Decades of Hazardous Fumes from Carbon Disulfide

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The history of carbon disulfide has been a story with a recurring theme: An episode of concern emerges as the dangers are recognized. Then over time fears are allayed by a false sense of security that the hazardous fumes were brought under strict control or that it has been eliminated altogether. New concerns are brought forward as another epidemic of disease for the worker emerges. 

Carbon disulfide is considered one of the most dangerous industrial fumes known and from a chemistry standpoint one of the most useful. Exposure from its hazardous fumes damages the nerves of sensation. When it was used in the 1900s for the production of rubber, it was known to cause violent, maniac-like behaviors by its employees. Rather than help their employees, manufacturers would place irons bars over the windows, so employee couldn’t jump to their deaths.

The question now is how so many years can pass with medical reports identifying the hazardous fumes and poisoning suffered from its use in manufacturing without effective controls in place. And how carbon disulfide can permeate itself into one industry after another and currently be in use today and among EPA-listed toxic-released air contaminants year after year.

Rubber then Cellophane

Between the years of 1925 through1931, there were sixteen reported cases of rubber manufacturing poisoning in Great Britain. Then the medical community noticed the same industrial fumes exposure coming from another manufacturing process: the production of transparent packing paper, cellophane. 
DuPont got exclusive rights to manufacturer cellophane in the U.S. and Central American. Their dollar value increased 50 fold over the next decade. Even during the depression, DuPont’s profits margin on cellophane was approximately 30%.

Next Toxic Exposure Comes from Rayon

Because of its value, silk was the most desirable target for a textile substitute. Several successful methods of synthesizing silk were perfected in quick succession. One called the viscose method allowed conversion of an abundant and cheap starting material, cellulose pulp from ground up wood into a finished textile product rivaling silk. It proved to be a chemical intensive process and entirely dependent on carbon disulfide. Production of artificial silk, led by the viscose process, was the chemical industry’s premier mass-market success in the twentieth century where manufacturing expanded a hundred-fold. 

The first cases of disease were reported even before the name, Rayon coined by the Americans, was invented. Workers were subject to strong industrial fumes in the churning rooms. One poisoning due to rayon staple manufacturing described a forty year-old man who began working in the industry in April 1936 and one year later was so intoxicated that he was hospitalized with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Toxic Industrial Recycling

By 1960s, the rayon market in the U.S. was stagnated—but found room for growth in Asia. The Japanese began to export their rayon industry to Korea, which experienced its own epidemic of carbon disulfide poisoning in the years that followed. So many industrial fumes cases occurred with such long-lasting effect that the Koreans opened a special hospital dedicated solely to treat carbon disulfide poisoning, documenting more than eight hundred poisoning through 1999. China also joined the rayon boom in a big way by receiving some of its initial production machinery as hand-me-downs from the Koreans, thus perpetuating a chain of toxic industrial recycling.

Although levels of intoxication had been lowered, a new wave of epidemiological studies uncovered other, health threats by breathing its hazardous fumes. The association with carbon disulfide and Parkinson was found. And findings that exposure could lead to the hardening of the arteries, cerebral vascular disease, and stroke.

In 1985, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was called to investigate an alarming cluster of heart disease cases among a relatively young group of workers in a sausage factory outside Chicago. It turned out that since 1957, carbon disulfide had been used in the plant. The factory produced Wienie-Pak packaging for skinless hot dogs.

New Industry was Born, Yet Again

Although the rubber, rayon, and cellophane industries have traditionally dominated the use of carbon disulfide, the toxin also has a history of use in agriculture as a grain fumigant, which was discontinued by the U.S. EPA in 1985. But this use has been dwarfed by a huge new application. A novel fumigant called metam sodium, which came to the market in the late 1980s. Carbon disulfide is metam sodium’s main starting ingredient. Metam sodium is used as a soil treatment against a variety of agricultural pests for a number of different crops.

Every time metam sodium is applied agriculturally, carbon disulfide is released into the air. More than fifty million pounds are used per year in the U.S.

Instead of being a toxin and air pollutant of the past, it is still with us and has been consistently among the top EPA-listed toxic-release air contaminants year after year.

Like you, Seeger Weiss, questions why this known toxin has been allowed to permeate new industries and harm not only its workers but also brings harms of pesticides to the general public. Contact us today if you have experienced carbon disulfide poisoning. 


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