Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/September 1882/The Poisons of the Manufactory

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THE cases of contamination of the air by means of insalubrious industrial operations may be divided into two groups: 1. Emanations (dusts or vapors) that act as poisons, and which, carried by the blood to all parts of the body, produce general and various disorders. 2. Dusts, of a simply irritating character, which act locally on the lungs, and produce in them disorders the intensity of which generally depends on the hardness of the particles.

We will begin with the poisonous dusts, taking first one of the most murderous classes—those of lead. Accidents due to lead are liable to occur among many classes of operatives who work with this substance either in a metallic state or in combination. Painters, miners, plumbers, type-founders, compositors, and glass-makers are peculiarly exposed to them.

The most obvious precaution to be taken against the admission of poisonous dusts with respired air is to arrest their passage by means of a protective veil or mask. An insurmountable obstacle has prevented the use of such a precaution. The workmen will not wear the screens, although effective and convenient ones enough have been made. Workers in white-lead ought also to wear special clothing for their work; but all that it has been possible to get them to do is to cover their ordinary clothing with overalls. This does not give sufficient security against the transportation of lead-dust by the clothes. Other important measures are those which have regard to cleanliness; here, again, we are opposed by an obstinate resistance. In a shop at Washington, near Newcastle, England, where the oxychloride of lead is prepared, the workmen quit because of an effort to introduce baths among them. They would not be shut up in a bath-room, although they would bathe very readily in the open air or in swimming-ponds.

A very essential precaution that workmen should always take is never to deposit or eat their food in the shop, or allow it to be in any way exposed to mixture with poisonous dusts.

Attention has been directed toward finding an antidote to lead-poisoning. M. Meisens, in 1843, recommended iodide of potassium, and it has been used with excellent effect; it cured declared diseases, as, for instance, paralysis; and permitted the continuance of work in lead without danger from colic. The Academy of Sciences awarded a prize for the discovery. Milk was recommended as a preventive of lead-poisoning by M. Didier-Jean, director of the glass-factory at St. Louis, near Sarreguemines, in 1867; but the workmen were not disposed to use it, and found a way to bring alcoholic liquors to the shop instead of milk.

General hygienic measures against this source of danger include the suppression of lead-dusts, that is the production of as little as possible of them, and the removal of them as soon as they are produced. Moistening, grinding, and mixing under water, closed apparatus for pulverizing, natural and artificial ventilation, substitution of machines for the hand, and mechanical packing—such are the improvements adopted by the factories at Brussels and Lille, with great advantage to the health of the workmen. Of two white-lead factories in Paris a few years ago, one was very unhealthy, furnishing from two hundred and fifty to two hundred and eighty patients a year to the hospitals; while the other, with the same number of men employed, was only slightly unhealthy, and furnished only two or three patients a year, or a hundred times less. The difference depended on one condition only. The former factory made white-lead in powder or in cakes; the other prepared and sold it exclusively ground in oil. In the former process much dust, in the latter none, was disengaged.

Another step in progress may be gained, perhaps, by substituting inoffensive substances for the compounds of lead employed in industry. White-lead has already a rival in zinc-white, but it is objected to that substance that it has an inferior coloring power. To meet this objection, Mr. Griffith, of England, has prepared a white coloring substance based on sulphuret of zinc, which combines the coloring power of white-lead with the inoffensive qualities of the salts of zinc.

A pharmacist of Brest, M. Constantin, has received a prize from the French Academy of Sciences for the discovery of substitutes for the use of oxide of lead in the glazing of pottery: glazes based on lime for the uncolored, on oxide of manganese for colored, glazings.

A number of inoffensive colors deserve mention as substitutes for poisonous colors. Such substances as eosine, fluorescine, and other products derived from aniline, have been fortunately introduced in later years for painting children's toys.

Nothing need be said of copper. It is as inoffensive as lead is dangerous; and it appears, according to the researches of Dr. Burq, to confer upon workmen who handle it an almost absolute immunity against cholera.

Mercury is as dangerous as lead. It provokes salivation, destruction and loss of the teeth, tremblings, paralysis, and death. The workmen exposed to injury from it are miners employed in its extraction, gilders, looking-glass makers, and hatters. The personal hygiene is the same as for lead; but in securing its application we are still opposed by the carelessness and foolhardiness of the workmen.

The principal means relied upon for preservation against accidents from mercury are the employment of ammoniacal sprays in the shops, and of iodide of potassium, as for lead. Both remedies were recommended by M. Meisens after a long series of experiments, and have been used with excellent effect. The division of the labor in its most insalubrious phases and an energetic ventilation are excellent measures. Operations in mercury have been, moreover, much alleviated by the introduction of new processes. Gilding with mercury has been replaced by galvanoplasty; silvering of glass with mercury by a plating process which is performed at half the cost, and is without danger to health. Mercury is used by hatters in a secret process for impregnating the fur of the hare and rabbit, to make it felt, with a mixture of mercury, nitric acid, and water. Efforts have been made to find a substitute for quicksilver, and Dr. Hillairet proposed in 1872 to use molasses, but the experiment was not satisfactory.

Phosphorus is but little used among us except in the manufacture of matches. The troubles which it occasions are cough, headaches, and disorders of the stomach. In the gravest cases, the inhaling of the vapors causes a more or less complete destruction of the bones of the jaws, in which they produce necrosis, especially in persons with decayed teeth. Such disorders have, however, become more rare. Besides finding a way to neutralize phosphoric vapors by essence of turpentine placed in a bottle, to be hung from the workman's neck, the vapors themselves have been suppressed by the adoption of processes in which all the dangerous parts of the operations are performed by machinery.

The General Match Company of France, which enjoys the monopoly of the manufacture in that country, has gradually introduced machinery, within the last ten years, by which the mixture of the phosphorus paste, the dipping of the matches, and the packing, are all done without exposing any one to the inhalation of the vapors.

Sulphide of carbon, which possesses the property of softening and inflating India-rubber, is much used in the manufacture of India rubber foot-balls and balloons of various kinds. It occasions pains in the head and limbs; loss of appetite; paralysis of the sight, the hearing, and the limbs; cachexy, and death. It should not be handled except in closed vessels. M. Deschamps, of Belleville, invented a glass box, having two openings, for the passage of the hands and arms, to which were attached India-rubber sleeves, to be fastened at the wrist, and enable the hand to work within the apparatus without giving any outlet for the vapors; but the workmen laughed at the apparatus, called it a magic-lantern, and would not use it. There remains, then, no other resource than an active ventilation to carry off the poisonous vapors; and for that reason work in sulphide of carbon should be carried on only in large establishments, well ventilated, and should be excluded from small rooms.

Passing by the manufacture of chemicals, which is a special industry, involving many peculiar causes of insalubrity, and which deserves a full treatment by itself, we come to dusts that are simply irritating. They may be divided into two groups: those which are not soluble in the liquids of the body, and consequently accumulate in the lungs, and obstruct them; and those which, being soluble, have only a transient effect, and do not produce irremediable disorders. The first group includes the coal and the siliceous dusts; the second group all the others.

The accumulation of coal-dusts in the pulmonary vesicles produces, in coal-miners, workers in charcoal, and copper-founders, a malady designated by the name of anthracosis, which frequently ends in death. The lungs of victims of this disorder resemble a piece of sliced coal. In the personal hygiene against these elements, we mention the use of wadded masks, which has been followed by excellent effects in the mines of Belgium, where it has been possible to get them adopted. In general hygiene, Dr. Manouvriez (of Valenciennes), some time ago recommended the projection of water, in the form of rain, to bring the dust to the ground. Fecula and talc have been used as inoffensive substitutes, in iron-founding, for charcoal, as the dusting between the mold and the melted metal.

Siliceous dusts are apt to arise especially in the making and re-dressing and re-cutting of millstones. They accumulate in the bronchiæ, which they scratch, and produce one of the most painful of coughs, with decline and loss of strength. Sometimes an eliminatory inflammation supervenes, with expectoration of masses of siliceous dust, particles of steel, and bits of bronchial membrane, and gives a temporary relief. But the disorders return, and the workmen have to leave the shops, to continue in a condition of marasmus an existence which is terminated by a premature death. The victims of this disease, called the St. Roch disease, are hardly ever able to endure more than eight or ten years in their occupation.

The dusts, moreover, which accumulate in the throat produce an incessant thirst, and lead the workmen to habits of intoxication. M. Mercier, of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, a manufacturer of small mills, who himself works at the stones, has contrived a very thin and inexpensive silken veil, to which he has attached spectacles, for the protection of the eyes. He has used it with great success since 1870, but has not been able to induce more than twenty or twenty-five of his workmen to adopt it. The others laugh at it, and die of the dust against which they will not protect themselves.

Among the siliceous dusts should be included those arising in the manufacture of porcelain. At Charenton, St. Maurice, Montreuil near Paris, and Sarreguemines, the workers in porcelain die very frequently of pulmonary phthisis, hardly reaching more than the average age of forty-four years and a half, and rarely passing fifty years. The protecting veil ought to be used here also.

The dusts of gypsum, on the other hand, appear to be inoffensive, and even hygienic, according to Dr. Burq, who is almost tempted to attribute to them a salutary action in pulmonary phthisis. At any rate, the workmen recognize them as pleasant. They have only the single inconvenience, common to all dusts, of provoking thirst; and that thirst is not always quenched with pure water.