The secret to men looking so dapper during the 1800s? Mercury. Hatmakers used the toxic compound when crafting fur into felt, and after prolonged exposure, mercury poisoning would cause them to act erratic — even give them the shakes — which is where the phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from. So when Alice encountered the unhinged Hatter in Wonderland, it wasn’t that far from reality.
If walls could talk in the 1800s, they’d probably yell at you to get out. Dyes that contained arsenic to give them a lovely green hue were used in wallpapers, which proved poisonous — even without consuming them. Though the cause of Napoleon’s death is still debated, some researchers speculate that the high levels of arsenic found in his body could have been absorbed from his surroundings (including his green wallpaper).
Well, duh. But this booze wasn’t a kegger gone terribly awry. During Prohibition, bootleggers asked chemists to strip undrinkable chemicals from industrial alcohol (used for paints and other supplies) to make it drinkable. Because they hated fun, the U.S. government ordered more poisons be added to make that impossible, killing hundreds of people.
Before people figured out radiation wasn’t as advantageous as Alex Mack made it out to be, radium was used as a cure-all. At the height of radiation mania, wealthy industrialist Eben Byers was prescribed a radium-containing tonic called Radithor when he hurt his arm. After enormous doses of the water, his body slowly deteriorated — including most of his jaw! — until he died in 1932.
We haven’t pulled out of the radiation station yet: The plight of female factory workers who painted glow-in-the-dark radium onto watch hands earned them the nickname Radium Girls. The women died as a result of radium poisoning — or suffered disastrous side effects, especially since they licked the tip of their paintbrushes to keep them pointed.
Before the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead-based paint in 1977, children that ate paint chips or anyone that breathed paint dust (from, say, sandpapering) were also ingesting terrifying amounts of lead. Which, as you can imagine, can have severe health consequences. This paint is still very much around in older apartments.
Ladies know about the ever-looming threat of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a bacterial infection from tampons that can be deadly. After a rash of cases linked to high-absorbency tampons Rely in the late ‘70s, lawsuits were filed against tampon makers and the brand was recalled. Suits against other companies are still filed today, but cases of TSS have drastically dropped since 1980.
Lead pencils are a common misnomer since their innards are actually made using graphite and clay. But pencils’ outer coating used to contain lead, making kids subject to gnawing on their pencils subject to lead poisoning before it was regulated in the ’70s.
10. Hand Sanitizer
We live on a gross planet, so hand sanitizer is a comforting go-to. Unless it happened to be Clarcon Antimicrobial Hand Sanitizer, which actually contained infection-causing bacteria that could need medical (or surgical!) attention. Even worse, it was touted as treatment for open wounds and damaged skin. The FDA recalled it in 2009.
The threat of mothballs, which contain possible cancer-causing chemicals, is still very much around. The health hazards, called naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene, are what give mothballs that delightful signature scent and have been shown to cause cancer in animals. Tell Grandma to use cedar instead!
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