The “Poison Squad” men who tested food additives on themselves

“Poison Squad” was the name contemporary newspapers gave the men at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who volunteered to test on themselves the toxicity of chemicals commonly added to foods at the beginning of the 20th century when little was known about their safety.

Conceived and managed by the Department’s Chief Chemist, Harvey Washington Wiley (pictured in the middle of the back row), the trials consisted of 12 agency employees at a time who ate all their meals in the basement of the department’s former Bureau of Chemistry building in Washington DC and were monitored for side effects.

At first, certain foods were laced with different amounts of the chemicals, but when the men started avoiding those foods, Wiley put the additives into gelatin capsules to be swallowed halfway through the meals.

The first five additives tested: borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and formaldehyde.  With borax, which manufacturers used to make rancid butter look like new, the men suffered nausea and loss of appetite and most were unable to finish the study.

The trials lasted five years from 1902 to 1907, but only a few of the results were made public because industry pressured the Secretary of Agriculture to suppress their publication.  The apparent last of the volunteers died in 1979 at the age of 94.

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