Building 2 was built for the NIH’s Division of Industrial Hygiene. It contained the first labs in the U.S. built solely for the study of the health and safety of workers in the workplace, responsibilities which now belong to OSHA, NIOSH, and the EPA. Construction of Building 2 was handled by the George A. Fuller Company and completed on December 15th, 1938. The red-brick walls, slate roof, and double chimney “pents” are based on colonial Maryland architecture. Currently, there are no labs in Building 2. Instead, the building houses the Office of Intramural Training and Education, the Office of Loan Repayment and Scholarship, the Office of AIDS Research, and the Office of Equal Opportunity.
Mines without proper ventilation are filled with dust, truck drivers get
tired when driving long distances, and mercury is poisonous. This information is readily available to us
today, but, in the early 1900s, these facts were relatively unknown. In response to the rapid industrialization of
those years, the NIH (National Institute of Health – then singular) began
emphasizing research into the causes of workers’ illnesses. Furthermore, the looming crisis of World War
II led to a boom in the number industrial workers and an urgency to keep them
healthy. This research into the health
and safety of workers is called industrial hygiene.
Building 2 contained the first laboratories in the U.S. dedicated to
industrial hygiene research, and NIH researchers were involved in the design
process. These state-of-the-art labs
provided scientists with hot and cold running water and proper ventilation. Built-in fume hoods and air hoses kept noxious
chemicals from building up in the air. Electricity
was wired through conduits contained in service panels (see photo above) which allowed
researchers to easily patch in cables for various pieces of equipment. Each
piece could be controlled as necessary. Even
the venetian blinds were designed according to researcher’s specifications: wood
with metal tape to ensure that corrosion would not be an issue.
There were labs in Building 2 built to study air and water quality in
factories, workers’ exposure to chemicals, and worker fatigue and
metabolism. During World War II, there
was even an altitude chamber for research on how altitude affected the
performance of airplane pilots. Footage
of some of these labs, including the altitude chamber, can be seen below in the
1941 Public Health Service (PHS) film “Save a Day”.
Mad as a Hatter:
Mercury poisoning had been an
issue in the hat-making industry since the 17th century when mercurial
salts were introduced as a method of matting wool fibers to make felt for hats.
Among other symptoms, mercury poisoning causes
tremors, irritability, depression, and possibly suicide. These mental health problems in the hat-making
trade are the reason for the phrase “mad as a hatter”.
Despite legislative bans in
other countries such as Britain and France, the use of mercury salts in
American hat-making continued well into the 20th century. Because most Americans then wore hats every
day, hat-making was a massive industry. Mercury poisoning among these workers was
still common in the 1930s, when Dr. Sanford Rosenthal, a researcher in the
Division of Industrial Hygiene, developed a treatment for the disease. He discovered that sodium formaldehyde
sulphoxy could be used to degrade mercury into less toxic compounds. His treatment, hailed in newspapers all over
the country, was used until the development of Dimercaptosuccinic acid and
chelation therapy to remove the metals from the body.
Rosenthal was aided in his
research by other Division of Industrial Hygiene scientists who developed
methods to measure mercury in the air and spectrographically measure mercury in
urine. Using these methods, the Division
was able to determine how much mercury could be in the air before becoming
dangerous. They determined that any
amount greater than 1mg of mercury per 10 cubic meters of air could lead to the
development of symptoms.
In 1940, the Division issued a
Public Health Bulletin which described these findings and recommended methods
for the control and prevention of mercury poisoning. One year later, on December 1st,
1941, the Public Health Service used the Division’s findings to negotiate a ban
on the use of mercury in the hat-making process.