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Another Christmas tale from the BMJ

December 25, 2009 |  4:34 pm

In the winter of 1872-73, 17 sealers who were trapped by a premature winter north of Spitsbergen in Norway decided to stay put in a house that had been liberally supplied with canned food.  When rescuers came for them in the spring, all 17 were dead. The rescuers, who had no medical experts among them, assumed that the sealers had all died of scurvy -- a less then honorable death since they had been given adequate instruction on how to avoid the disease before their trip.  But two Norwegian researchers may now have rescued them from ignominy, demonstrating that they were more likely to have died from the stored food they ate, according to research published online by the journal BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal. Their conclusion: The sailors died of lead poisoning that resulted from the relatively new technique of canning.

Six Norwegian sealing vessels set out from Tromso in September 1872, but a premature northern gale caused the harbor at Grey Hook to freeze over, trapping them.  At the same time, the Swedish explorer Adolf Nordenskiold was setting up his winter quarters at Mossel Bay, where his ships were also trapped. Seven of the sealers walked 30 miles across the ice to reach him looking for help, but he was low on food himself and suggested they try to reach a house set up the previous summer and stocked with food by a mining company.  Seventeen of the men rowed 220 miles over seven days to reach the Swedish House at Kapp Thordsen in Isfjorden.  Most of the rest were able to escape on two ships when the ice broke up a few days later.  Two men who volunteered to remain with the remaining ships died of scurvy, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C and was normally treated then with lime juice.

The men at Swedish House hunted reindeer and polar bear until the Arctic night set in, then relied on the stored food.  By Christmas, all were sick, and all died over the next few months -- the last one probably just a few days before rescuers reached them in June.

Dr. Ulf Aasebo, a pulmonologist at the University of Tromso, and Kjell G. Kjaer, a retired historian of science at the school, visited the site and received permission to exhume one of the unlucky sealers. They found no evidence of scurvy, which normally leaves distinctive traces on bone.  Instead, they found toxic levels of lead in the bones.  Surveying the site, they also found large numbers of tin cans that had once held the food consumed by the men.  The seams of the cans had been poorly soldered, with large amounts of solder exposed to the food -- even "icicles" of solder inside the cans.  Considering that many of the cans contained acidic foods, which would dissolve lead, and that the men heated the food on stoves in the cans, the only conclusion is that the men died of lead poisoning.

This was not the first time cans had been implicated in Arctic deaths. In 1845, Adm. John Franklin set out in Canada with 129 men and two ships to find the Northwest Passage, taking large amounts of tinned food. The expedition was equipped for four years, but was never heard from again.  In 1859, a written account of their disaster was found in a cairn of stones.  The ships had been wrecked by ice and the men began walking south, dying along the way. In the 1980s, a team from the University of Alberta exhumed three sailors buried in the permafrost and found toxic concentrations of lead in their hair.  Bones found along the potential escape route also showed high lead levels, while those of the native Inuit did not.  Clearly, lead was the cause of their demise as well.

Video of Aasebo and Kjaer's work can be found here.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II

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