Poison, forensics, and how science protects us

Last month, I read Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook , a really fascinating book about poison and murder in the early decades of the 20th century. Primarily, Blum looks at the development of forensic science and how the New York City coroner's office transitioned from being a place to stash political flunkies to being a scientific and effective player in crime solving. But there's another theme to the book as well—without science, there are many crimes that go not just unpunished, but completely unnoticed.

And this isn't just about women offing their husbands or villains chloroforming unsuspecting strangers. As the coroner's office developed standards of research and became an entity that served justice, the people who worked there became increasingly aware of the ways that the powerful profited off poisoning average workers and consumers. From government agents intentionally lacing alcohol with deadly adulterants during Prohibition, to factory owners knowingly exposing their workers to dangerous chemicals, Blum's book is full of examples of public corruption that was only brought to light because coroners took the time to apply the scientific method to investigating and cataloging deaths.

Some of these stories are ones I'd heard before, but had no idea the role that coroners and forensics had played in exposing the crime and providing evidence that ensured the people harmed received justice. For instance, Blum has a couple of posts on her blog right now about tetraethyl lead—the lead in "leaded" gasoline. This additive fixed an obnoxious mechanical problem in car engines, but at the price of sending factory workers to their deaths in straight jackets.

In October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them died.

In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork. Unimpressed, the state of New Jersey ordered a halt to TEL production. And then the compound was so poorly understood, state health officials asked the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office to find out what had happened.

In 1924, New York had the best forensic toxicology department in the country; in fact, it had one of the few such programs period ... It took Gettler three obsessively focused weeks to figure out how much tetraethyl lead the Standard Oil workers had absorbed before they became ill, or crazy, or dead. “This is one of the most difficult of many difficult investigations of the kind which have been carried on at this laboratory,” Norris said, when releasing the results. “This was the first work of its kind, as far as I know. Dr. Gettler had not only to do the work but to invent a considerable part of the method of doing it.

Working with the first four bodies, then checking his results against the body of the last worker killed, who had died screaming in a straitjacket, Gettler discovered that TEL and its lead byproducts formed a recognizable distribution, concentrated in the lungs, the brain, and the bones. The highest levels were in the lungs suggesting that most of the poison had been inhaled; later tests showed that the types of masks used by Standard Oil did not filter out the lead in TEL vapors.

Ultimately, the reactions to this research didn't go far enough, fast enough—the workers got better safety equipment, but Americans were still being exposed to tetraethyl lead in gasoline though the 1980s. But, without science, there would have been even less protection than there already was. The work of the New York City medical examiners forced government and business to pay attention to something they preferred to ignore.

Image: Old Gas Pump, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from lhkmuse18's photostream


  1. There are always some boneheads on car forums that I frequent that whine about how they miss the “old days” of leaded gas and how their old cars “ran better” than on today’s Obama-fuels.

    Many of these same people either believe that gasoline simply HAD lead in it already or that it was added to make engines work better. And of course it is all the fault of Liberals and Environmentalistas out to take away their freedomz.  

    There were only two real “benefits” to tetraethyl lead:
    It allowed mfgrs to make engines with cheaper valve seats as the lead prevented micro-welding of the valves to the seats under high heat and pressure. Once “unleaded” was introduced, there were some incidents of engines being wrecked because the valves would stick to their seats after they heated up.  This is always trotted out as “proof” that lead was beneficial, but they never look at it from the perspective of the manufacturer that cheaped out and did not use hardened valve seats in the first place.  

    It was also an extremely cheap method of boosting the octane rating the fuel.
    Ethanol does that now. Higher octane = less chance of pre-detonation = “less knock” It has nothing to do with performance, unless your engine is a high compression engine and needs a higher octane fuel.

  2. “Approximately 250,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated. Lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.” http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/   

    Despite the dramatic declines in blood lead levels over the last 20 years, over 250,000 young children alone still have lead levels high enough to cause all sorts of permanent damage, both mental and physical.

  3. I picked it up recently. It’s an awesome book, though I wished she had included a periodic table. (The body sees Radium as a heavier form of Calcium, and incorporates it in bone; arsenic gets substituted for Phosphorus, and so on)

    The schemes used to keep Charles Norris out of the CME’s job (so that the position could be used as a sinecure for donors) were interesting.

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