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Mind Chum number 13 Early Industries fatal hazards
Posted to Open Discussion Forum on 5/7/2017 28 Replies

Well hello and good day to all. This chum as some do , came to me as a FB posting.When my curiosity gets roused,well you all know what happens...

This Chum came from a review of sorts,A book written by a Kate Moore titled Radium Girls. The subject matter is workers that were employed at a company called U.S Radium.The job? Painting clock dials with glow in the dark radium infused paint.Problem? Yes indeed,as you glow in the dark as well. It goes into some quite horrific details as to what maladies being exposed long term to Radium will do to ones body. And it is not a very pretty picture.

Discovered by madam Curie and her husband Pierre in the year 1898,it was not long afterwards that its dangerous nature was revealed. Her husband refused to stay in the same room with exposed Radium. The girls that were made to work in very unsafe conditions with this substance, over a period of time started to develop some very serious health issues. And the company tried to cover it up. The first girl that took deathly Ill,the company tried to blame the medical issues on untreated syphilis. The co workers were not having any of this. And examining physicians were in agreement with the workers,something else was wrong. And as more and more workers took sick ,it was agreed that something had to be done. As office personnel were not getting sick,an investigation took place.

Nicknamed the "Ghost girls" They literally glowed in the dark from overexposure and ingestion of Radium. The exposures left most with debilitating health issues that were almost always fatal. Taught to paint clock dials with this paint ,girls that were slight of stature were oft selected for the job.This was due to the fact that delicate hands were required for the fine detail work of painting the clock faces and hands.Told to wet the brushes with their mouths, to get a fine point on the end of the brush,this was the primary cause for Radium poisoning.This all happened in the year 1914. As more and more girls died from the exposure an investigation revealed very lax procedures were in place.

Partly due to the fact that the majority of affected workers were female,rules for men vs. women were different. The dangers of Radium were known to a select few, but no warnings or safeguards were put in place. Men working with this compound were told to wear lead aprons to eliminate some of the exposure. The majority of issues came with the Radium being absorbed directly into the bones,specifically the teeth and jaws. Osteoporosis became common place,tumors. and teeth falling out along with the jawbone degrading it was a painful and very slow death.Many could no longer eat so starvation was one way of suffering. An investigation and denial of any wrong doing led to a judge finding a settlement for the workers of US Radium.

As radium has a half life of 1600 years the bones of those buried workers will still be glowing for a very long time to come.

Being a curios sort of fellow ,it led me to do a bit of poking around for other early known job hazards.Which as most of us know there were no shortage of in the early part of the century.One of the story's was on Match makers and match girls The disease was known as "Phossy jaw" The process for making matches at that time used white phosphorus in the chemical make up .This created a malady similar to what the radium girls suffered from in the fact that the phosphorus is absorbed by skin contact and degrades bones ,tooth loss, tumors, multiple organ failure were the symptoms .Meals were taken at work stations and breaks were kept to a minimum. Wages were very low,abuses were very high.The girls were fined for the smallest infraction of the rules.

Only by going on a work stoppage and walking out of the factories was a solution found. By changing match compounds from white phosphorus to red phosphorus did the conditions improve.By demanding a dedicated place to eat and to wash hands ,did the health issues get solved.

This led me to some of the chemicals that were commonly used at the time.Mercury was used in the hat making process,as well as used for gold mining . The hazards were not fully understood ,but the term "Mad as a hatter" is how this came to be .Long term exposure to mercury caused an individual to behave as if they were drunk. Muscle control was difficult ,tremors and dizziness were often an after effect of the fumes from the mercury ,this was what led many to think that hatters were drunkards.But nothing was further from the truth.

The textile industry had it's own work place hazards as well.Testicular cancer was found to be the cause of mineral lubricants used on what were known as spinning mules.With many multiple spindles ,these machines were used to put the twist on the yarns and threads used at that time. It was of note to me that as i read up on this the cases of cancer from woolen mill workers to cotton mill workers was very unbalanced.Both industries used spinning mules ,but the dimensions on the wool industries machines to the cotton industries machines was a difference of the spindle shafts height. When the switch from animal based lubricants such as whale oil to petroleum oils is when the cotton workers started seeing an increase in cancers.

It was found that the wool machines turned at a slower speed,therefore did not require as much lubrication two to three times a week verses every day for the cotton machines. The spindle shafts it was found were a few inches lower than the cotton machines.This meant that the oil was not flung on the operators clothing in the same spot as the cotton machines. The shale oil that the oil was refined from was found to be a carcinogen.

Similar story was found for English chimney sweeps also suffering from testicular cancers and tumors. The chimney soot was found to contain coal tars ,poor hygiene was also to blame,In addition to breathing maladies. German sweeps from this same time did not suffer from these cancers as the methods for clothing were totally different. Tight fitting suits did not allow the chimney soot to penetrate to bare skin. The German sweeps also did not employ small boys to go up into the chimney for cleaning in tight quarters. Many boys were killed and seriously burned in the course of the work day.

All of the chemicals used ,lead,benzene ,PCB's Toluene's,cadmium ,hexavalent chromium.These are just among the very few that lie buried deep in river sediments with places that had heavy industry. I stop to think of all of the chemicals we are exposed to in the normal course of our days work.It makes me shudder just to think about it. So that is it for this installment of chum think about what we are in constant contact with and be safe.till next time Bruce.

Bruce Caron
Educator/Instructor/Technician
Robison Service Company
Springfield, Massachusetts, USA

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