An Everyday Poison


Arsenic is used as a healing agent after Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen who popularized its use.

Compound arsenic solutions came in tablets, pastes, and later, injectable forms.

Victorian Era

Arsenic is an active ingredient in popular medicines.

Arsenic poisoning mimicked diseases like cholera and dysentery.

"The infiltration of arsenic into 19th-century domestic life was the template for pollution in the modern industrial world. One of the most disturbing discoveries in my research was how cavalier candy-makers were in using poison to increase their profits." - James C. Whorton, The Arsenic Century

Arsenic is used in wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, cosmetics, wrapping paper, painted toys, sheep dip, insecticides, clothing, dead bodies, stuffed animals, hat ornaments and candles.

"Green wallpaper in particular had larger quantities of the poison arsenic.

Arsenic affects individuals differently depending on age and level of protein in their diets.

Because of this, some members of a household could be stricken with illness and others may not.

People knew arsenic was poisonous but believed it had to be ingested to cause illness.

Most didn’t yet understand that products with arsenic could release the toxin into the air.

Small amounts of arsenic that were deadly to children and the elderly were easily metabolized by healthy adults, which is one of the reasons it took many people so long to accept that arsenic wallpaper was harmful." - Rodneydodson

Chronic arsenic poisoning became common among high society.

In melodramas, "going into the green room" was tantamount to falling sick.

"White arsenic (arsenious oxide) was the poisoner’s first choice owing to its easy accessibility and its mimicry of the gastrointestinal illnesses of the day, including cholera.

Poverty-stricken parents used arsenic to rid themselves of excess children; wives used it against husbands and husbands against wives; children used it against parents.

The new life-insurance industry added to the temptation: one woman, Mary Ann Cotton, murdered her mother, three husbands, a fiancé, and many of her 15 children and stepchildren for insurance payouts." - Michal Meyer

Arsenic ubiquity left Victorian murderers and murderesses with ample alibis.

1851 Napoleon Bonaparte dies of arsenic posioning.

White Arsenic

Fowler's Solution

1% arsenic trioxide preparation, was widely used during the 19th century.

British Pharmaceutical and Therapeutic Products lists Fowler's solution as used for: leukaemia, skin conditions (psoriasis, dermatitis herpetiformis, and eczema), stomatitis and gingivitis in infants, and Vincent's angina.

Fowler's solution was also prescribed as a health tonic.

Chronic arsenic intoxication from long term use of Fowler's solution caused haemangiosarcoma, liver angiosarcoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

Arsenic was the primary treatment for syphilis until World War II.

Arsphenamine (neoarsphenamine), a 30% arsenic light yellow compound was used intravenously to treat syphilis, yaws, and protozoan infections.

Paris Green

Copper(II) acetate triarsenite or copper(II) acetoarsenite.

A highly toxic inorganic emerald-green crystalline powder used as a rodenticide and insecticide, and also as a pigment, despite its toxicity.

It is also used as a blue colorant for fireworks.

The color of Paris Green is said to range from a pale blue green when very finely ground, to a deeper green when coarsely ground.

At the turn of the 20th century, Paris Green, blended with lead arsenate, is used in America and elsewhere as an insecticide on produce such as apples.

Paris Green is said "to have burned the trees and grass around the trees".


Arsenic trioxide (As2O3) is now widely used to induce remission in patients with acute promyelocytic leukaemia, based on its mechanism as an inducer of apoptosis (programmed cell death).

Arsenic induces apoptosis by releasing an apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) from the mitochondrial intermembrane space from where it translocates to the cell nucleus.

AIF then effects apoptosis, resulting in altered nuclear biochemistry, chromatin condensation, DNA fragmentation, and cell death.

AIF is a isolated, cloned flavoprotein with a molecular weight of 57,000.

57,000-mol-wt protein uniquely present in nonproliferating cells and senescent human fibroblasts

The flavoprotein family contains a diverse range of enzymes, including:

Adrenodoxin reductase involved in steroid hormone synthesis in vertebrates;

Epidermin biosynthesis, EpiD, shown to be a flavoprotein that binds FMN;

The B chain of dipicolinate synthase, an enzyme which catalyses the formation of dipicolinic acid from dihydroxydipicolinic acid;

Phenylacrylic acid decarboxylase EC 4.1.1. - a resistance enzyme to cinnamic acid.


Diarrhea attributed to increased permeability of the blood vessels is a dominant feature.

Encephalopathy is a common manifestation and the possibility of arsenic toxicity must be considered if the aetiology of encephalopathy is uncertain.

The neurological effects are many and varied.

The most frequent finding is a peripheral neuropathy mimicking Guillain-Barré syndrome with similar electromyographic findings.

2015 Phosphate fertilizer source of arsenic in chronic kidney disease in Sri Lanka

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