In 1921 the British Government’s Home Office published a pamphlet titled, ‘Prevention of Anthrax Among Industrial Workers: Memorandum on the Disinfecting Station Established in Great Britain for Disinfection of Wool and Hair’. We have a copy of this pamphlet in the IET Archives (cover shown above) and it gives a fascinating insight into the problems with this potentially deadly infection faced by workers in the wool and hair industries.
What is Anthrax?
Anthrax is an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis which can occur in four forms: skin; lungs; intestinal; and injection. It is spread by contact with the bacterium’s spores which often appear in infectious animal products and contact is by breathing, eating, or through an area of broken skin.
Human anthrax is a rare disease today with around 2,000 cases occurring globally each year. When it does occur it is more commonly found in Africa and central and southern Asia. Skin infections represent more than 95% of cases, and without treatment, the risk of death from skin anthrax is 24%. Until the 20th century, anthrax infections killed hundreds of thousands of people and animals each year. In the UK, there were reported deaths from anthrax in November 2008 and December 2009. The 2008 death was of a drum maker who worked with untreated animal skins, and the 2009 incident, which caused 14 deaths amongst heroin addicts, was believed to be as a result of heroin being diluted with bone meal in Afghanistan.
What did the Government do to Address Anthrax Infection Rates in the 1920s?
In the first two decades of the 20th century the British Government was faced with a steady rise in the number of case of anthrax infection, so the Home Office appointed a Departmental Committee to enquire into the question of anthrax in industries using wool and hair. The Committee presented its report in 1918 and recommended that attempts to prevent danger of infection from anthrax in wool by regulation of factory processes should be abandoned in favour of compulsory disinfection of the raw material. It also recommended the immediate establishment of a small trial disinfecting station in Great Britain, the purpose of which was to enable decisions to be made as to the type of station and most suitable equipment to be used.
The Government adopted these recommendations and a trial station was built that came into operation in spring 1921. Liverpool had been chosen as the site for this station, as the bulk of infected wool and hair came into the port of Liverpool, which had a highly developed organisation for dealing with this material. The water supply at Liverpool was also very suitable for washing wool. The trial station was built at Love Lane, on land adjoining the existing wool warehouses of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board which was cooperating with the introduction of disinfection. The layout of the facility is shown in the pamphlet and this has been reproduced below.
Certain classes of material were chosen for disinfection during the trial period, and those materials, under the Anthrax Prevention Act of 1919, were prohibited from entering Great Britain at any port other than Liverpool. The materials initially chosen for this disinfection scheme were East Indian goat hair and Egyptian wool and hair.
As a result of increased running costs and a decrease in the volume of work, as private concerns were being encouraged to disinfect their own wool, the station was closed, when the latter reached a satisfactory standard, in August 1971 (records of the Government Wool Disinfecting Station can be found in The National Archives). Unfortunately, 16 of the small staff of the Liverpool disinfecting station had caught anthrax in the course of their work during its time of operation.
Potential for future anthrax outbreaks
An article under the title, ‘Maladie de Bradford’ appeared in New Scientist, 20 July 1978, and covered the history of anthrax infection or wool-sorters’ disease as it was known. That article warned about complacency by saying in its sub-title;
“Wool-sorters’ disease, first observed a century ago, is now virtually extinct. But this sort of anthrax can easily re-emerge if controls on the disinfection of imported hair and wool are relaxed, as recent events have shown.”
As opposed to outbreaks of anthrax in humans, outbreaks in certain wild animal populations occur with some regularity, and a warning note concerning anthrax was recently sounded by Russian researchers. They estimated that the artic permafrost contains around 1.5 million anthrax-infected reindeer carcasses, and the spores may survive in the permafrost for over 105 years. With global warning thawing the permafrost, there is a risk of further anthrax spore releases as evidenced by an anthrax outbreak in 2016 amongst reindeer which was linked to a 75-year old carcass that defrosted during a heat wave.
For anyone wishing to view the Home Office pamphlet from 1921, it has an archive reference NAEST 46/13 and can be consulted in the IET Archives by appointment.