by a wise management. Five minutes, it was said, must be consumed in letting the compressed air out of the compression-chamber into the outer air. Immediately the workmen in the tunnel invented a game. Who could get out of the compressionchamber quickest? The hole betweeni the chamber and the outer air was; opened to its widest extent, and the condensed air rushed out with a roar that terrorized the neighborhood. Finally some of the workmen managed to> make their exit in thirty seconds. The; first prize for this fear was paralysis ; the consolation prizes were vomitings; and convulsions.
From tunneling under the sea to balloooning over the clouds, the inventor and the doctor still pursue their way together. The French army has a balloonist corps. A few years ago the members of this corps found that their skins were being discolored. The brown of outdoor life was being replaced by the yellowish green of jaundice. The inventor had supplied the balloon; it was left to the doctor to remove its consequences.
The doctor was summoned. He followed the scent of the inventor over all the devices that that ingenious individual had left behind him ; and at last he overhauled his quarry. When
a balloon was being inflated the soldier in charge of it was obliged to apply his nose to a certain little faucet and take a whiff from it. When this whiff yielded the familiar smell of arseniuretted hydrogen the man knew that the inflation of the balloon was complete. But together with his whiff of hydrogen he also inhaled a dyspeptic pain for his stomach and a yellowish-green pigment for his skin.
A mile or two from the aeronautic hero who rises to jaundice at the same moment at which he rises to heroism there may be found in a cheap restaurant, a man who, most unheroically, is using his wrists instead of his fingers as he lifts a cup of coffee to his mouth. A moment or two later he drops his mouth into the hash that the waiter has set before him. He leaves his knife and his fork lying beside his plate on the table. In lifting cups and in eating food this man cannot make use of his fingers. He grasps cups with the insides of his wrists, or, sometimes, even with his elbows. He buries his nose in his food. All his bones, nerves, and muscles below his wrists might as well be on the other side of the world. He has wrist-drop.
Armand Gautier, reporting to the prefect of Paris, showed ¿hat thirty thousand persons in Paris alone were exposed to the fumes or to the dusts of lead. The restaurant patron, bent like a dog over his platter, was one of the thirty thousand.
In certain parts of the United States there is a proverbial comparison, produced by the common sense of the multitude, and not by the insight of any individual. It is: “As crazy as a painter.”
Blue lines along the gums ! Meals eaten with the wrists, or even directly by the mouth ! “As crazy as a painter !” Lead—white lead, red lead, any kind of lead ! Lead from the time when it is taken out of the mine to the time when it is spread, in paint, on the side of a house! It is always a poison. Many men escape its effects ; many men succumb to them. No one can be sure to which class he belongs.
From the wrists and the gums to
the brain the spirit of lead creeps silently, invisibly, irresistibly. An English government inspector stood in the workroom of a white-lead factory. The floor was strewn with tanbank. On the tan-bark stood large earthenware pots. Inside the pots the workmen had poured acetic acid. On top of the pots they had laid long strips of lead. The acetic acid rose in fumes to eat the lead. In time there was no longer any ordinary lead there. It had become “white lead”—carbonate of lead, the kind used in white paint.
When the workmen began to re-» move the carbonate of lead from the earthenware pots one robust young fellow fell to the floor in a faint. When he had been revived, he looked about him blankly. He was blind. A day or two later he was sent to an insane asylum. Lead-poisoning, plumbism, starting with colic, stopping for a moment at wrist-drop, and terminating with insanity, had with him run its full course.
The extent of the empire of lead may be judged from the list of workers mentioned by the United States Bureau of Labor as exposed to lead poisoning. This list, given in a bulletin published in 1903, includes leadminers, lead-smelters, workers in white-lead factories, printers, typesetters, brushmakers, enamel-workers, glass-workers, gold-workers, silverworkers, patent leather-workers, painters, lace-workers, wallpaperworkers, joiners, potters, gilders, leadplaters, weavers and brickmakers.
This does not mean that every worker in each of these trades will necessarily be poisoned. But it does mean that all of them, when employed in certain processes, are exposed to danger of lead-poisoning, and that many of them will succumb to it. Each worker may think that he will escape ; but none can be sure that he is not among those destined to be attacked.
In the same bulletin of the Bureau of Labor in which this list of lead trades is given there is a further list of great significance—a catalogue of “industrial poisons.” It names the most important of the dangerous sub-
stances that are commonly used in modern industry. There are thirtyone in all, and each of the thirty-one is used in from one to twenty different trades and occupations.
Mercury among dyers of artificial flowers, sulphuric acid fumes among the bleachers of wool, nitric-acid fumes among tin-plate workers—on and on the list runs through poison after poison and trade after trade. It is impossible to make any exact estimate of the number of men involved, but it is obvious that no figure could be considered which would fall below many hundreds of thousands for the United States alone.
One of the most interesting of the industrial poisons is bisulphide of carbon, to the effects of which many thousand men and women in America and in Europe are daily exposed. Like lead, this foe of those who handle it aspires from a tyranny over man’s muscles to a tyranny over his brain. Unlike lead, it is agile, alert, sudden. Its fumes rise eagerly to the nostrils, and make their way to the brain with a celerity which sluggish lead cannot emulate.
Rubber must be vulcanized. The world needs vulcanized rubber for a thousand uses. Therefore, bisulphide of carbon when it vulcanizes rubber, is indispensably useful. And, like many great men who are also indispensably useful, it leaves behind it a wake of sorrow and of suffering as well as of admiration.
