The Silver Fairy and Nitroglycerin

Growing up in East Lansdowne, I heard a story that gave me nightmares for years.  If any of you other East Lansdowners also heard it, I would like to know.

The story was of a girl that played the part of a fairy in a local theater production.  She wore a fairy costume and had all of her exposed skin, face, arms and legs, painted in silver—and she died!  For years, I could imagine that poor girl, my own age, grotesquely dying on stage while covered in silver paint.

My mother theorized the paint clogged her pores, and she died because she was unable to sweat.  My mother was big on pores.  We always were to wash our face with hot water to open the pores so the soapy water could get to the dirt, but rinse with cold water to close them up again before we went outside.  All very important.

But after a career in chemical safety, I recognize the girl’s death as a clear case of poisoning by absorption through the skin, a common route by organic solvents that many people are not aware of.  A little turpentine, aniline, or benzene (common before it was found to cause cancer) on our hands for a few minutes is not enough to reach toxic limits, but exposure for hours over a large part of our body would be asking for trouble.  The silver paint on the girl was long before the water-based paints of today and was no doubt full of toxic solvents.

Atlas Chemical, where I worked, manufactured nitroglycerin for pharmaceutical use as tablets placed under the tongue for immediate relief of angina pain.  In this form, the nitroglycerin passes through the thin lining of the mouth directly into the bloodstream as quickly as if it were given by injection.

Plant workers who got the nitroglycerin on their hands would get splitting headaches as it dilated blood vessels in the brain, the same as it dilated vessels surrounding the hearts of angina sufferers.  Our problem was that the nitroglycerin would pass through rubber gloves almost as fast as through the skin, so we initiated elaborate procedures using two pairs of rubber gloves on top of cotton ones.  All three were new each day, and every half-hour, or immediately on exposure, the worker was to replace the outer glove with another new one.

But nitroglycerin!  Couldn’t this explode?   Sure could.  The workers wore company-supplied rubber-soled shoes to avoid any sparks and the floors of the manufacturing plant, in Tamaqua, PA, were all of wood.  But on the wide expanse of flooring there were several areas curiously blocked off with gateless, chain-link fences.  In each of these areas, nitroglycerin was once spilled and soaked into the wood floor.   There was no way to safely get it out, so they just built a fence around it, forevermore.  Some of the areas were decades old.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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