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Plazak via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

When Work Drives You Mad: Tales From the Deadly "Loony Gas" Building

Plazak via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

We’ve all had those days where work has driven us to the brink of madness. At least, we think we have. The workers at the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, would be less than impressed with our dramatics.

In the 1920s, this particular plant began producing tetraethyl lead (TEL), a compound that made car engines stop knocking. Forty-nine men were assigned to work in the TEL building, and shortly thereafter, 32 of them were hospitalized for conditions including severe moodiness, extreme insomnia, convulsions, deliriousness, and memory loss. Not fatal, but strange enough for workers to coin the term “the Loony Gas Building," making jokes about undertakers and bidding colleagues farewell after accepting an assignment in the TEL wing.

Then, on Thursday, October 23, 1924, TEL worker Ernest Oelgert started hallucinating, and complained to coworkers that he was being persecuted. The next day he ran around the plant screaming about “three coming at me at once.” He died the day after that. Oelgert was followed in death by four more workers—one became so violent that he had to be placed in a straitjacket just to be removed from his house. And this was all less than a year after TEL production began.

Standard Oil chalked up the high occurrence of madness to their employees’ work ethics: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard,” a spokesman told The New York Times.

Luckily, the state of New Jersey disagreed with the company and ordered the plant to be shut down. An investigation revealed similar problems at other plants producing the compound—two DuPont workers had died at a Dayton, Ohio, facility not long before. Investigators also discovered that Standard Oil supervisors had recommended halting production after noticing the erratic behavior of their employees.

Standard Oil didn’t care. In fact, they held a press conference where Thomas Midgley, the engineer who discovered that TEL would prevent engine knocking, washed his hands in a bowl of the stuff to prove how safe it was. “I’m taking no chances whatever,” he said, “Nor would I take any chances by doing that every day.” Several months later, he took an extended vacation to Europe to be treated for lead poisoning.

As a result of the investigations and a recommendation from New York State Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris, several states did ban the sale of leaded gasoline. Unhappy with the loss of sales, Standard Oil, DuPont, and other gasoline manufacturers went straight to the top, asking the federal government to make a ruling instead. That ruling favored big business, and leaded gasoline production resumed, albeit with new safety regulations to protect the workers.” It wasn’t until 1996—70 years later—that leaded gas was banned in the U.S. entirely.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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New Peanut Allergy Patch Could Be Coming to Pharmacies This Year
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About 6 million people in the U.S. and Europe have severe peanut allergies, including more than 2 million children. Now, French biotechnology company DBV Technologies SA has secured an FDA review for its peanut allergy patch, Bloomberg reports.

If approved, the company aims to start selling the Viaskin patch to children afflicted with peanut allergies in the second half of 2018. The FDA's decision comes in spite of the patch's disappointing study results last year, which found the product to be less effective than DBV hoped (though it did receive high marks for safety). The FDA has also granted Viaskin breakthrough-therapy and fast-track designations, which means a faster review process.

DBV's potentially life-saving product is a small disc that is placed on the arm or between the shoulder blades. It works like a vaccine, exposing the wearer's immune system to micro-doses of peanut protein to increase tolerance. It's intended to reduce the chances of having a severe allergic reaction to accidental exposure.

The patch might have competition: Aimmune Therapeutics Inc., which specializes in food allergy treatments, and the drug company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. are working together to develop a cure for peanut allergies.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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