Weird Wednesdays: Using Arsenic for fun and profit

 Arsenic, though poisonous, can be used for safe and even profitable purposes if treated the right way. ( David Ward /Flickr)

Arsenic, though poisonous, can be used for safe and even profitable purposes if treated the right way. (David Ward/Flickr)

It’s green. It’s mean. It’s a lean killing machine, and, no, it’s not the Hulk. Instead, it’s every poisoner and cancer doctor's best friend: arsenic.

A heavy metal and an element (Atomic number 33, abbreviated as As on the periodic table) arsenic is found around volcanoes and in smaller amounts in certain types of volcanic soils (which goes to show you shouldn’t trust everything that says it’s “found in nature!”) Discovered in 1250 A.D. by the Greek Albertus Magnus (No relation to the Catholic college in New Haven) the compound was prized for its beautiful green colour — and its ability to kill people.

Arsenic, like an efficient military general, kills by cutting of cell’s food chains. It disrupts the metabolic process (the thing that makes your cells run and burn oxygen) by attacking enzymes that transport electrons and process ATP. As cells die off, the victim starts experiencing a lovely variety of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea and eventually a coma before death.

Since it’s a heavy metal, arsenic tends to kill by building up in the body. Those exposed often display a curious side-effect: fingernails with a distinctive white striping, known as Mee’s lines. This is typical for heavy metal poisoning and is also seen in chemotherapy patients.

Arsenic, ultimately, isn’t all bad. The key to poison is dosage: water can kill just as easily mercury, so long as the unfortunate individual consumes enough of it. Arsenic in small, carefully applied doses can disrupt cell function in all the right ways, by killing off cancer masts. Arsenic is found in a wide variety of chemotherapy treatments, and has saved countless lives as a result.

It wasn’t always this way. Arsenic was the poison of choice for many ambitious nobles looking to off their rivals and claw their way up in society. Called poudre de succession (“inheritance powder”) by the French, it was a clean and easy way to remove, uh, obstacles throughout history.

Part of its appeal was the fact that, like iocane, arsenic was odorless, colourless and tasteless in most forms. Victims could be poisoned slowly, over time as the heavy metal built up in their bodies. The symptoms of poisoning aligned with other ailments, such as cholera, and the element could even be passed through breastmilk, providing a way for unscrupulous successors to kill off infant rivals.

Arsenic poisoning lost effectiveness, however, by 1836, when the chemist James Marsh invented the Marsh test: a chemical method that was able to detect arsenic in bodily fluids with great efficiency.

Assassination wasn’t the only use for the metal. Arsenic's green hue made it appealing to use as a coloring for clothing, makeup and decorations. Victorian ladies would often be slowly poisoned through their green, arsenic-tainted dresses, or from fake bouquets of flowers dusted with green arsenic powder.

In fact, it’s suspected that Napoleon may have succumbed to arsenic poisoning, as the wallpaper in his St. Helena home (where he retreated to after his exile) was dyed with arsenic, and the lack of decomposition in his corpse pointed to the presence of the metal in his system after his death.

Though it’s used for medicine in the modern day, using arsenic for health purposes isn’t new. In the 1800s, companies touted arsenic pills for weight loss and health (which, indeed, did make you lose weight — and your life.) Makeup containing arsenic has been used in society since the time of the Egyptians.

An even weirder use for arsenic: a performance enhancer. Peasants in Styria, Austria, traditionally ate arsenic found naturally around the village, for both strength and for the warm, tingly feeling experienced after consuming it. Over time, the villagers built an immunity to it, to the point where grown men could safely consume a dosage that would kill most.

Finally, arsenic has found perhaps the most noble use of them all: keeping pigeon poop off of statues. Researchers found that an alloy of arsenic, iron, lead and copper was a stellar pigeon deterrent when applied to monuments. It’s also a stellar reason not to go around licking statues.

There you have it. It’s a poison, it’s a panacea and it’s 100 percent natural. Use it as you will — just try not to get caught. Stay weird!


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.