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Arsenic: An Abundant Natural Poison
(Released March 2009)

  by Andreas Saldivar & Vicki Soto  


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Introduction/ History and Use



Arsenic is an element found in nature in rocks, soils, water and air—in fact, it is one of the most common elements on earth. While arsenic has been used historically in industry in fertilizers and preservatives, it is probably best known as a poison, toxic to humans who ingest it. Large doses are fatal relatively quickly, while smaller doses over time can cause diseases such as several types of cancer and skin disorders. Arsenic can become an environmental hazard when it is "weathered" from local geologic units and enters the groundwater supply. In the world today, many populations are at risk for arsenic poisoning due to exposure from contaminated drinking water.

History and Use

Pope Alexander VI
While it is unclear when and who discovered arsenic, historical records show that it was used by the ancient Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Chinese. It is best known as a poison, which was one of its earliest uses. It was almost the perfect poison, difficult to detect because it lacks color, odor, and taste. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning, similar to food poisoning and other common disorders, include stomach pains, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can be given over time in smaller doses making it even harder to detect. One early historical reference to arsenic as a poison is by a Greek physician named Discordias who was in the court of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD). (R. Smith 2005)

One of the most famous series of poisonings was by the Borgia family, specifically Pope Alexander VI (Pope from 1492-1503), his son Cesare, and perhaps his daughter Lucretia. During their lifetime an interesting church law allowed for confiscation of property following a victim's untimely death.

The Pope encouraged cardinals to increase their personal wealth, then invited wealthy cardinals to the Borgia's home where they were served a meal with arsenic laced wine. Upon death, the victim's property was seized, so that soon the Borgias were one of the wealthiest families in Italy. The scheme ended with a strange twist of fate. One day some cardinals were scheduled to attend the Borgia's home for dinner. The Pope and his son arrived home early and were, perhaps mistakenly, served a poisoned bottle of wine. The Pope died quickly but his son survived. He was, however, never in a position of power again and was unable to continue the scheme. (R. Smith 2005)

portrait of Wythe
George Wythe
George Wythe (1726-1806), a founding father, was poisoned by his grand-nephew George Wythe Sweeney, with arsenic to claim an inheritance. George Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Constitutional Congress, and the first official law professor in the United States. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation n.d. ) He taught the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe , John Marshall and Henry Clay. ( 1995)

On the morning of May 25, 1806 Wythe followed what seemed to be his normal routine. During breakfast he was served coffee laced with arsenic. Later that day he, along with a servant, Lydia Broadnax, and former slave, Michael Brown, were all taken ill with severe abdominal pain. Michael was a benefactor in Wythe's will. Wythe's nephew, George, knew that if Michael died before he could claim his inheritance the legacy would revert to him. Michael died on June 1; however Wythe hung on to life and despite the pain his mind remained clear. On June 5th he told those assembled at his bed "I am murdered" and died on June 8th. Lydia survived the poisoning, and reported to the authorities that she had witnessed George adding something to the coffee. His room was searched and yellow arsenic was found. He was acquitted of murder primarily because Lydia was barred from the trial, since in Eighteenth Century Virginia, "Negros were not permitted to testify against white men." (Howard 2007) In the hours before his death, however, Wythe had his will changed leaving nothing to George. (Howard 2007)

woman in shawl
Mary Ann Cotton
Another famous arsenic poisoner was Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873). She is reportedly to have killed more than 20 people between 1852 and 1872, including her husbands and her children. Her motives appear to be financial. Upon the death of three of her four husbands she collected life insurance. One way she would commit the murders was by serving her victims tea laced with arsenic. Finally caught when a post mortem examination of one of her victims indicated arsenic poisoning, she was executed by hanging in 1873. ( n.d.)

Throughout history and today arsenic has had uses other than sinister ones. From the US Civil War (1861-1865) to 1910 it was the main ingredient in embalming fluids. (Konefes and McGee n.d.) From the late 1800s to the 1960s it was heavily used in pesticides; indeed, pesticides accounted for the greatest use of arsenic for the first half of the twentieth century. (Robinson and Ayotte 2006) (Bleiwas 2000)

During Victorian times women applied an arsenic compound to whiten their faces. (Mead 2005) At the same time some women consumed an arsenic solution, known as Fowlers Solution, which was especially popular with Victorian era prostitutes because it gave them rosy cheeks. Fowler's solution was a 1% potassium arsesnite solution that damaged the blood vessels in the skin, hence the rosy complexion. (Bentley and Chasteen 2002)

Arsenic was mined in the US for most of the 20th century and primarily used in pesticides. Production peaked in 1944 at 24,800 metric tons. The peak consumption years were during World War II (WWII) when the US used approximately 30,000 metric tons per year. After WWII, with the decline of arsenic pesticides, domestic production dropped to generally less than 10,000 metric tons/year. Domestic production continued to decline to 2,200 metric tons in 1985. Since 1985 there has been no US production of arsenic and all consumption has been via imports. Consumption generally declined after WWII to a 54 year low in 1976 of 9,700 metric tons. From 1977 to 2003 domestic consumption dramatically increased for use in pressure-treated lumber. A high of 30,100 metric tons occurred in 1998, with over 85% of domestic consumption for pressure treated lumber. (Kelly, Matos, et al. 2009) On December 31, 2003, upon a directive from the US EPA, the domestic pressure treated lumber industry stopped using arsenic. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2008) US consumption dropped from 21,600 metric tons in 2003 to 6,800 metric tons in 2004. (Brooks 2008)

Throughout history arsenic has been used in various medicines. Most had limited to no real benefit. In the mid 20th century some drugs containing arsenic, known as arsenicals, showed some effectiveness on human trypanosomiasis (a parasitic protozoan). However, arsenicals are toxic and caused death in 5 to 10% of the patients. Despite the danger, these drugs are still used in Africa today. (American Cancer Society 2009) A recent medicine, arsenic trioxide, has shown effectiveness on acute promyelocytic leukemia, APL. It received FDA approval in 2001. (Bentley and Chasteen 2002)

Today arsenic is used in pesticides (850 metric tons in 2004), glass making, nonferrous alloys and electronics. One contemporary use that may increase is in semiconductors used in light emitting diodes (LEDs) and solar cells. The compound gallium arsenide, GaAs, is used for some semiconductors. (Brooks 2008)

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