A Study of Chronic Mercurialism in the Hatter’s Fur Industry

Back in the day, mercury was used extensively in medicine. Calomel purgative, for example, a mercury product, was used up until the 1960s!

The ensuing poisoning may well have been missed, but at least doctors who had seen it often enough regarded it as a possibility. A poem from 1846, called “the Calomel Song,” describes doctors using it in every possible scenario and ends with the lines:

“Well if I must resign my breath,

Pray let me die a natural death

And if I must bid all farewell,

Don’t hurry me with calomel.”

I like my Kindle device because books mold here in the tropics and it also allows me to get “the complete works” of various classical authors for free. Reading the biographies of some authors of the last hundred years or so, I think, “Wow, that certainly sounds mercurial!” James Boswell, who wrote the life of Samuel Johnson in 1791 seemed a pretty eccentric kind of guy, and describes taking mercury after catching gonorrhea from street prostitutes. Nikolai Gogol went mad in his later years in a rather distinctive way, as did Guy de Maupassant who had syphilis for which the then treatment was mercury. Louisa May Alcott was chronically ill for most of her life. She claimed her problems stemmed from the mercury she was given when she contracted typhoid fever while working in an army hospital during the Civil War.

People also got exposed in their work places as this U.S. Public Health Service pamphlet of 1937, about which I am writing, describes.

Nowadays, the medical community is under the misconception that nobody gets exposed to mercury anymore. Yet mercury poisoning happens apace, although it is almost impossible to get a diagnosis. David Hammond, in his book, Mercury Poisoning, the Undiagnosed Epidemic, describes a job where he stood around watching molten steel being made into ingots. The ingots were melted down from old automobiles that hadn’t had their mercury switches removed. He spent 30 years going from doctor to doctor and ultimately had to figure out what was wrong on his own.

Dr. Jane Hightower, in her book Diagnosis Mercury, describes how she discovered that the complex cases that were being referred to her were people getting poisoned from eating too much large, expensive fish. Our mercury support groups on Facebook are full of people who were poisoned by their amalgam fillings.

There are still many, many ways to get exposed to mercury. Some of these are so political and controversial that I won’t mention them for fear of getting censored and having my website sabotaged.

“A Study of Chronic Mercurialism in the Hatter’s Fur Industry” is a pamphlet printed by The United states Public Health Service, the precursor to the CDC. The study was done in 1935 by two medical doctors, two engineers and a statistician. Andy Cutler encouraged me to read this pamphlet because it was a very systematic look at chronic mercury toxicity. I thought that it could only be had by going to a university library but the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vermont was able to obtain it through an inter-library loan with the University of Rhode Island. The volume containing the pamphlet is hand-lettered and hand-bound with sturdy brown cardboard. About five other pamphlets on other topics are bound up in the same volume. One of the topics covered was about an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in Seattle in 1910. No, they did not shut down any businesses but a lot of rat control measures were put in to place.

This study on chronic mercurialism concerns the conditions of workers employed in the fur cutting industry and was conducted at the request of the NRA code authority for that industry. (NRA stands for “National Recovery Act” which was enacted under Franklin Roosevelt to help industry recover from The Depression.) At that time, around 2,000 men and women worked in 36 factories preparing the fur of rabbits and hares to be transformed into felt by the felting industry and for the subsequent manufacturing of hats.

In one stage of the process called “carroting” mercury nitrate was applied to the fur and measurable quantities would leave the fur in the form of vapor and dust which continued to contaminate the workplace in succeeding stages of the manufacturing process. A large number of workers were exposed to mercury dust and vapor in this industry.

Before getting to the fundamentals of the study, the author mentions previous studies that had already been done examining the fur cutting industry in an around New York City. They mention five of them having to do with chronic mercury poisoning in these workers. The first one was written in 1860 and subsequent papers in 1891, 1878, 1910 and 1915. The person who conducted the study in 1878 concluded, notoriously, that the cases of ill health he found in the 1,5446 hatters he interviewed was due to their use of alcohol and tobacco.

The symptoms mostly reported in the previous studies were gingivitis, loss of teeth, excessive salivary flow and tremor. Our current author states that physicians who studied and wrote about the problem previously were not entirely in agreement concerning the matter of chronic mercury poisoning as opposed to acute mercury poisoning. They particularly disagreed about the tests of blood and urine. He also states that the characteristic symptoms of chronic mercury poisoning are very different from the “well known” symptoms of acute poisoning. This is interesting because one of the reasons that chronic mercury poisoning is missed nowadays is because it does not show up in the blood or urine. In fact, it is almost impossible to test for outside of biopsy of the brain and other sensitive organs. Andy Cutler, PhD came up with a method to test for “deranged mineral transport” which only mercury causes, but even this is not always diagnostic. Urine and blood notoriously come up negative and mercury will more often than not show up very low as a toxic element on hair tests.

At the time this pamphlet was written, there appeared to be no substitute for the mercury nitrate in this manufacturing process. The author states that it was important to inventory the manufacturing process itself and develop a way, through “industrial hygiene” to protect the workers from mercury exposure.

It was not feasible for the authors to study all 2,000 workers at 36 plants so five plants were chosen that seemed to give a good average of the current working conditions in the industry. This preliminary survey indicated that the major occupational hazards in the industry were exposure to mercury vapor and dust. To measure the vapor, the General Electric selenium sulphide detector was used which the author describes as “rugged, simple of operation and able to detect minute amounts of mercury in the air.” I found the description of how it functioned quite interesting as ingested selenium is known to “passivate” mercury, even if it does not actually chelate it and remove it from the body. The air to be tested entered the preheated (70C) device and came into contact with a paper coated in active selenium sulphide. The paper turned black according to the duration of exposure and the concentration of mercury. The amount of mercury in the air could be determined by comparing the paper to a chart which accompanied the instrument.

To determine the mercury in the dust, samples were collected using “the impinge apparatus” of which there is a photograph. These samples were sent to a lab in Washington where they were analyzed according to a process I will not attempt to describe.

A device called a “konimeter” which is in fact still manufactured and used today, was used to determine how much dust the workers were exposed to.

There were three basic steps used by all the manufactures in the preparation of fur for hats. These were: the preparation of the pelts, the “carroting” and drying of the fur and the cutting of the fur off of the skins.

The author goes on to describe the types of fur used in this business. The pelts of rabbits and hares arrived in bales of approximately 200 pieces from GB, France, Australia, Belgium and Russia. Sometimes the pelts would have to be treated with “hydrocyanic gas’ to kill worms. He points out that arsenic had formerly been used for this process but no longer “appears” to be used.

The pelts from the bales were very brittle so they were first put through a process involving revolving drums of dampened sawdust and sand and the cleaned and dried using rotating cylindrical screens.

After the pelts had been “conditioned” they were sent to the “openers” who were usually girls who would slit and trim the hides. After that they went to the “clippers” who would run them through a machine which cut off the long hairs that were not useful for felting. There was an exhaust device attached to the clipping machine to clear these waste hairs.

Felt could be made from animal fur by simply wetting it and applying pressure but better qualities of felt were produced by chemically treating the fur. The best chemical used for this purpose turned out to be mercury nitrate and this compound had been used dating back to the Seventeenth Century.

The application of mercury nitrate was referred to as “carroting,” because of the carrot yellow color of the pelts that were treated with the mercury when they were dried in ovens at approximately 200F. The carroting step in the fur cutting process required a skilled person. He had to have an expert knowledge about the qualities of the various skins and just how dilute the mercury solution needed to be for each application. The process started out with a concentrated “carrot” solution of 100 pounds of nitric acid to 25 to 30 pounds of mercury! The mercury was said, by the people in the business, to render the tips of the fur more flexible so it meshed together better to make better, firmer felt.

There was a hand method of applying the carrot. The “carroter,” wearing long rubber gloves, would dip a brush into the solution and skillfully apply it to the tips of the fur. The mechanical method involved a machine with a revolving brush. This method was faster but required great skill in order not to get too much carrot on the fur. This method also formed a mist that was irritating to the eyes and presumably caused considerable exposure. Although some factories had better conditions for this work, the author describes the typical working room as small and dark and full of mercury nitrate mist which had a slightly pungent odor and attacked all exposed metal fixtures. The room was damp and wet because of the piles of wet furs and the dripping from the finished pelts being carried to the drying rooms.

In the drying rooms, the pelts were typically spread on screens and slid into drying ovens. The color of the dried skins depended at which temperature they were dried. There were exhaust fans on these ovens, but the author describes, “considerable smoke” from the fat on the pelts burning off.

