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Although the uses for arsenic were limited before about 1800, the employment of arsenic compounds exploded in the nineteenth century, which medical historian James Whorton has dubbed the “arsenic century.” Arsenic found a host of uses in the home, on the farm, and in various industries during this time period.Whorton summarized the situation with respect to the ubiquitous presence of arsenic as follows: Agreat deal of it was introduced purposely into many of the components of everyday life, with the result that people took it in with fruits and vegetables , swallowed it with wine, inhaled it from cigarettes, absorbed it fromcosmetics,andimbibeditevenfromthepintglass....Thesubstance was present in a broad assortment of household items from candies and candles to cookware, concert tickets, and preserved partridge heads used to ornament ladies headdresses. . . . Christmas tree ornaments and children ’s stuffed animals, no less, were often arsenical, and the money used to purchase all these products was itself sometimes contaminated.1 Another medical historian, Peter Bartrip, also listed some of the many Victorian goods that contained arsenic: “These included clothes, soap, books, kitchen-ware, glass and glassware, paint and distemper, artificial and dried flowers, stuffed animals, playing cards, paper and packaging, candles, handkerchiefs, fly-papers, lampshades, soft-furnishings, artificial leaves and fruit, patent medicine, and wallpaper.”2 Not surprisingly, the presence of arsenic in so many products in the nineteenth century resulted in many people suffering from unintentional arsenic 109 c h a p t e r f o u r The Ubiquitous Element Arsenic in the Environment 04_KingOfPoisons_Chapter04_REV1 9/21/12 2:00 PM Page 109 110 KING OF POISONS poisoning. It was not only the workers involved in industrial processes involving arsenic who were subject to the chemical’s poisonous effects but the consumers who used arsenic-impregnated articles. As Whorton noted, “Whether at home amidst arsenical curtains and papers, or at play swirling about the papered, curtained ballroom in arsenical gowns and gloves, no one was beyond the poison’s reach.”3 Not all arsenic in the environment comes from man-made sources, however . Significant quantities of the metal occur naturally.Arsenic is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust, existing in over 150 different minerals. It is estimated that about one-third of the arsenic in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, primarily volcanoes. Nevertheless, the great majority of arsenic in the environment is a result of human activity, such as metal mining and smelting, pesticide use, wood combustion, and waste incineration. Most of this arsenic is released into land or soil, but substantial amounts are also released to air and water. Deadly Shades of Green Workers involved in the manufacture of arsenical pigments and in the use of these substances for coloring wallpaper, artificial flowers, and other products often fell victim to arsenic poisoning. But what of these products once they left the factory and entered the home? Before the late eighteenth century , green color was usually produced by copper compounds that did not give a very intense hue. The introduction of arsenical pigments such as Scheele’s green and Paris green in the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, however, provided manufacturers of colored articles with much more intense and bright green colors. Methods were developed to produce various shades of green from these pigments, which quickly came to dominate the market for green colors. About seven hundred tons of Scheele’s green was manufactured in England alone in 1860. Arsenical pigments were used to some extent in other colors as well.4 By the middle of the nineteenth century, shades of green had become especially fashionable, particularly for women’s clothing and home furnishings . Green paints were applied to walls, as well as to items ranging from shelves to Venetian blinds to children’s toys. Paint would often flake off or 04_KingOfPoisons_Chapter04_REV1 9/21/12 2:00 PM Page 110 THE UBIQUITOUS ELEMENT: ARSENIC IN THE ENVIRONMENT 111 be accidentally rubbed off walls and other surfaces.Arsenical dust could then be inhaled or paint chips ingested by young children. Paint on toys was often loosely applied and easily removed, especially by children putting the toys in their mouths. The noted British toxicologist Alfred Taylor reported that he noticed patches of green on the lower crust of a loaf of bread that he had purchased. He analyzed the green material and found it to consist of Scheele’s green. Upon inquiry, he discovered that the green paint had recently been used to cover the...


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MARC Record
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