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The Men Who Volunteered to Be Poisoned by the Government

Harvey Washington Wiley, the brusque and determined leader of the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry in Washington, D.C., had good news and bad news for the 12 young men who had answered his call for volunteers. First, Wiley promised them three ample, freshly prepared meals every day for at least six months. Since the majority of the men were Department clerks living on modest wages, this was a tempting offer. The volunteers would also be under exceptional medical care, with weekly physicals and daily recordings of their weight, temperature, and pulse rate.

This was, Wiley explained, because he’d be slowly poisoning them.

Wiley’s staff would put borax in their butter, milk, or coffee. Formaldehyde would lurk in their meats, copper sulfate and saltpeter in their fruit pies. Wiley would begin at low doses and then ratchet up the amount until one or more of the men complained of debilitating symptoms, like vomiting or dizziness. Those people would then be excused from the program until they felt well enough to resume. In the event a subject died or became seriously ill, he would waive the right to pursue legal remedy against the government.

The year was 1902. With funding and consent from Congress, Wiley was about to embark on an experiment he dubbed the “hygienic table trials,” but it was the Washington news media that came up with the nickname that would stick: They called his volunteers "the Poison Squad."

The Poison Squad dining area. Image credit: FDA History Office [PDF] // Public Domain

At the turn of the last century, food manufacturers and distributors were untouched by government oversight. There were no federal requirements for labeling, which meant ingredients didn't need to be listed, and there were no explicit consequences for tampering or adulterating consumer goods. Parents would unwittingly give their babies cough syrup containing morphine to calm them down. Olive oil might actually be cottonseed oil, which was cheaper for makers to source; glucose could be passed off as honey.

A former professor of chemistry at Purdue University, Wiley was aghast at the freewheeling nature of the food industry. He was especially concerned with the use of preservatives, intended to ward off spoilage but poorly understood when consumed in consistent amounts over time. Taking a post as chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture in 1883, Wiley repeatedly petitioned for money and resources to quantify how these substances impacted the human body. Time and again, food lobbyists would thwart his attempts.

In 1902, Congress finally agreed to Wiley’s persistent requests, offering him $5000 to subsidize an experiment on the effects of food additives with a group of men who would spend at least six months, and eventually up to a year, in his service. In the basement of the Bureau’s Washington office, Wiley set up a kitchen, dining room, and lab; he installed a chef, known only as “Perry,” to prepare a variety of welcoming dishes for his volunteers. Roast chicken and braised beef would be served alongside borax and formaldehyde.

Although the ethics of the study could be debated both then and now, Wiley disclosed his intentions to the 12 men who signed up for the program. Mostly young, they were selected for having durable constitutions that might more easily withstand the accumulation of foreign chemicals. Wiley believed if the dosages bothered them, then children and older members of the public were in even more danger.

In exchange for free food and the sense of contributing to the betterment of society, the volunteers agreed to eat their three daily meals only in the test kitchen. No snacking between meals would be permitted, and only water could be ingested away from the table. Their weight, pulse, and temperature would be recorded before sitting down. Wiley also had each man carry a satchel with them at all times to collect urine and feces for laboratory analysis. “Every particle of their secreta,” Wiley said, was necessary to the trial.

The first treat was borax, a ground mineral commonly used to preserve meats and other perishables. Wiley allowed the men a period of 10 to 20 days of eating normally to establish baseline readings of their health and symptoms before Chef Perry began adding a half-gram of the powder to their butter. Although the men knew borax would be served, they didn’t know how—yet most all of them quickly began avoiding the butter out of instinct once they had gotten a taste of it.

Wiley next tried slipping it into their milk, but the same thing happened: They stopped drinking the milk. Having failed to account for the body’s natural resistance to being contaminated with the metallic-tasting substance, he began offering borax-filled capsules with each meal. The men dutifully swallowed them as a kind of dessert following the main course.

Wiley’s squad tolerated the borax—7.5 grains daily—for several weeks. But after a few months, headaches, stomach aches, and depression began to materialize. At six months, they threatened to go on strike unless the slow drip of poison stopped. The summer months seemed to exacerbate their ailments.

By then, Wiley had gotten enough data on borax. He moved on to salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and other additives, administering each one at a time, all across the menu, to assess the response. Sometimes, the progression was so uneventful that the men took it upon themselves to liven up the proceedings. One laced a colleague’s drink with quinine, which can cause headaches and profuse sweating. Not long after, the man went out on a date; he later recounted that when he began to feel the symptoms of the quinine, he "went home prepared to die in the interest of science." (He was fine.)

Other times, the experiments were as dangerous as advertised. Owing to excruciating symptoms, the trial with formaldehyde was terminated early.

A sign posted in the Poison Squad's dining room. Image credit: FDA via Flickr // U.S. Government Works

Rotating members of the Poison Squad convened for roughly five years between 1902 and 1907. All along, lobbyists fought to suppress Wiley’s findings. His 477-page report on the effects of borax was well-received, but supervisors—and even the Secretary of Agriculture—tried to stifle his review of benzoic acid, a widely used preservative, due to its damaging findings and subsequent pestering by food lobbyists. The report was leaked only when the Secretary was away on vacation and a staffer misunderstood his instructions, ordering it printed by mistake.

In 1906, Congress passed both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both designed to restrict the kinds of preservatives and additives used by food companies. The former was known as the “Wiley Act,” because Wiley had been the one to demonstrate the need for its inception. They were the first federal laws to regulate food. By the 1930s, Wiley's Bureau of Chemistry had morphed into the Food and Drug Administration—and almost all of the additives Wiley trialed had been excised from the commercial food industry.

Wiley himself remained with the Department of Agriculture until 1912, when he began a 19-year position as a consumer advocate for Good Housekeeping magazine. The public, which had come to know Wiley through the extensive media coverage of the Poison Squad, looked upon him as a reliable source for information.

In 1927, Wiley used his position to notify readers of a toxic substance that was widespread, commonly absorbed, and had underestimated potential to cause cancer. The American public, he warned, should be very wary of tobacco. While Good Housekeeping stopped accepting cigarette ads in 1952, the Surgeon General didn't issue a formal warning until 1964.

Meanwhile, the dozens of men who consented to the regulated poisonings were said to have suffered no lasting effects, save perhaps for one. In 1906, the family of poison squad member Robert Vance Freeman used the press to blame the man’s tuberculosis and subsequent death on the borax he was made to consume. Although Wiley had discharged Freeman in 1903 because his symptoms had rendered him “disabled,” he dismissed any idea the borax was at fault in his death. No charges or lawsuit were ever filed.

Although an experiment involving purposeful and deliberate doses of poison could never be described as "safe," Freeman's fate was an anomaly. Wiley made certain to limit a volunteer's service to one 12-month term, with the chemist correctly observing that “one year of this kind of life is as much as a young man wants.”

Additional Sources: "The Poison Squad and the Advent of Food and Drug Regulation" [PDF]

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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