Some of the factories had labs to check how the pelts had been carroted, but most of them did not and frequently the foreman in the drying stage of this process tested the fur by tasting it. He might do that several times a day, which the author states, “undoubtedly leads to the ingestion of considerable amounts of mercury.”

After the pelts were dried, they were wetted again with a fine water spray and stacked by the “dryers” with weights on top. The author states that the exposure to mercury usually started at this stage of the operation, although I am surprised it didn’t start earlier. There was a slow chemical reaction which he states was not well understood, but that it is well known that more mercury vapor was given off as the carroted fur aged.

After the carroted pelts were dried, the piled skins were sent to the “brushers” who fed the pelts across a stiff revolving brush. The brushed pelts were then sent to the “cutters” who ran the machines that sheared off the fur and cut up the skins. The sheared fur then went on to a conveyor belt where solid pieces were picked out. Huge amounts of dust were generated in these final steps. The final step was the dirtiest as the clipped fur was passed through a series of blowers to remove non-fur objects. After that the fur was packed in five-pound paper bags and stored in a cool basement room prior to shipping.

It is interesting that that the largest exposure to mercury vapor happened in the stages after the carroting. The shippers who worked in the storage rooms with the thousands of pounds of treated fur were the ones who got the highest exposure from the pelts slowly releasing mercury vapor. I would have thought that those skilled laborers, the carroters, would be the most afflicted, but the scientists measured 7.2 mg of mercury per 10 m cubed of air in the storage rooms whereas the carroters were exposed to only 0.8 mg per 10 cubic meters.

There is never any question of shutting down the whole damn industry to protect the workers, or finding some other chemical to use to treat the fur. Instead the whole emphasis is on mitigating the exposures through “industrial hygiene” measures which in this case would be to segregate and improve ventilation in the rooms where the most mercury vapor was happening.

The medical part of the study was undertaken to “supply answers to the following general questions among others,” These were: were these men and women workers different in any way from people working in other industries; what types of physical defects and diseases were affecting them and how many of them; are people’s health in this industry worse than in other industries; If their health was worse did mercury exposure have anything to do with that; how many cases of chronic mercurialism were found and what was their relation to mercury exposure and to “other conditions in the working environment?” (Although if the chronic mercurialism is caused by mercury exposure, I am not sure what “other conditions” could contribute.)

Paul A. Neal, and Roy R. Jones. P.A Surgeons start off the medical section of the study. They calculated the average age of 231 women and 298 men, which was 39 for the men and 34 for the women. A large proportion of the subjects came from Italy, mostly Sicily, and from Syria. There was a high illiteracy rate among these workers. The doctors asked their subjects to write their names in order to check for tremors in the hands, but 22% of them were unable to do that. The workers had been employed from between half a year and 30 years in the fur cutting trade.

At this point I was reminded of what Andy wrote in AmalgamIllness about the mercury mines in Alamden in Spain and Idrija in Slovenia in the Nineteenth Century. Free laborers in these mines were much healthier than the unfortunate prison workers. If the free laborers were sensitive to mercury, they could up and leave, whereas the prison laborers were obliged to stay on no matter what. He postulated that people who are sensitive to mercury choose not to work in chlor-alkali plants, fluorescent light factories or mercury mines and consequently, all the studies done on people exposed to mercury omit this crucial population. “People who are sensitive to the toxic effects of mercury didn’t participate in the research studies all our government policies and medical textbooks are based on.” (Amalgam Illness, p.21) This study about chronic mercurialism in the fur cutting industry is presumably no exception. In fact, towards the end of the article the authors express surprise that the percentage of people with chronic mercurialism does not seem to increase with length of exposure. They caution that, “it must be remembered that this condition may become disabling and if a person were obliged to quit his job because of disability resulting from mercurialism he could not be included in a survey of this kind.”

The authors divided their subjects into two groups, those with and those without fine intention tremor. They considered the group with the tremor to have chronic mercurialism although they point out that the second group cannot be considered a true control group because they were also exposed to high levels of mercury and there were probably many sub-clinical cases of mercurialism among them.

The doctors record that they prolonged the preliminary questioning about occupational history and past and present medical complaints as long as possible because mercury exposure “often tends to produce a characteristic type of nervousness and irritability” and they wanted to observe this in the workers and also not upset them too much. This condition later was given the title “erethism mercurialis” although this definition is not mentioned in the pamphlet. The medical definition of “erethism” is “abnormal irritability or responsiveness to stimulation,” which brings to mind some of the symptoms of hypoadrenalism which we encounter so much in the Andy Cutler community.

The doctors took systematic histories of the people they were observing. They recorded their work history and along with more general health questions checked them for past symptoms that were considered common in mercury toxic people, among which: stomatitis, nervous and mental disorders and digestive disturbances. When they got to the topic of current symptoms there was a more marked difference between the two categories of workers. The group diagnosed with mercurialism complained of psychic disturbances, digestive disturbances, insomnia, loss of appetite, tremor, excessive use of alcohol, loss of weight, sore mouth and weakness in much higher numbers than those in the control group.

I found the definition of “psychic disturbances” interesting as it is an aspect of this toxicity that is so compelling and which we see so much of in the Andy Cutler community. 79% of the people studied who fell in to the mercury toxic group because they had fine intention tremor had these psychic disturbances. Moreover, the more intense the tremor, the worse these psychic problems. The researchers state, “A diagnosis of psychic irritability was made when an individual had several of the following characteristics in abnormally exaggerated degree: irascible temper, discouragement without cause, feeling of depression or despondence, excessive embarrassment in the presence of strangers, timidity, a desire for solitude, anxiety, excitability, inability to take orders, or a strong feeling of self-consciousness.”

He goes on to write that “these phenomena have been noted by almost every writer on chronic mercurialism in modern times,” and that certain physicians have gone so far as to regard psychic disturbances as the earliest and most characteristic symptoms of chronic mercurialism”

He also describes a “distinctive type of speech defect” which was found frequently among the people with the tremor. This was “a moderate slurring of words, hesitancy in beginning sentences and a kind of difficulty with pronunciation.” There was also an exaggerated knee jerk or patellar reflex. And a condition called “dermatographia” which Google tells me is if you lightly scratch your skin it leaves raised red marks. There was also excessive perspiration and “abnormal readiness to blush.”

Those are the symptoms that I find interesting. The doctors tested for other physical things including pallor, vision problems, ear problems, nose problems, problems of the mouth and throat, enlarged glands, problems of the lungs. These were found to be mostly worse in the toxic people, but the categories of nervous system problems were the most severe. They had obviously been selected for tremor, but in the categories of “psychic irritability, speech defect, exaggerated knee jerk, dermatographia, positive Romberg test (used to test for ataxia), abnormal blushing and excessive perspiration they were far worse off than the group without the tremors.

As an interesting aside, the authors note that the incidence of syphilis in this group of fur cutters, “appears to be rather low,” and they mention the “centuries old practice” of treating syphilis with mercury and wonder if the inhalation of mercury vapor could have had some therapeutic effect.

Nowadays, doctors never ever diagnose anybody with chronic mercury. Few medical textbooks would lead doctors to test for mercury based on symptoms. And even if they did test, what test would they chose to order? A hundred years ago, doctors and scientists thought a lot about mercury but it is worthy of note that spellcheck does not even recognize the word “mercurialism” now. My draft here on Microsoft Word is starting to look like a case of dermatographia from just writing it so often.

In Amalgam Illness, Andy tells the story of a manager of the corrosion section in the steel research department at a Swedish company who removed his amalgams and checked them for the type and extent of corrosion. He found that they had corroded rapidly via “crevice corrosion” and he was able to determine that the mercury that had corroded out of his fillings was in excess of a lethal dose. He was unable to find anything about this topic in any of the dental literature or any dentist, for that matter, who knew anything about corrosion of metallic materials, or with the basic principles of metallurgy.

Andy thought that some unknown number of people are sensitive to mercury and get chronic mercury poisoning from their amalgams and other exposures. Just like some of the fur cutting workers were susceptible and acquired chronic mercury poisoning form their work. “These poor people are all misdiagnosed because of inappropriate medical textbook guidelines and a poor understanding of the possible sources of mercury exposure among physicians. Dogmatic systems are able to maintain uniform beliefs contrary to current scientific understanding for prolonged periods of time. The ‘mainstream’ medical position regarding amalgam illness appears to be dogmatic rather than scientific.” (Amalgam Illness, p.16)

A hundred years ago, the medical community knew about chronic mercury poisoning but had nothing to offer to cure it. Now we have frequent-low dose-oral chelation which works well, but people present to their doctors with classic symptoms of mercury poisoning and never get a diagnosis.

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