The Fascinating American History of Toxicology

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As the Chief Medical Examiner, Norris saw the victims of denatured alcohol first hand. He published records of the deaths by poisoning, in an attempt to persuade the government to end prohibition. But it was futile. They reacted by doubling the poison that was added to the denatured alcohol and included benzine for good measure. Their motivation was to scare people off once and for all – but of course people continued to drink it and die.

Many people produced their own alcohol, which also came with serious risks. Sawdust and wooden furniture was distilled, a process that creates a poison called Methanol. This is a highly toxic alcohol, which can cause blindness by destroying the optic nerve. After a few days of consumption, Methanol is lethal to most people.

Lead – Norris vs The Gasoline IndustryUnknown-5

In the 1920s, General Motors discovered that mixing Tetraethyl Lead into gasoline made their fuel far more efficient. The engines ran more smoothly, removing ‘knocks’ and increasing speed. It was advertised that ‘Ethyl’ made gasoline behave. It seemed ready to take over the gasoline industry, until employees working with the additive began to manifest signs of mental disturbance, giving the factory the nickname of ‘the loony gas building’. Employees began to be sectioned in asylums and dying, in what GM tried to claim was simply a coincidence. They even stated that the individuals were going mad due to working too hard.

Norris and Gettler were able to prove, using their forensic methods, that the bodies of the workers were riddled with lead. Despite the scientific proof, the oil industry is a strong player, and it was many years before lead petrol was finally banned.

Radium – Norris Fights For The Rights of Employees

Radium was thought of as a wonder-element in the early 1900s. It had been proven to shrink tumours in cancer patients and therefore embraced as a healthy, revitalising agent. It was sold as health-injections, and added to moisturisers and makeup. As bizarre as this may sound to us now, it could be a stark premonition of botox – a known poison that people choose to inject into their faces on a regular basis for the purpose of beauty too.Unknown-6

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