Your cooker will give you typhoid

There’s a menace lurking in your kitchen.  From The Lancet, 1868:

cast iron

When the attention of the Academy of Sciences of Paris was drawn, some time since, by M. Carret, one of the physicians of the Hotel Dieu of Chambery, in several papers, to the possible evil consequences of the use of cast-iron stoves, but little interest was excited in the matter.  

In modern medical papers authors are required to declare any possible conflict of interest.  In 1868, however, there was no requirement for M. Carret to state whether he had any financial interest in the demise of manufacturers of cast-iron stoves.

Carret does not hesitate to assert most positively that cast-iron stoves are sources of danger to those who habitually employ them. During an epidemic which recently prevailed in Savoy, but upon which M. Carret does not furnish us with any detailed information, he observed that all the inhabitants who were affected with it made use of cast-iron stoves, which had lately been imported into the country, whereas all those who employed other modes of firing, or other sorts of stoves, were left untouched by the disease. An epidemic of typhoid fever, which broke out some time after at the Lyceum of Chambery, was regarded by the same author as being influenced by a large cast-iron stove in the children’s dormitory.  

This looks at first sight like the classic error of mistaking correlation for causation.  So what’s the evidence?  Well, M. Carret cites the experiments of two of his colleagues, Messieurs Trosrt and Deville:

These able investigations have established that iron and cast-iron when heated to a certain degree become pervious to the passage of gas.  They have been enabled to state the quantity of oxide of carbon which may, as they suppose, transude from a given surface of metal, and have shown that the air which surrounds a stove of cast-iron is saturated with hydrogen and oxide of carbon.  They conclude that cast-iron stoves when sufficiently heated absorb oxygen, and give issue to carbonic acid.

It’s not clear what the connection between carbonic acid [carbon dioxide] and typhoid might be; but no matter:

General Morin related some comparative experiments which had been performed by M. Carret, and which, he said, corroborate this theory. Thus, after having remained during one full hour in a room heated to 40° (centigrade) by means of a sheet-iron stove, M. Carret perspired abundantly, got a good appetite, but felt no sickness whatever; he had obtained the same result with an earthenware stove; but the experiment when performed during only one-half hour with a cast-iron stove, had brought on intense headache and sickness.

But did he go down with typhoid?  M. Carret remains silent on this matter.

Deville, at the same sitting of the Academy, supported these views with considerable warmth.

Which is hardly surprising, given that he had just spent three hours standing next to different models of hot stove.

The danger which attended the use of cast-iron stoves, he said, was enormous and truly formidable.  In his lecture room at the Sorbonne he had placed two electric bells, which were set in motion as soon as hydrogen or oxide of carbon was diffused in the room.  Well, during his last lecture the two cast-iron stoves had scarcely been lit when the bells began to ring.

And did anybody contract typhoid?  This crucial point remains unresolved.

These facts are certainly startling, if we consider the reputation of comparative harmlessness which these articles of domestic use had hitherto enjoyed.  In France, particularly, the lodgings of the poorer classes, the barrack rooms of the soldiery, the artists’ studios, the class-rooms of large schools, etc., are commonly heated by this means.  

Manufacturers of domestic appliances, please take note.  Owners of Agas should also consider purchasing a safer alternative.

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