March 23, 2007
With the advances of medical science throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, more and more diseases of the ancient world have been conquered. But many diseases have been recently discovered, caused not by deadly pathogens but by contact with various mostly-innocuous substances. Here are a few samplings, from the the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention's "Contact Syndromes To Beware Of In 2007":
- Chronic Theobromic Bronchitis, also known as Chocolate Emphysema, is a syndrome rapidly gaining prevalence in the confectionary community. It results from the long-term inhalation of powdered cocoa during the manufacture of truffles and other sweets. This powder pollutes and irritates the lungs, causing unpleasant symptoms and raising the risk of lung cancer later in life. Its pathology is not unlike Pneumoconiosis ("Black Lung") which results from inhaled coal dust, and this similarity has led to the common appellation "Brown Lung". Though chocolate ingested in moderation acts as an antitussive, lungs contaminated in this way suffer from spasmodic contractions, and sufferers often report chest plain and bloody coughing. There is currently no known treatment, though limiting exposure to cocoa powder has been shown to halt the progress of symptoms.
- Acute Pyrotechnic Absorbative Psychosis, known better by its nickname "Firecracker Madness" was first discovered in a number of young Laotian fireworkwrights in 1989. A new pyrotechnic alkaline had just come into use in Southeast Asia, and these sixteen fireworks-makers all worked with the substance. They drew handfuls of it out of large buckets and packed it into skyrocket launch tubes for several hours each day. Unbeknownst to their employers, this substance was able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and soon these men found themselves the victims of terrifying hallucinations and delusions. One man became convinced his father was calling to him from heaven to bring large bales of toilet paper to the tallest hill in the village, another became convinced that he could pass through solid objects. A third fell fourteen meters from a catwalk, convinced he was being pursued by a ball of fire-breathing eels. After four days of inexplicable behavior on the part of their employees, factory managers shut down the operation, and after discovering the cause the use of the alkaline pyrotechnic was discontinued throughout Laos. Thirteen of the sixteen men stricken with the syndrome recovered fully, and the remaining three live on somewhat disabled to this day. The chemical (whose name and composition was never released) continues to be used by Chinese and Korean fireworks manufacturers, but they refuse to comment on any further cases of "Firecracker Madness".
- In 2005 a class-action suit was brought against General Mills, The Kellogg Company, and a number of other US breakfast cereal manufacturers. The plaintiffs claimed the defendants' cereals gave them what experts termed Acute Erosive Gingivitis, the sudden and severe erosion of gum tissue by the ingestion of abrasive breakfast cereal. "Their teeth were quite literally eaten away by the sharp, dense material in a number of the defendants' products," said Dr. Miriam Feldman, a Gingivist with the National Gum Institute. "It is as if they had been chewing nails." The high density and sharp cleavage patterns prevalent in these cereals acted as strong abrasives when consumed regularly, causing peridontitis and even tooth loss in as little as a year's time. The case was settled in early 2006 for an undisclosed amount, but the CDC cautions that the syndrome can still be developed, and to monitor gum health and visit a Gingivist regularly.
- In the early 1980s, the Islamic Republic of Turkey was shaken by an outbreak of foodborne bacterial dermatitis in what the Turkish press dubbed the Hummus Catastrophe. In the spring of 1981, a heavier than expected season of rain created an unforseen bloom in the naturally-occuring bacteria found in the roots of chick pea plants produced in Central Asia. These bacteria posed no threat to the human digestive tract, but when coming into contact with human skin during consumption the bacteria in the hummus began to act on the follicles much as it acted on the roots, causing severe skin irritation, and, if left untreated, dermal necrosis. Over 500 Turks were treated for moderate rashes, and eleven required skin grafts to replace damaged tissue. This incident led to worldwide legume sanitation reform, and no similar outbreaks have been reported since.