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Women's work.

Neurasthenia was a popular diagnosis in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The symptoms of fatigue, muscle weakness, poor digestion, numb hands and fingers, lack of concentration, tachycardia, and forgetfulness, among others, were said to be caused by nervous exhaustion. George Miller Beard, MD, who first described the condition, attributed the cause to the hectic life in America, erosion of religious faith, the mental activity of women, industrialization, bad habits, weakness of character, and cerebral occupations. It was said to affect men and women in equal numbers and the upper classes more than the working class, but this may have been a case of terminology. While those with social status were diagnosed with neurasthenia, those in the lower class were often diagnosed with hysteria or insanity. The only known cure was a temporary withdrawal from society into a simpler life, with rest for the women and vigorous exercise for the men.

The term neurasthenia has largely fallen out of favor and been replaced with the term neurosis. One place that it has remained current though, is in some journal articles about multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), wherein it is used as a synonym for MCS or as a euphemism for "inability to cope." What often follows is an attempt to make the case that MCS is a somatoform disorder. But what if we examine neurasthenia as being a condition similar to MCS and triggered by toxic exposures? Though we tend to think of that age as being pre-chemical revolution, it in fact was not. The Industrial Age was booming and pollution controls were nonexistent. The practice of medicine relied upon many chemicals that today we would consider hazardous. And what has never been considered then and now are the chemical exposures found in "women's work" in the home.

It was the woman's job to make sure that the home was neat and clean and the family well attired, especially if social status was a concern. There were books of the time that offered helpful hints, such as Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis's Cook Book, published in 1908. (1) A sampling of household hints:

* Some of the products to keep on hand for cleaning include naphtha soap, sugar of lead, benzene, gasoline, ether, chloroform, oxalic acid, tartaric acid, muriatic acid, spirits of turpentine, sulfuric ether, and flowers of sulfur.

* To remove grease stains from clothing, moisten with butter or olive oil and rub with chloroform.

* To clean silk, apply gasoline and benzene with a sponge. Rinse in alcohol.

* To dry-clean woolen garments, first dust and then rub soap on spots. Put large pieces into an earthen jar and cover with gasoline. Soak and then rub it well, then souse it up and down and transfer to another container of fresh gasoline. Hang outside for 2 to 3 days to dry.

* To clean gloves, draw the gloves onto the hands. Wash them in gasoline as one would wash their hands. Wipe off excess gasoline and continue wearing them until they are half dry, then hang them on the line outdoors. Turpentine was used for this purpose prior to the discovery of gasoline.

* Polish silver by using flannel dipped in kerosene and dry whiting.

* To clean copperware, dip a cloth in gasoline or kerosene, sprinkle with brick bath or pumice, and polish.

* To keep down bedbugs, fumigate with hydrocyanic acid gas. If this is not possible, apply gasoline and benzene generously to joints of the bed and baseboards.

Another source of information can be found in Dr. Gunn's New Family Physician or Homebook of Health. (2) Dr. Gunn covers just about all aspects of life in his books, including care of the home:

* Coal tar in almost any form is employed as a disinfectant. Meat steeped for 24 hours in a solution of one part creosote to 100 parts water is rendered incapable of putrefaction and acquires a delicate flavor of smoke.

* Nitrate of lead is a most useful and cheap agent for deodorizing a close apartment and the bedding and clothing of sick persons.

* Formolin [sic] is the best disinfectant and fumigant known. The gaseous form is the one that is used for fumigating purposes. ... where a contagious disease has been.

Reading through just a few of the hundreds of household hints, it is easy to see how not only the woman could be overexposed to harmful substances but the entire family as well.

Housework in the 21st century is still a chemical enterprise, but with hundreds of products available. Unlike pharmaceuticals and pesticides, these products are not required to meet safety standards. In addition, the chemicals used in the home are considered consumer products, so they do not come with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) or permissible exposures limits regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Some MSDSs can be accessed on the Internet, but obtaining a complete list of the ingredients may be impossible, since the manufacturers are allowed to keep some secret as proprietary information. As an example, one air freshener has one to three ingredients on its MSDS, but testing done by the Environmental Working Group found over 80 airborne contaminants.' One woman commenting on a housekeeping blog said that she enjoyed the scent of the product but was bothered by the fact that her baby smelled like the air freshener. Think about that.

Our housekeeping products may have changed since the days of neurasthenia, but then as now, these products are in the air that we breathe, on our skin, and in our food. Who determined that they are of no consequence and just what fallacies exist that have allowed traditional women's work in the home to be invisible to our medical community, government regulatory bodies, and health research organizations? Why is it not standard practice to inquire as to the products used in the home when there is a health problem? As more and more people present with "unexplained illnesses," it is long past time that our health institutions rid themselves of their blinders and address the chemical soup that exists in most homes today.

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(1.) Morse S. Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis's CookBook. New York: Success Company; 1908.

(2.) Dr. Gunn's New Family Physician or Home Book of Health, New York: Saalfield Publishing Company; 1911.

(3.) Sutton R. Your best air freshener isn't an air freshener [online article]. Environmental Working Group. Accessed August 14, 2013.
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Title Annotation:household work and cleaning agents
Author:Duff, Katherine
Publication:Townsend Letter
Article Type:Guest editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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