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Arsenic (As) is the 33rd element in the periodic table. It is also one of the deadliest. It is beautiful and mysterious, at once a coquette and a killer. It is one of the few elements that doesn’t have a liquid state at atmospheric pressure; it sublimates once heated thoroughly.
The Bronze Age
Way back before our ancestors discovered how to make bronze out of copper and tin, a few of them discovered that you could make a pretty formidable alloy out of copper and arsenic, called Arsenical bronze. The practice didn't catch on worldwide, though — probably because of all that arsenic vapor released in the smelting process.
"Destroys household pests"
- Arsenic is a key component in some pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.
- It was used in older pressure-treated wood; it poses a health hazard if burned.
- It was also used as embalming fluid until its danger to embalmers was discovered.
- It is very effective when used as a cure in homeopathy.
- According to traditional Chinese medicine, non-homeopathic arsenic taken internally is very good for intestinal parasites, sore throats, and (when applied externally) for "swelling, abscesses, itching, rashes, and other skin disorders." (We wish we were making this up.)
- Arsenic is also used in Ayurvedic medicine, and about 20% of Ayurvedic herbs sold on the Internet (by both Indian and American companies) contain dangerous amounts of substances such as lead, arsenic, and mercury.
- