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Poisons in History: Arsenic and other heavy Metals

Heavy metals are metals that are denser than water. All of the heavy metals are toxic in the right dose, but the ones that we tend to think of as the most toxic are cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and arsenic.

Mercury, lead and arsenic were abundant in Victorian Britain.

Mercury was found in barometers, thermometers, hats, and syphilis medication. Lead was found in makeup, pipes, roofing, paint, and children’s toys.

Arsenic was a firm favourite of the time, and used in many different settings for many different reasons. From being used as a rat poison, to a component of ‘Scheele’s green dye’. Scheele’s Green Dye was used in wallpaper, fake foliage, and dresses.

In Victorian Britain, poison was everywhere. The effects of this were felt all to well.

Heavy metals work by accumulating in vital parts of your body such as bones, brain, heart, liver, and kidneys. As they do this, they displace the space needed for other minerals and molecules. The heavy metals start to bind to proteins and enzymes and other structures rendering them unable to function properly. When we see this in the brain and nervous system, it results in seizures, mood swings and delirium.

This was the case with Victorian hat makers. It’s where we get the term ‘mad hatter’ from as they were chronically exposed to mercury during hat production. A build-up of heavy metals over time will leave signs. Mee’s lines banding in the fingernails can be seen, and there will also be hair loss. Today we will be able to detect the heave metal in hair and nail samples. As you can imagine with so many poisons freely about accidents do happen.

Arsenic is a white powder that is odourless with a slight sweet taste. It often got mistaken for other white powders. The most famous case of this happening was the Bradford sweet poisoning in 1858. At this time sugar was so expensive that confectioners and bakers often bulked up their batches with plaster of paris. A mistake at the apothecary lead to arsenic trioxide being given instead of plaster of paris.

Overall, 20 people died and 200 people took ill. It takes just an 8th of a teaspoon of arsenic to kill a person and each humbug sweet was said to contain enough arsenic to kill two people.

During the Victorian period the ‘Sale of Arsenic Act’ was passed so that arsenic had to be coloured indigo or black so it couldn’t be mistaken for sugar any longer. It was also a requirement to record details of anyone purchasing arsenic. James Marsh, a chemist, went on to develop a test for arsenic in the body in response to many accidental and purposeful poisonings.

‘The Mash Test’ (with some updates), was used by forensic toxicologists to detect arsenic all the way up to the 1970’s.

These days, the usual method to test for poisoining is by toxicology screening, usually by using a urine or blood sample.

Got your tickets yet? Discover more about poisoning and the affects it has on the human body at our brand new show, ‘The Death of Anton Orlov’. Touring nationwide from September, tickets selling fast:


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