Sometimes when we look back at history we have to wonder what were people thinking. Be it the Psychedelic styles of the 70’s, to the “Health and Safety” applied during construction of the Empire State Building in the 1930’s. However one particular habit of the Georgians and Victorians has to take the biscuit. That of using Arsenic as a colouring pigment in amongst other things wallpaper….and yes I did just say arsenic!
So called “Emerald Green” (later referred to by the Victorians as Paris Green) had been popular since Roman times, despite that fact that it was the use of an arsenic compound that gave it its distinct green colour. Throughout much of history it was only used in small quantities (e.g. on paintings), indeed a number of impressionists artists also used it as a paint (so don’t lick anything in the national gallery unless you want to keel over ;D ). However the Victorians produced it in industrial quantities, where it quickly became the in thing in parlours of the era.Unfortunately when exposed to damp Paris Green degrades, breaks down to release Arsine gas, a colourless and odourless (slight garlic smell) toxin. In low concentrations the effects of Arsine (as well as Arsenic in general) are not distinctly noticeable as poisoning. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhoea and convulsions. Of course all of those are symptoms commonly associated with a host of other illnesses, so when people started keeling over it wasn’t immediately apparent to doctors why. Inevitably children and women were most at risk. The latter because it was also popular as a colouring in dresses and even makeup! It is unclear how many died as a result of such poisoning, but one doctor of the era identified at least a thousand cases, which is probably only a fraction of the total. It’s been suggested that Napoleon and King George III were both victims. However, gradually the medical profession began to become aware of the danger. Arsenic poisoning leaves behind several distinct calling cards, such as discolouration of finger nails, blood in urine, hair loss, lesions and night blindness. Gradually doctors began to establish a link between these deaths and the use of arsenic in paint pigments.
Finally, the evidence built up to the point where the medical journal The Lancet began to lobby for such pigments to be banned. However, inevitably the businesses behind these paints fought back. Not because they were unaware of the dangers (the evidence suggests they were all too aware of the dangers and had been for sometime), but due to the threat to their bottom line (these were the days of lassie-faire, having subjugated the world to make themselves rich these guys were hardly going to give up because a few people died!). The industry even hired its own “experts” to testify that such pigments were safe and encouraged artisans and designers to resist and lobby against any ban. They argued that even if such a link existed, it wasn’t as dangerous as suggested and why it would be hugely complex and expensive to change things.
Of course inevitably the growing body of evidence….and the growing pile of bodies, meant the message began to get across. Consumers stopped using such products. The companies responded by doing an about face, quickly changing to safer pigments. By the time Parliament did act (in the 1960’s!), it was more or less a formality.
Of course one could draw a parallel between the above and many other events, such as climate change denial for example or the ozone hole over the Arctic or concerns about certain pesticides. We would do well to remember this tale, as history has an uneerie habit of repeating itself when we ignore its lessons.