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1 The very name of arsenic conjures up images of murder and intrigue. It is in many ways the quintessential poison and was for centuries undoubtedly the most frequently used substance for the purpose of homicide. In the words of John Emsley, “Arsenic has a long and disreputable pedigree: its very name seems to condemn it as something unspeakable.”1 The word itself has a complicated history but ultimately seems to go back to the Greek word arsenikon, meaning “bold” or “potent.” Arsenic trioxide, also called arsenic oxide, is the form in which the element was most commonly administered in cases of murder, and frequently it is this compound that people were actually describing when they referred to arsenic.The oxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and dissolves readily in water and other liquids. It is thus not easy for the victim to detect that he or she is being poisoned.As it is a cumulative poison, small doses can be given over a long period of time, eventually killing someone without necessarily arousing suspicion. The prominent gastrointestinal effects of arsenic were easily mistaken for diseases that were common throughout much of history, such as cholera. Also, there weren’t any good tests for detecting arsenic in body tissues until well into the nineteenth century. Clearly, it is arsenic’s poisonous properties that have most fascinated the public over time. However, even this part of the story goes well beyond arsenic’s criminal uses. Countless individuals over the centuries have been the victims of unintentional poisoning with arsenic, especially in more modern times.Arsenic is much more than a poison used to dispatch one’s enemies or those who get in one’s way.Arsenic has had many commercial uses that made it a common substance in the workplace and the environment, especially Introduction 00_KingOfPoisons_FrontMatter_REV1 9/21/12 1:46 PM Page 1 2 KING OF POISONS beginning in the nineteenth century. Arsenic’s value as a green pigment, for example, led to its inclusion in wallpaper, paint, fabrics, and other common domestic items, exposing both the workers who produced these products and the consumers who purchased them to possible poisoning.Arsenic also had numerous other industrial uses, including as a pesticide and as a preservative . In addition, although it may seem odd given its poisonous reputation, arsenic has been used as a medicine since ancient times. This book tells the fascinating story of arsenic in its many aspects. It begins by looking at arsenic’s history as an intentional poison. Given its common use for this purpose throughout much of recorded history, arsenic has often been labeled the King of Poisons. The first chapter examines this murderous history . Not surprisingly, arsenic has been frequently used for homicidal purposes in fiction as well as in real life, and the second chapter will cover the history of arsenic in literature.The focus next turns to unintentional poisoning, looking first at arsenic poisoning in the workplace and then in the broader environment . The final chapter deals with the use of arsenic in medicine. To begin with, however, some general information about arsenic is in order.Arsenic is an element with the symbolAs, an atomic number of 33, and an atomic mass of 74.9. It is classified in Group 15 of the periodic table, along with nitrogen, phosphorous, antimony, and bismuth. The first two of these elements are nonmetals, and the last two are metals.Arsenic falls in the middle of this group and is considered a metalloid (i.e., it has properties of both metals and nonmetals, although it is frequently called a metal). Estimates of arsenic’s concentration in the Earth’s crust range from about 1 to 5 parts per million, meaning that it is not one of the more abundant terrestrial elements. But it is concentrated in some parts of the Earth due to its close association with certain other metals and due to human activities such as mining and pesticide manufacture. It also occurs in air and water, generally in small amounts, but again can be concentrated in certain areas, creating toxicity problems. For example, the high arsenic content of drinking water in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, is poisoning millions of people today. William Cullen has noted that “the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) ranks arsenic as No. 1 on its list of priority hazardous substances because of both its prevalence in contaminated environments and its toxicity.This ranking has not...


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MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
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