Feral Units Endanger Our Health

By The Metric Maven

Last year, I spent one beautiful afternoon driving back roads through the Rocky Mountains with my friend Thern, who is a Mechanical Engineer.
I don’t recall the conversation exactly, but at some point I was complaining about receiving an engineering drawing in mils. My friend swiftly turned his head, looked me in the eyes and said “mils are a bullshit, made-up unit.” I found his visceral, candid and accurate response refreshing. When later talking with Sven, another pro-metric friend, about mils, I thought I heard him call them “feral units.” The designation was perfect. A feral organism is one that has changed from being domesticated, to being wild or untamed. The word derives from the Latin word fera which means “a wild beast.” A mil is a feral engineering unit indeed.

What is a mil? Well, according to engineering folklore a mil is one-thousandth of an inch. The British use the word mil as a slang term for millimeter. Confusing a unit which is 25 um with one that is 1000 um,  is an error of about a factor of about 40. When American
engineers work with British engineers on a project, this could be the source of some serious mistakes.

The two feral units which are probably the most dangerous to humans, you probably use every time you follow a cooking recipe. They are the teaspoon and tablespoon. Some readers may almost find this assertion preposterous, but, as I will demonstrate, it is not. In America we use the abbreviations Tsp for teaspoon, and Tbl for tablespoon.

When I was growing up, and became sick, my mother would obtain liquid medicine from a doctor, and then obtain a teaspoon or tablespoon from our silverware drawer. Unfortunately, there is no requirement that a teaspoon or tablespoon of flatware hold a prescribed volume. The label on the brown bottle would have the dosages typewritten in terms of teaspoons or tablespoons.

If one looks at a set of measuring spoons used in cooking, metric equivalents are generally stamped or printed on them. A teaspoon is designated as 5 mL and a tablespoon is 15 mL. (In Australia a teaspoon tablespoon is 20 mL) The ratio in volume is obviously three. It is well known that the abbreviations Tsp and Tbl are easily confused. This has led to cases of people receiving 1/3 of the required dosage of a medicine or three times the recommended dosage. Not long ago I exchanged emails with a woman who has become interested in metric issues because her child was incorrectly medicated because of Tsp versus Tbl. Studies indicate that approximately 98,000 Americans die each year from incorrect dosage, and medical errors which can be directly tied back to the lack of the Metric System in the United States

How long has the medical establishment known about the danger posed by feral units? I’m not sure, but here is a column from The Journal of The American Medical Association, dated September 20, 1902 (page 712):

The problem has been understood for over 100 years, since the days of John Shafroth, but nothing is as permanent as American inaction when it comes to adopting the metric system. This adoption must be mandatory and exclusive.  It is my understanding, that legislation mandating over the counter medicines include dosage cups with milliliters, has been perennially thwarted by business and industry.

America is a country that is very sensitive to the welfare of children. The population at most risk from large dosage mistakes are children, yet this needless endangerment  continues–only in America. All other countries (except Myanmar and Liberia) are metric and this is not a health issue. Clearly, feral units that wander the shelves of America have the potential to kill.

The ferocity of Tsp and Tbl are anemic by comparison to the difference between gram and grain. A gram is a metric unit, a grain?–well here what Wikipedia has to say:

A grain is a unit of measurement of mass that is nominally based upon the mass of a single seed of a cereal. From the Bronze Age into the Renaissance the average masses of wheat and barley grains were part of the legal definition of units of mass.

They go on:

The fundamental unit of the troy, apothecary and avoirdupois systems, commonly known as the grain (or less commonly the barleycorn), is nominally based on the grain of barley.

Well, there isn’t just one type of grain for mass, there is the grain, the troy grain, the pearl grain and the metric grain. Don’t even get me started on the insanity of mixed “units” like metric grain and metric ton. The grain we generally talk about is the one where 7000 grains are equal to one avoirdupois pound.

I might hear you say, but we don’t weigh things in grains. Well here is Wikipedia again:

The grain is used to measure the mass of bullets, gunpowder, smokeless powder, and preformed gold foil; it is the measure used by the balances used in handloading; bullets are measured in increments of one grain, gunpowder in increments of 0.1 grains. Moreover, the grain is used to weigh fencing equipment, including the foil. In archery, the grain is used to weigh arrows and arrow parts.

