CLOSE

Matchsticks Once Sickened and Deformed Women and Children

Women working in a match factory in London in 1871. Image credit: Public domain

Everyone knows the beginning of the age of industrialization in England was not pleasant. People looking for work crowded into cities, which then became cesspools of disease and pollution. One particularly dirty job done by women and children actually made them glow in the dark: matchstick making. And it also contributed to “phossy jaw,” a disease as gross as it sounds—necrosis of the jaw bone caused by phosphorus poisoning.

Recently, anthropologists studying the skeleton of a young teenager discovered that the bones appear to show the physical hallmarks of phosphorus poisoning, among other conditions. They published their findings in the open access journal International Journal of Paleopathology [PDF].

Matchstick making was incredibly popular in 19th century England, with hundreds of factories spread across the country. For 12 to 16 hours a day, workers dipped treated wood into a phosphorus concoction, then dried and cut the sticks into matches.

Some of the matches produced by Bryant & May. Long hours, low pay, and dangerous work conditions—including potential phossy jaw—sparked the Match Girls Strike of 1888. Three years later, Bryant & May stopped using white phosphorous in matches. Image credit: Wellcome Trust // CC BY 4.0

This work paid poorly, and half of the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.

The element phosphorous is essential for living creatures, especially in the form of calcium phosphate in the skeleton. However, too much of it can cause phosphorus poisoning.

People who were exposed in matchstick factories to white phosphorus are known historically to have developed physical ailments. Inhalation of phosphorus fumes could cause inflammation of the lungs and other pulmonary problems. Phosphorus hanging in the air and settling on walls and floors often gave the factory a blue-green glow. Workers went home with clothes that practically glowed in the dark, and those who inhaled too much phosphorus could have fluorescent vomit, bluish breath, and a glow around their mouths.

The remains of a young teenager who likely suffered the fate of these matchstick workers was recently studied by Durham University anthropologist Charlotte Roberts and her colleagues. The skeleton of the adolescent was unearthed from a Quaker cemetery in North Shields, in the Northeast of England, dating from the early 18th century to the mid 19th century. There were a number of matchstick producers in the region at the time, according to historical data.

The child, whose gender is unclear, died between 12 and 14 years old, and had suffered from scurvy and rickets, and possibly tuberculosis and phossy jaw. Roberts and her colleagues found pathological evidence for these conditions throughout the child’s skeleton. Abnormally bowed thigh bones suggest a defect in mineralization of the adolescent’s bones, likely caused by rickets; children working long hours in factories did not get enough sun to produce the vitamin D necessary for proper bone growth. But an extra, thin layer of bone on the legs and skull points to a second metabolic condition: scurvy, caused by insufficient consumption of vitamin C.

Additional bony changes in the rib cage suggest the teenager had a pulmonary problem, perhaps triggered by indoor or outdoor pollution, or perhaps it was related to tuberculosis.

Clearly, this person suffered from a number of dietary deficiencies and childhood diseases and, as Roberts and her colleagues write, “the skeleton of this person reflects the challenging environment in which he or she lived and worked during their short life.”

But it’s the lower jaw (below) that connects this adolescent to the industry of matchstick making. The researchers note that approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average. The condition is essentially a massive infection of the mandible resulting from cumulative exposure to phosphorus. The left side of the mandible of this adolescent shows widespread destruction as well as a curious mass of bone in the middle.

Charlotte Roberts in Anthropological Review

The researchers suggest that the mass is a chunk of dead bone that became engulfed by the infection. When they compared their findings from this adolescent’s mouth to historical reports of phossy jaw and to a 19th century mandible known to have been from a matchstick maker, they saw that "the lesions on these documented mandibles are very similar to those present” in this adolescent’s skeleton.

Although the researchers cannot conclusively prove this adolescent suffered from phossy jaw, the teenager would almost certainly have been “facially disfigured, with swelling and suppurations of the affected side of the face, [and] the foul discharge from the mouth as a result of osteomyelitis [bone infection] would have been odorous,” they write.

Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma.

In spite of the fact that problems such as phossy jaw were well known when matchstick production was at its height in England in the 1800s, the use of white phosphorus in this industry wasn’t outlawed until 1910. That means that for nearly a century, mostly poor women and children were exposed to toxic levels of phosphorus, as well as harmful working conditions in factories.

Although this adolescent skeleton represents the first likely paleopathological evidence of phosphorus poisoning, chances are high that more will be found as archaeologists learn how to recognize and diagnose the condition.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Emery Smith
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual
Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Health
Just Two Cans of Soda a Day May Double Your Risk of Death From Heart Disease
iStock
iStock

If you've been stocking your refrigerator full of carbonated corn syrup in anticipation of warmer weather, the American Heart Association has some bad news. The advocacy group on Wednesday released results of research that demonstrate a link between consumption of sugary drinks—including soda, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages—and an increased risk of dying from heart disease.

Study participants who reported consuming 24 ounces or more of sugary drinks per day had twice the risk of death from coronary artery disease of those who averaged less than 1 ounce daily. There was also an increased risk of death overall, including from other cardiovascular conditions.

The study, led by Emory University professor Jean Welsh, examined data taken from a longitudinal study of 17,930 adults over the age of 45 with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Researchers followed participants for six years, and examined death records to determine causes. They observed a greater risk of death associated with sugary drinks even when they controlled for other factors, including race, income, education, smoking habits, and physical activity. The study does not show cause and effect, the researchers said, but does illuminate a trend.

The study also noted that while it showed an increased risk of death from heart disease, consumption of sugary foods was not shown to carry similar risk. One possible explanation is that the body metabolizes the sugars differently: Solid foods carry other nutrients, like fat and protein, that slow metabolism, while sugary drinks provide an undiluted influx of carbohydrates that the body must process.

The news will likely prove troublesome for the beverage industry, which has long contended with concerns that sugary drinks contribute to type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Some cities, including Seattle, have introduced controversial "soda tax" plans that raise the sales tax on the drinks in an effort to discourage consumption.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios