Joseph von Fraunhofer’s Toxic Death, Highlighted on Cosmos

 Did you see episode 5 of Cosmos and the story of Joseph von Fraunhofer? First, why not? Cosmos is an awesome show! This episode highlights von Fraunhofer’s life – his early life as an orphan working as a mirror and glass maker and his discoveries that further enhanced our global scientific knowledge. Cosmos mentioned how he died young, age 39, potentially from being exposed to the toxic glassmaking conditions. This caught my attention. Who am I kidding? Cosmos is so good that everything in it catches my attention.

I don’t have the experience in glass making to know what the conditions were like for someone making mirrors in the late 1700’s. But I can be certain that there wasn’t any OSHA to enforce wearing of respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE); no EPA to regulate the emissions and management of wastes; no NIOSH, no TLVs to be concerned with, and certainly no Hazardous Materials Managers.

The toxic heavy metals used in mirror making over the course of history have included copper, bronze, sliver, gold, lead, and mercury. I don’t know exactly what toxins young von Fraunhofer was inhaling. A mirror making historian might know, but I don’t know any mirror making historians. Due to the time, it was probably a combination of silver, lead and/or mercury. All poisonous heavy metals.

Beyond being poisonous, when we get heavy metals in our bodies, they don’t leave our bodies easily. They don’t pass through (or come back up). They get into your bloodstream and cause damage throughout.

Some of the biographies note that he died from tuberculoss, which is a lung disease. Whether it was tuberculosis enhanced from the toxins, or just lung disease from the toxin inhalation, it’s a pretty convincing argument that the mirror making chemicals did some damage. If only Joe had attended a HAZCOM, safety, or other hazardous material training course to learn about his potential exposures, maybe our scientfic knowledge of light and lenses would be even further enhanced today.