Unfortunately the grain is also sometimes used in medical prescriptions in the US, this is where an almost 65:1 error is possible. If the only legal system for trade in the US was exclusively the metric system, and it was enforced, it’s all grams—period, it’s all milliliters—period, it’s the simplest way known to describe these quantities—period.

This is true only  if we use accepted SI designations. For instance, the abbreviation for milligram is mg and microgram is μg. This is very important as the dosage difference between milligram and microgram is a factor of 1000. Unfortunately, vitamin bottles use MG for milligram and MCG for microgram. These are feral designations.

A Dateline NBC program entitled: “The Validity of Vitamin Bottle Labels” which aired on March 18, 2012, relates the story of a number of women who were poisoned taking vitamins. There is no regulation of natural “dietary supplements” so anyone can start a vitamin company. Anyone can just send a list of ingredients to a chemical vendor and create a “dietary supplement,”  and offer it for sale to the public. One business used MG when the dosage was supposed to be MCG for the amount of Selenium dioxide in a “dietary supplement” concoction. Women taking this “supplement” began to lose their hair, nails, and had joint pain. The use of feral metric designations in medicine, endangers the public health.

It is long past time for the US to require only the domesticated metric units used by the rest of the world. Feral units can then be safely isolated in a museum for all to gaze upon, knowing they are safely confined, where they can do no harm.

Updated 2012-07-11 The information that approximately 98,000 Americans die each year from the lack of metric was added. It was pointed out by a reader, that I also used teaspoon instead of tablespoon in describing the 20 mL measure used in Australia. This was unintentional, and shows the ease of confusion.

A Tale of Two Iowans

Iowa Representative John Kasson

By The Metric Maven

Double Bulldog Dare Edition

A primary motivation for my metric research has been to understand why the metric system was not implemented by the US in the late 1970s. Beyond the fact that the metric legislation was at best symbolic, and at worst a political joke, there has been almost no forward movement in our government for metrication in over 32 years. Why is this? Recently I ran across a tale of two Iowans which fits into this larger puzzle.

The first Iowan is John Adam Kasson (1822-1910). He was a Republican Member of the US House of Representatives from approximately 1863 to 1884. He lived in Des Moines and was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln. In 1866 Kasson penned The Metric Act of 1866. Kasson became a leading advocate for the metric system, and was made the Chairman of the Committee on a Uniform System of Coinage, Weights and Measures. He advocated for metric adoption his entire lengthy life. Historian Charles F. Treat states: “To him belongs most of the credit for the enactment of the 1866 Act legalizing the use of the metric system.” The metric system was made legal, but no date for mandatory adoption was set. There was great optimism for the future of the metric system in the US:

The interests of trade among a people so quick as ours to receive and adopt a useful novelty, will soon acquaint practical men with its convenience. When this is attained–a period, it is hoped not distant–a further Act of Congress can fix the date for its exclusive adoption as a legal system. At an earlier period it may be safely introduced into all public offices, and for government service.

Senator Sumner, who was on the Senate side of the legislation in 1866, was very optimistic about mandatory adoption of the metric system in the US.

The metric battle in the early years of the twentieth century came and went without metric adoption. As the century progressed, country after country adopted the metric system as it’s exclusive system of weights and measures. By the 1970s, The US felt the global metric tidal wave, but only introduced voluntary conversion. There was enough international peer pressure however, to convince many members of the public, that US metrication was going to occur. In the mid 1970s newspapers had listings for local social meetings to learn the new system. Many people were certain we were serious about metric adoption. One newspaper column on collecting, recommended that people go out and buy old measurement vessels and such, because they would become antiques with more value after every thing became metric.

On September 7, 1975 The Sunday Des Moines Register looked back at Iowa’s contribution in advocating the metric system (page 4C). The paper related that it was Kasson’s legislation that provided metric standards to all the states of the union. The paper was optimistic that a bill authorizing metric conversion of the US had a good chance of passage in the next Session of Congress.

