The last fifteen years of my working career was in the Safety and Health Department where part of my duties was to answer emergency phone calls that fit my area of expertise, such as those on nitroglycerin mentioned in the recent blogs of November 20 and 25.
Emergency calls only came in about once every week or two, except for ones concerned with our rat poison that came in almost daily because it was frequently eaten by a family pet, or occasionally a child.
Our rat poison was not all that dangerous. Years ago rat poisons were just very strong general poisons, such as arsenic or strychnine, and had a deserved reputation for danger. But they did not work very well. When one rat ate it, sickened, and died, all the others in the colony would avoid it, even those who had not been in the area or even born yet. Somehow they could transmit information on what was safe and unsafe to eat. Then, as that rat was dying, he would search out an enclosed place, such as inside a wall, to die and stink for months afterward.
But that was old school. The new rat poisons were blood thinners, like warfarin, that were stored in the body, built up over several doses, and eventually caused internal bleeding. The rats would go back again and again to the same bait, feeling fine and never realizing they were being poisoned. Once the internal bleeding started, they would become very thirsty and crawl outside to find water. There they would die without ever making the connection, solving both problems at once.
These calls were handled by our company toxicologist, Al, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the toxicity of all of our products. Al was congenial, and we both were of different character from the normal corporate type. As similar “birds-of-a feather” we related to each other and got along well, but even I thought him a little eccentric at times. Some people said, only half jokingly, that the company kept me on the payroll because I was the only one who understood him. Although distinguished-looking, his face had the pasty, flushed look of an alcoholic, and that may have been part of his problem. He had not worked in the labs for twenty years, but he still wore a white lab coat all day long in the office. Hang a stethoscope around his neck and he could easily play a believable doctor on a TV commercial: “Be sure to call your physician immediately if you have an erection lasting more than four hours.”
Al’s wife was an exceptionally pleasant, chubby woman who reminded me of Aunt Bea on the old TV series. I would see her at our department’s Christmas parties or other celebrations. She was the normal, steady one of the family and seemed even more normal compared to him. Years after Al and I had both retired, I met them walking along Wilmington’s Riverfront Park, holding hands and enjoying the spring weather. She was as pleasant as ever as we made small talk, but I slowly realized she did not recognize me and was wearing a blue hospital wristband. Al seemed disoriented himself, but also heroic in his new role as caregiver. They both died a year of two afterward and I never saw them again.
Our product came in two forms of bait, in pellets containing a tasty cereal, and in wax bars that could be hung in wet areas, such as sewers. Typically, we would get a frantic call from a homeowner (the emergency number was on the package) who discovered their dog had gotten into it. Al could assure them one dose was harmless, but to keep their pet away from any more and take them to a veterinarian for a shot of vitamin K, which is an antidote for the blood thinner, just to be sure. His voice had the calm reassurance of a professional. The advice for children was the same, except to substitute “pediatrician” for “veterinarian.” Al never confused the two.
It was common for people to break down in tears of relief.