COMMENTARY: Public health warnings from decades ago serve as a cautionary tale today

By Samuel Damren

Given the running three-year controversy between Ottawa County Commissioners and its top health officer stemming from her 2020 decision to enforce pandemic health orders, it is appropriate to reflect on events which led to the creation of Michigan’s first State Board of Health in 1873.

This commentary will focus on the volunteer efforts of two men who, among others, were instrumental in the success of that initiative. Dr. Henry Baker and Dr. Robert Kedzie served in Michigan volunteer regiments during the Civil War.

Through their experience at field hospitals, they acquired first-hand knowledge of how the organized and disciplined approach to sanitation originally implemented by nurse Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, could substantially reduce infection rates for wounded soldiers.

Kedzie also was exposed to a distinctly different ordeal. Captured by Confederate forces during the Battle of Shiloh, he was interned in a Southern war camp and witnessed the debilitating effects of malnutrition, dysentery, filth, and contagions on prisoners.

As a result of maladies suffered in confinement, Kedzie would later decide to give up the practice of medicine. Fifty-six thousand soldiers on both sides of the conflict died in prison camps during the Civil War constituting 10 percent of all fatalities.

After a return to Michigan and civilian life, Baker and Kedzie were inspired to commence a “war on disease” by promoting legislation providing for the establishment of a Michigan Board of Health modeled on the then existing State Board of Agriculture.

The initiative was rebuffed by the state legislature in 1870. In particular, by members who believed the board might prejudice business interests in the lucrative “snake oils” of the time and other unregulated products.

Baker and Kedzie were undeterred. During the war, Baker had risen from hospital steward for the 20th Michigan Infantry Volunteers to Assistant Surgeon and medical officer of the regiment. He was present in field hospitals at nearly every battle, and became the principal organizer of the duo’s political efforts.

After retiring from the practice of medicine, Kedzie altered his professional career, and became a Professor of Chemistry at Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State University.

Instead of promoting generalized benefits, Baker suggested that in succeeding legislative sessions the duo change tactics and focus legislators on two examples of health risks to Michigan residents that were not effectively being addressed by any existing government body: poisonous wallpaper and explosive lamp oils.

An engaging lecturer, Professor Kedzie was the ideal person to make these presentations.

“Scheele’s green” was a popular pigment for wallpaper in the 1800s. It was composed of copper arsenite, which was inexpensive to produce and highly profitable to manufacturers. Although the pigment contained arsenic, a known toxin, it was not thought to pose health risks unless ingested.

Concerns existed about the use of copper arsenite in fabrics and other household materials for several decades, but mining interests blunted the criticism as unsubstantiated and anecdotal. The ultimate connection between illnesses and deaths in homes papered with Scheele’s green would require the work of both chemists and medical experts.

When subjected to damp environments, chemists were able to show that copper arsenite produces a toxic gas. Through statistics maintained by health officials in England, a significant number of otherwise unexplained deaths were correlated to patients that had extended exposure in confined spaces, such as a bedroom, to the gas.

Kedzie was aware of these then recent findings, and explained to Michigan legislators that one could fairly conclude that the mode of transmission of arsenic into the blood of victims was through respiration rather than ingestion.

Legislators were favorably influenced by his explanation of how detective work and science combined with the work of diligent health officials could solve a medical mystery and protect the public.

The second example – the risk of explosive oils in kerosene lamps – was well known in Michigan; but, as with poisonous wallpaper, the source of the risk was not.
During oil refinery, crude oil was heated to separate more volatile hydrocarbons from pure kerosene which itself has a very low flash point. The more volatile product created in this process was considered waste and discarded or sold for very little to a secondary market.

The problem occurred when purchasers in the secondary market started selling the volatile byproduct to unregulated businesses that mixed it with pure kerosene to produce a brighter light in home lanterns.

As subsequent experiments demonstrated, including those by Professor Kedzie, both the design of a particular lamp and the higher flash point of the adulterated oil put homeowners at great risk.

A demonstration that Kedzie conducted at the Capitol was so terrifying to legislators that many either refused to attend or fled the Capitol when itoccurred. It made a lasting impression.

Kedzie was subsequently appointed by the Governor to the newly enacted six-member State Board of Health in the summer of 1873.

Kedzie’s struggle with manufacturers of adulterated lamp oil to provide “safe and universal testing” for products, later dubbed the “kerosene battle,” continued for decades. The State Board of Health experienced both successes and setbacks on this front until the legislature enacted a law in 1931 requiring a specific low flashpoint for all kerosene-based products offered to consumers.

The State Board of Health was not always as successful in other battles with business and political interests concerning product safety.

In 1878, Kedzie warned newly appointed members of the State Board of Health about the harmful risks to children potentially posed by the utilization of lead piping to supply drinking water.

It would take another chemist and a doctor of pediatrics to expose that public health disaster 137 years later.

Many factors contributed to the Flint Water Crisis; chief among them were partisan zeal, political expediency, and an inept transition from a proven source of safe drinking water to one that was not.

Ottawa County and other government authorities should take notice of these cautions. Outrage at a perceived affront by public health officers to individual liberties or other interests do not excuse missteps and omissions caused by frustrated, ill-conceived responses and their attendant risks to public health.