A man is walking listlessly toward his work. Yesterday, with his lungs full of the fumes of bisulphide of carbon, he left the factory exhilarated ; but by the time he reached home his dinner did not look attractive. He left it untasted and sank down on his bed. In an instant he was asleep. For ten hours he lay motionless. Then he woke with the feeling that of every hour of sleep he had wrapped another heavy bandage around his brain. Without breakfast, he said good-bye to his family.
Now, however, as he approaches the factory, he begins to move more energetically. He enters. He snuffs the fumes of the bisulphide. He draws
himself up. His eye brightens; his pulse quickens. He has taken, in the form of bisulphide, the morning “corpse-reviver” which the vagrant voter, befriended by the political saloon-keeper, takes over the bar in the form of tinted alchohol.
That way madness lies—but more for women than for men. The nervous system of women, more delicately adjusted than that of men, is more constantly in a state of unstable equilibrium. Bisulphide pushes their reason from its base more quickly. Where a man is simply shaken to collapse, a woman may be spurred into insanity. In England the government oficiáis have recorded cases in which women, frenzied by inhalations of bisulphide, have rushed blindly from their work and have thrown themselves out of the windows of factories head first to the street below.
After such a scene a “chrome hole” has little claim to even a walking part in the tragedy of business. It is better fitted to serve as a touch of incidental pathos when the tragedy of business has been removed from the boards and has been replaced by its comedy.
On the nose, on a finger-knuckle, or at the base of a finger-nail, the “chrome hole” appears as a little ulcerous well. It is a slight personal memento left behind by the bichromates of sodium or of potassium as they pass through the factory on their way to give coloring-matter to women’s dresses. The “chrome hole” is not fatal ; but it is a highly efficient souvenir.
Its most lasting claim to recollection is found when it attacks the nose. It has a curious partiality for a certain part of the nose. It makes directly for the septum—the cartilage separating the two nostrils just above the lip. The “chrome hole” makes a neat and exact perforation of the septum. It begins at one side, eats its way through, comes out on the other side, and is gone. The pain is slight. The effect on the health is nothing. The main objection to the whole process is that it happens in the wrong country. Hindu women pay
money to have their septums pierced for the insertion of highly ornamental rings. The occidental chromeworker, not appreciating nose-rings, carries around with him a gratuitous but absolutely useless nasal tunnel.
Chrome has the humor of the practical joker. Chlorin has the grisly grin of Mephistopheles. Lithe, greenish, it leaps in fumes from its furnace, bending over its victims with a pungent, penetrating, overpowering odor that seems like a burst of vaporous anger from the infernal regions. The English workmen, familiar and contemptuous, have given this Mephistopheles the homely name of “Roger.”
When preparing to meet “Roger” the workman ties from ten to twenty thicknesses of flannel over his mouth. He puts goggles over his eyes. He ties paper around his clothes. The only part of him that protrudes from his armor is the tip of his nose. Thus accoutered, he steps into the big iron box in which his friend “Roger,” curling and fuming over a bed of slaked lime, has been engaged in the useful task of making bleaching-powder.
As the workman shovels at the lime it emits constant puffs of “Roger”— of chlorin. Any one who has ever passed through a laboratory may have become acquainted with chlorin to the extent of one whiff. No second introduction is ever needed. When engineers and foremen and workmen have to renew their acquaintance with “Roger” from day to day and from year to year, it is not surprising that the careful governments of several European states have attempted to break off the intimacy between them. A sudden hug by “Roger” is death. A constant puffing of his breath into your lungs is slow decay for the lungtissues.. This is what lies behind almost all of the ordinary bleachingpowder so commonly used in every part of the civilized world.
England seems to realize better than ourselves how many human beings are vitally concerned in the operations of such weird and unfamiliar chemicals as bisulphide of carbon,
bichromate of potassium, and chlorin. Certain English medical men have acquired great reputations because of their technical knowledge of the effects of industrial poisons. Perhaps the best known is Dr. Thomas Oliver. He has served on most of the official commissions that have investigated the subject—on the Dangerous Trades Comission, on the Pottery Commission, on the White Lead Commission, and on the Lucifer Match Commission of the Home Office. The mere appointment of all these commissions shows the extent of the danger in England and the keen recognition of that danger by the British Government.
As a result of his experience, Dr. Oliver has edited a book on “Dangerous Trades.” This book contains nine hundred pages, and it traverses the whole field of industry. It is a convincing exhibit of the innumerable points at which the men and women of the industrial world are attacked by subtle and uncontrollable poisons.
Phosphorus, lead, chlorin, bichromate of potassium, bisulphide of carbon—these things, translated from chemical to human terms, mean daily physical danger for thousands of men and women in Europe and in America. Yet the men who face these subtle enemies are not heroes. The hero rises to' a climax. In the cab of his locomotive he passes from perfect health to sudden death in a sharp moment. His task is high. His sacrifice is glorious. There is no glory, there is no climax of self-devotion, for the_surveyor who is drawing lines and marking angles in a compressed-air tunnel. The only difference between him and the surveyor on the streetcorner above him is that instead of breathing one atmosphere he is breathing three. Anybody can do that. And anybody who does it may to-day, or to-morrow, or next week, or next year, when the daily assaults of three atmospheres have at last reached the citadel of his constitution, fall fainting to the floor without any outburst of great endeavor, with only a final acceptance of gradually exhausted health.
That man is not a hero. He is only an illustration of the effect of nitrogen when forced into the human system under the pressure of three atmospheres. He is only a chemical reaction.
One of the most famous quotations in classical literature is : “Sunt
lacrimœ rerum”—“There are tears in things.” That is the epitaph of the man who encounters poison in his ordinary daily work.