Thursday, February 21, 2008

More myths. "Alkali dust made most bleed from the lungs."

Is there any factual basis for the claim about the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad that: "Once the men reached the desert ... Alkali dust made most bleed from the lungs"?

A number of the details of the post that makes this claim are well known to be incorrect: There was no significant difference in pay of Chinese vs. other workers (Chinese workers were paid a dollar more), as the railroad did not provide Chinese food to those workers – they prepared it themselves. The myth about Chinese being "suspended in baskets" at Cape Horn is a fabrication. No dynamite was used – only black powder and nitroglycerine manufacured on site at the summit tunnel, as nitroglycerine was too dangerous to transport.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tuberculosis, the most common cause of hemoptysis, was common in the 19th century.

2/21/2008 7:39 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

Regarding the question of alkalai dust, I have walked and driven over alkalai flats for many years, and while blowing alkalai dust makes me cough, and makes my eyes "tear-up"; I have never, nor have I ever heard of anyone, coughing up blood from the lungs during those trips.

Those that are familiar with the Great Basin landscape will note, as I have have, that alkalai is most prevelent in dry lake beds, and once a traveler achieves an elevation above those dry lakes, alkalai ceases to become an issue. The Pequops, for example, do not have sufficient alkali present to become an issue.

The Owens River used to drain into Owens Lake, since that river has been diverted for use in the Los Angeles Basin, the Lake has become dry. The town of Keeler is located on the Northeastern side of what was Owens Lake, and friends that live there complain of the alkali dust being an irritant to their eyes, and provoking coughs, but, I have never heard those folks complain of coughing up blood.

My views are purely personal, made from my personal experiences and noted from anecdotal remarks from acquaintance, from those experiences I would question the "coughing up blood from the lungs" comment.


2/21/2008 12:26 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker"

I think a ENT-specialist physician might be best qualified to answer that question, but when you take a crew accustomed to a more moist climate and put them to hard labor in the Nevada and Utah fields, without modern breathing filtration devices, it begins to make some sense. Nevada is particularly noted for having some sectors with soils that are alkaline, but also present in many places are silica, serpentine (asbestos) and other raw materials that could do great damage to dry or unprotected lungs, nasal passages and throats. Utah soils around the lake zone have similar problems, compounded by the dense salts and other mineral deposits trapped loosely in the soil.

Assuming plenty of these workers rolled their own cigarettes, smoked cigars and pipes and breathed dust while laboring, the probability that they developed some severe lung and ear/nose/throat disorders or diseases wouldn't surprise me in the least. Their air passages and lungs would be under regular assault. I wouldn't be surprised if some didn't go on to develop silicosis or other long term, fatal diseases related to cancer from their earlier railroad construction labors.


2/21/2008 12:29 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


I can believe the dry climate induced nose bleeds, particularly while acclimatizing. And Alkali dust could be an irritant. My suspicion is that it's possible there was some lung issues for some workers – White and Chinese. But as per usual it sounds like they have taken the specific and painted with a broad brush as the long-lasting general condition.


2/21/2008 12:41 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Skepticism is warranted until someone can provide primary source documentation that this actually occurred and was prevalent.

A Google search does not find any reports indicating that "alkali desert" conditions cause "pulmonary hemorrhage."

A pulmonologist (Internal Medicine specialist in lung diseases) would likely advise that neither silicosis nor asbestosis causes rapid onset hemoptysis nor do other severe symptoms typically appear quickly. Silicosis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with lung fibrosis manifested by slowly developing and worstening shortness of breath, and asbestosis causes mesotheliomas, and lung cancers, especially in smokers, only decades later.

It would not be surprising if silicosis developed years later in workers who built the summit tunnel, but no reports of this have surfaced.

2/21/2008 1:30 PM  

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