The Dangers of Paraffin Wax

We have some amazing and diverse items in the collection of the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry. But we were recently donated one of the most incredible (and shocking) collections that we think we’ll ever see. It’s a set of over 200 glass and photo negatives showing paraffin workers in various stages of Paraffin Dermatoses.

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Negatives donated to the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry

Shale has a number of by-products. Heated through a complicated process, one of the products to emerge is paraffin. As a result oil works began to spring up throughout Scotland to facilitate the turning of shale into paraffin.

addiewell oil works
Engraving depicting Addiewell Oil Works (LVSAV1996.021)

The problem for the industry employees was the effect of long-term exposure. In 1923 Alexander Scott, writing in the British Medical Journal, noted that after 20 years working with paraffin, workers became susceptible to warts, or papules, which would evolve into cancer.

Scott urged the industry to employ protective clothing, and warned that paraffin workers’ cleanliness was paramount. But the cancer rates remained high.

paraffin wax
Two men pressing paraffin wax onto a linen cloth. By the end of their shift they would be saturated in the harmful chemicals.

The cancer would get progressively worse over time, as highlighted by these images.

papule
A wart, or papule, on a oil works’ employee’s arm
papule
A wart, or papule, on a oil works’ employee’s hand

But whilst the long-term health threat continued for many decades after Scott’s report, the oil industry did try to mitigate the danger. In the 1930s Pumpherston Refinery built state-of-the-art baths for their employees. Similar ‘pit’ baths would be seen throughout Scotland until the demise of the shale and coal industries.

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Rules and regulations for Pumpherston Oil Refinery’s baths (LVSAV1993.028)
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Pumpherston Oil Refinery’s state-of-the-art baths (219275-046)