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Health and safety in the laboratory and field
Health and safety in the laboratory and field

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1 Overview

1 History of health and safety

The discipline of health and safety is relatively modern, only developing in the last century. However, throughout the ages people have voiced their concerns about people being exposed to harmful substances. Hippocrates mentions in the 4th century BC that lead miners and workers tended to suffer from diseases. The phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ was coined because mercury used in the hat industry caused mental illness. In 1775 Pott reported that chimney sweeps suffered a high incidence of scrotal cancer; in the 1900s coal miners were found to suffer from lung disorders; and, by the 1930s asbestos was known to cause asbestosis, a form of lung cancer.

In 1976 in Italy, at a place called Seveso, there was an explosion at a chemical factory manufacturing pesticides. This released a cloud of 2,4,5-trichlorophenol that also contained 3,4,8,9-tetrachlorodibenzo-1,4-dioxin, which is highly toxic. A number of children exposed to these chemicals suffered from chloracne, and were hospitalised, and about 3000 farm animals died. As a result of this incident the European Union later introduced the Seveso Directive in an effort to prevent accidents in large chemical factories.

In 1984, the worst ever chemical factory disaster occurred in Bhopal, India: 45 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (CH3N=C=O) gas escaped from two underground storage tanks at a Union Carbide pesticide plant. This highly toxic gas resulted in the deaths of 6000 people, 300 000 were injured and 7000 animals also died.