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Given the toxicity of arsenic, it is not surprising that individuals who have had to work with the chemical have often suffered negative effects on their health. The toxic action of arsenic on workers undoubtedly goes back to at least the BronzeAge.As Jerome Nriagu has shown, arsenic minerals tend to occur together with copper minerals in many places, and the primitive furnaces used in the smelting of these minerals would have generated copious fumes of toxic arsenious oxide. Exposure to these fumes would likely have adversely affected the health, and even threatened the lives, of smiths. Nriagu even suggests that the physical deformities typically shown in the depictions of the gods associated with fire and smiths, such as the Greek Hephaestus and the RomanVulcan, may reflect occupational diseases linked to exposure to fumes of arsenic and lead. He concludes that “arsenic poisoning appears to have been among the first occupational diseases to afflict humankind.”1 Arsenic in Mining and Smelting Although little attention was given to occupational medicine in antiquity, the ancients were aware that certain diseases are associated with particular trades. The famous Greek physician Galen (second century AD) mentions some of the hazards faced by miners. He personally visited copper sulfate mines on Cyprus and noted that he was almost overwhelmed by the fumes. Anumber of ancient writers commented on the pallor of miners, which was probably due at least in part to poor ventilation. Measures were taken, some of questionable efficacy, to protect miners. Pliny the Elder (first centuryAD) 83 c h a p t e r t h r e e Hazards on the Job Arsenic in the Workplace 03_KingOfPoisons_Chapter03_REV1 9/20/12 3:00 PM Page 83 84 KING OF POISONS mentions, for example, the use of animal bladder skins as primitive respirators to reduce the inhalation of dust. Mining in Europe declined dramatically during the Middle Ages, and there is no further mention in the literature of occupational diseases associated with it until the sixteenth century, when the mining trade began to expand. The classic description of the mining industry at this time is De Re Metallica (1556), authored by the German Georg Bauer, who was better known by his Latin name, GeorgiusAgricola. He was a physician who studied the mining industry, and his book deals with all aspects of mining, smelting, and refining, including the health hazards to the workers. Of particular interest is his mention of the poisons released by the fires that were set to break the rocks in the mine. The fire produced fumes that led to nervous disturbances and loss of motor power among the workers. Medical historian George Rosen, author of a book on the history of miners’ diseases, suggests that these workers suffered from arsenic poisoning.Arsenic was undoubtedly a common component of minerals in the mines with which Agricola was familiar. The first book devoted specifically to the occupational diseases of miners and smelters was by the unorthodox Swiss physician Paracelsus. Although possibly written as early as the 1530s, it was not published until 1567, eleven years after Agricola’s book. Paracelsus clearly recognized and described arsenic poisoning as one of the occupational hazards of miners and smelters. He drew a distinction between acute and chronic poisoning, emphasizing that ingesting the poison by mouth generally led to rapid sudden death, while inhaling the fumes leads to a slower form of poisoning. Paracelsus discussed the poisonous vapors that were given off when ores are roasted. Rosen has pointed out that Paracelsus gave an excellent description of chronic arsenic poisoning, “with the characteristic symptoms, pallor, thirst, gastro-intestinal disturbances, and skin eruptions.”2 Most historians consider Bernardino Ramazzini’s De Morbis Artificium Diatriba (“Of Diseases of Tradesmen”), published in 1700, to be the first broad treatise on occupational medicine. Ramazzini was an Italian physician who practiced and taught medicine in the city of Modena. In his book, he describes how he first became interested in occupational diseases. 03_KingOfPoisons_Chapter03_REV1 9/20/12 3:00 PM Page 84 HAZARDS ON THE JOB: ARSENIC IN THE WORKPLACE 85 In this city . . . it is usual to have the Houses of Office [privies or outhouses ] cleaned every third year: and while the men employed in this work were cleaning that at my house, I took notice of one of them that worked with a great deal of anxiety and eagerness, and being moved with compassion, asked the poor fellow why he did not work more calmly and avoid overtiring himself with too...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781597978095
Related ISBN
9781597977036
MARC Record
OCLC
817901966
Pages
208
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-05
Language
English
Open Access
No
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