LEAD POISONING, or PLUMBISM, a " disease of occupations," which is itself the cause of organic disease, particularly of the nervous and urinary systems. The workpeople affected are principally those engaged in potteries where lead-glaze is used; but other industries in which health is similarly affected are filemaking, house-painting and glazing, glass-making, copperworking, coach-making, plumbing and gasfitting, printing, cutlery, and generally those occupations in which lead is concerned.
The symptoms of chronic lead poisoning vary within very wide limits, from colic and constipation up to total blindness, paralysis, convulsions and death. They are thus described by Dr J. T. Arlidge (Diseases of Occupations):
The poison finds its way gradually into the whole mass of the circulating blood, and exerts its effects mainly on the nervous system, paralysing nerve-force and with it muscular power. Its victims become of a sallow-waxy hue; the functions of the stomach and bowels are deranged, appetite fails and painful colic with constipation supervenes. The loss of power is generally shown first in the fingers, hands and wrists, and the condition known as " wrist-drop " soon follows, rendering the victim useless for work. The palsy will extend to the shoulders, and after no long time to the legs also. Other organs frequently involved are the kidneys, the tissue of which becomes permanently damaged; whilst the sight is weakened or even lost.
Dr M'Aldowie, senior physician to the North Staffordshire Infirmary, has stated that " in the pottery trade lead is very slow in producing serious effects compared with certain other industries." In his experience the average period of working in lead before serious lesions manifest themselves is 18 years for females and 225 years for males. But some individuals fall victims to the worst forms of plumbism after a few months' or even weeks' exposure to the danger. Young persons are more readily affected than those of mature age, and women more than men. In addition, there seems to be an element of personal susceptibility, the nature of which is not understood. Some persons " work in the lead " for twenty, forty or fifty years without the slightest ill effects; others have attacks whenever they are brought into contact with it. Possibly the difference is due to the general state of health; robust persons resist the poison successfully, those with impoverished blood and feeble constitution are mastered by it. Lead enters the body chiefly through the nose and mouth, being inspired in the form of dust or swallowed with food eaten with unwashed hands. It is very apt to get under the nails, and is possibly absorbed in this way through the skin. Personal care and cleanliness are therefore of the greatest importance. A factory surgeon of great experience in the English Potteries has stated that seventeen out of twenty cases of lead-poisoning in the china and earthenware industry are due to carelessness (The Times, 8th October 1898).
The Home Office in England has from time to time made special rules for workshops and workpeople, with the object of minimizing or preventing the occurrence of lead-poisoning; and in 1895 notification of cases was made compulsory. The health of workpeople in the Potteries was the subject of a special inquiry by a scientific committee in 1893. The committee stated that " the general truth that the potteries occupation is one fraught with injury to health and life is beyond dispute, " and that " the ill effects of the trade are referable to two chief causes namely, dust and the poison of lead." Of these the inhalation of clay and flint dust was the more important. It led to bronchitis, pulmonary tuberculosis and pneumonia, which were the most prevalent disorders among potters, and responsible for 70% of the mortality. That from lead the committee did not attempt to estimate, but they found that plumbism was less prevalent than in past times, and expressed the opinion " that a large part of the mortality from lead poisoning is avoidable; although it must always be borne in mind that no arrangements or rules, with regard to the work itself, can entirely obviate the effects of the poison to which workers are exposed, because so much depends upon the individual and the observance of personal care and cleanliness." They recommended the adoption of certain special rules in the workshops, with the objects of protecting young persons from the lead, of minimizing the evils of dust, and of promoting cleanliness, particularly in regard to meals. Some of these recommendations were adopted and applied with good results. With regard to the suggestion that " only leadless glazes should be used on earthenware," they did not " see any immediate prospect of such glazes becoming universally applicable to pottery manufacture," and therefore turned their attention to the question of " fritting " the lead.
It may be explained that lead is used in china and earthenware to give the external glaze which renders the naturally porous ware watertight. Both white " and " red " lead are used. The lead is added to other ingredients, which have been " fritted " or fused together and then ground very fine in water, making a thick creamy liquid into which the articles are dipped. After dipping the glaze dries quickly, and on being " fired " in the kiln it becomes fused by the heat into the familiar glassy surface. In the manufacture of ware with enamelled colours, glaze is mixed with the pigment to form a flux, and such colours are used either moist or in the form of a dry powder. " Fritting " the lead means mixing it with the other ingredients of the glaze beforehand and fusing them all together under great heat into a kind of rough glass, which is then ground to make the glaze. Treated in this way the lead combines with the other ingredients and becomes less soluble, and therefore less dangerous, than when added afterwards in the raw state. The committee (1893) thought it " reasonable to suppose that the fritting of lead might ultimately be found universally practicable," but declared that though fritting " no doubt diminishes the danger of lead-poisoning," they " could not regard all fritts as equally innocuous."
In the annual report of the chief inspector of factories for 1897, it was stated that there had been " material improvement in dust conditions " in the potting industry, but " of leadpoisoning unfortunately the same could not be said, the number of grave cases reported, and particularly cases of blindness, having ominously increased of late." This appears to have been largely due to the erroneous inclusion among potting processes of " litho-transfer making," a colour industry in which girls are employed. New special rules were imposed in 1899 prohibiting the employment of persons under fifteen in the dangerous processes, ordering a monthly examination of all women and young persons working in lead by the certifying surgeon, with power to suspend those showing symptoms of poisoning, and providing for the more effectual removal of dust and the better enforcement of cleanliness. At the same time a scientific inquiry was ordered into the practicability of dispensing with lead in glazes or of substituting fritted compounds for the raw carbonate. The scientific experts reported in 1899, recommending that the use of raw lead should be absolutely prohibited, and expressing the opinion that the greater amount of earthenware could be successfully glazed without any lead. These views were in advance of the opinions held by practical potters, and met with XVI. II a good deal of opposition. By certain manufacturers considerable progress had been made in diminishing the use of raw lead and towards the discovery of satisfactory leadless glazes; but it is a long step from individual experiments to the wholesale compulsory revolution of the processes of manufacture in so large and varied an industry, and in the face of foreign competitors hampered by no such regulations. The materials used by each manufacturer have been arrived at by a long process of experience, and they are such as to suit the particular goods he supplies for his particular market. It is therefore difficult to apply a uniform rule without jeopardizing the prosperity of the industry, which supports a population of 250,000 in the Potteries alone. However, the bulk of the manufacturers agreed to give up the use of raw lead, and to fritt all their glazes in future, time being allowed to effect the change of process; but they declined to be bound to any particular composition of glaze for the reasons indicated.
In 1901 the Home Office brought forward a new set of special rules. Most of these were framed to strengthen the provisions for securing cleanliness, removing dust, etc., and were accepted with a few modifications. But the question of making even more stringent regulations, even to the extent of making the use of lead-glaze illegal altogether, was still agitated; and in 1906 the Home Office again appointed an expert committee to reinvestigate the subject. They reported in 1910, and made various recommendations in detail for strengthening the existing regulations; but while encouraging the use of leadless glaze in certain sorts of common ceramic ware, they pointed out that, without the use of lead, certain other sorts could either not be made at all or only at a cost or sacrifice of quality which would entail the loss of important markets.
In 1908 Dr Collis made an inquiry into the increase of plumbism in connexion with the smelting of metals, and he considered the increase in the cases of poisoning reported to be due to the third schedule of the Workmen's Compensation Act, (l) by causing the prevalence of pre-existing plumbism to come to light, (2) by the tendency this fostered to replace men suspected of lead impregnation by new hands amongst whom the incidence is necessarily greater.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)