The Sunday Des Moines Register reported on January 11, 1976 that a majority of Iowa’s manufacturers (62%) were for metric adoption by the US (Page 14Y).

click to enlarge

On October 31, 1976 The Cedar Rapids Gazette had a full page devoted to metric which showed a photograph of a dual unit road sign (Page 4A).

The plan to change over the nations roadsigns, as reported by the Associated Press, went like this:

A highway administration official said there is no plan to print both metric and mileage figures on the highway signs to ease familiarization.

The official said the action is in line with the national switch to the metric system outlined in the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

The changeover will apply to every highway, road and city street in the country. Under the Metric Conversion Act, the highway administration can order the conversion even on roadways that receive no federal aid.

During the 90 days ending September 30, 1978, vertical clearance signs for over passes also will be changed to metric figures. Truck drivers accustomed to looking out for 10 foot warnings will have to learn to hit the brakes when they see a three meter sign.

Some American cars already contain markings for kilometers as well as miles, and automakers already are planning to install metric speedometers and odometers in all cars.

Motorists with old cars will not be required to buy new speedometers. They will be able to go metric simply by pasting a label over their speedometer.

Senator from Iowa Charles Grassley

I suspect that if we had converted all the road signs to metric in the late 1970s, it might have broken a considerable psychological obstacle  to conversion. But then another Iowan enters the tale. Representative Charles Grassley (1933- )  waged political war against metric road signs and single-handedly killed them on June 8, 1977. The Thursday June 9th Des Moines Register reported that:

“The Iowa Republican told his House colleagues that Federal Highway Administrator Willam Cox will withdraw proposed regulations that would have forced the conversion of highway signs to the metric system”

The Des Moines paper further related Grassley as:

“Denouncing kilometers as a “foreign system of measurement,” Grassley said that “forcing the American people to convert to the metric system goes against our democratic principles.”

The metric system was conceived and articulated by an Englishman, Bishop John Wilkins in 1668. Apparently because the French initiated its international stewardship and adoption, it is forever foreign. I suspect that—Now Senator Grassley—never bothered to research his forgone conclusion. He just didn’t like metric and had a Senatorial sized tantrum to stop it.

By October 1977, the US Weather Service announced it was indefinitely postponing its change to metric.

One wonders if Charles Grassley had not single-mindedly stopped metric highway signs in the 1970s–and who knows what else he has done behind the scenes to thwart metric since then,  we might at least have started metrication. Senator Grassley served as a Representative from (1975-1981), and from 1981 until the present day, he is the Senior US Senator from Iowa. One can only speculate how much the Senator has done to squelch all metric road sign legislation to this day, and the metric system in general. Currently, there is no metric legislation before congress, and has not been since at least 2008, and that legislation is anti-metric. For at least 32 years, the Senator has increased all the costs associated with physical creativity in this country, by opposing the metric system—single-handedly.

It seems very sad, ironic, and odd that a state which encourages education with great fervor, would elect the man who would stop the reform that could have saved each Iowan $16.00 per day–for decades.

When it was Iowa’s turn to have an image on the back of a quarter celebrating its acceptance as a state, they chose the one room school house where Grant Wood had gone to school. Why they continue to choose Charles “Chuck” Grassley to represent them, decade after decade, is a mystery to me.

The largest segment of Iowa’s Gross State Product is Manufacturing. On January 11, 1976 The Sunday Des Moines Register revealed that the majority of Iowa’s manufacturers wanted the change. So why didn’t Representative Grassley defer to that democratic majority?—where were his “democratic principles” then?

Senator Grassley’s polices continue to waste at least one year of instruction in our public schools because we have not switched over to the metric system.

Senator Grassley, passing laws against the future will not bring back, or preserve the world depicted by Grant Wood, nor should this be a goal. It is a false nostalgia, apparently personally motivated and saturated with emotion by you, that harms the manufacturing businesses that form the backbone of Iowa’s economy. It’s sad an Iowa Republican Representative, John Kasson, in 1866 was more far sighted and technically knowledgeable, than Republican Senator Grassley is in 2012.

Related Essays:

How Did We Get Here?

John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

Testimony from the 1921 Metric Hearings

The Metric Hearings of 1975 — The Limits of Social Norm in Metrication

Australian Metrication & US Procrastination

John Quincy Adams and The Metric System