Between 1837 and 1839, more than 500 people died of accidental arsenic poisoning in England, and a look at a Victorian household is enough to make one wonder why that number wasn’t significantly higher, with household manuals of the time recommending various combinations of flour, oatmeal, or other grains, mixed with butter, honey, and arsenic as bait for rats and other pests–guaranteed to attract small children and household pets, too! Arsenic was mixed with water for washing the floors to deter insects, and the powder itself, stored in pantries and cupboards, was frequently mistaken for flour, sugar, or baking soda. It could be found in rice and frequently made it’s way into open containers of food left unattended, purely by happenstance (or, perhaps, something more sinister). Additionally, arsenic was used as a sheep dip and an anti-insect coating for mattresses, and could be found in soap, shampoo, face cream, paint, printing ink, toys, candles, and shockingly, food coloring. Despite the known dangers of arsenic, it was used as a colorant for sweets.
And yet people still wondered why the accidental death rate due to arsenic poisoning was so high.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was also commonly used as a medication. Charles Darwin was one of many who used it to treat eczema. Asthmatics were prescribed pipes filled with an arsenic/tobacco mix. It was used as a bodywash by those with scabies and also as a treatment for syphilis. In India, it was mixed with black pepper to treat snake bites, and in Austria it was even used as an early form of Viagra.
The alchemists of the middle ages may not have succeeded in turning lead into gold, but they had certainly found plenty of uses for arsenic!
While arsenic dyes had been around for thousands of years in the form of orpiment and realgar, things really started to get interesting in 1775 when Scheele’s green, a brilliant emerald colored dye made of copper arsinate, hit the markets. Invented by a Swiss chemist that it was ultimately named for, Scheele’s green was immediately popular for it’s vivacity and was used in everything from paint, wallpaper, and fabric dyes to toys and food coloring. It joined Naples Yellow (another arsenic derivative), Prussian Blue (a cyanide salt), vermilion (made from mercury) and cadmium based pigments on the shelves of Victorian decorators, milliners, book binders, toy shops, and more. Even pure, simple white was not to be trusted as it was frequently made either from lead or arsenic trioxide.
About sixty years and a slight formula change later brought about Emerald green, also called Paris green–not for it’s use among Parisian society or to add a sense of grandeur, but because it was used to kill rats in the sewers under the city.
Despite the dangers, there were no regulations on the sale of arsenic or anything made from it. Anyone could walk down to their local chemist and purchase half an ounce for just a penny–enough to kill fifty people! There were no regulations regarding the labeling of poisons or how they should be handled in shops. This contributed to the rate of accidentally poisonings as it was continually mistaken for other common household powders.
After direct ingestion, the greatest arsenic threat came from two sources: contact and inhalation.
Arsenic, when absorbed through the skin, causes a variety of subtle symptoms ranging from white lines in the fingernails that might go unnoticed to weight loss, skin irritation and lesions, diarrhea, jaundice, respiratory ailments, cardiac disease, and eventually diabetes and cancer, though these may not have been recognized as such in the 1800s. Symptoms might take hours or days, or even years to appear, but many deaths were reported in conjunction with everything from ball gowns (one commonly quoted story involves a Scheele’s green gown with enough loose arsenic on it’s surface to kill 12 people) to underwear. Stockings (dyed with arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and cyanide, among other hazardous materials) were known to leave chemical burns on the skin, and in extreme cases left men and women crippled. Hats and gloves were dyed with arsenic, furs were preserved with it. Topped with the wide variety of topical health and beauty treatments prescribed at the time, this meant that women were more likely to suffer from accidental poisoning, but the tradition of poison as a women’s tool meant that they were also more likely to be accused of murder during the 1830s and 40s, when the accidental deaths were at their height.
The inhalation of toxic arsenic fumes presented another problem altogether, since those fumes could come from any of the sources mentioned above, and even after an accurate test to detect arsenic was developed (called the Marsh test after it’s creator, it was initially created to detect arsenic in human tissue, but could also be used to test other substances), testing the air was difficult to impossible at the time. For many years, it was thought that paint, wallpaper, and arsenic pigments on other hard surfaces caused harm when green particles of dust filtered down, but in most cases, this was not so. In fact, most tests at the time confirmed that once painted on the walls, no harmful gases were given off. While these tests may not have been completely accurate, any arsenic in the air was certainly lower than the levels discovered later, when the magic ingredient for deadly decorating was discovered.
In the mid 1800s, it was noted that in damp households decorated with Emerald green paper there was frequently a “mousy” odor. Over time a correlation began to appear between these unpleasant smells, brightly decorated homes, and the health of the inhabitants. An 1893 study revealed that four different types of molds liked Emerald green even more than the British populace—to their detriment. The most dangerous, Penicillium brevicaule (a cousin to the mold that would eventually become penicillin), would cause the décor to give off arsenic-laced gas as it ate away at the walls. Truly, it is no wonder that so many city doctors prescribed “fresh, country air” as a cure-all for their patients, and why it was such a well respected treatment. The dangers from these pigments were not just to the end user, but to the manufacturer and their employees, who spent hour upon hour in poorly lit, poorly ventilated work rooms, breathing in toxic fumes day after day. These men, women, and even children painted, sewed, and printed themselves into early graves as arsenic and other poisons entered their skin and lungs, were licked off the tips of pointed paintbrushes, settled into clothing and hair, and even combusted. Lung disease, psychological disorders, and cancer could all occur within a year or two of taking a job such a factory. Yet with consumer demand high throughout the century for bright colors and patterns, it was one field where jobs always abounded.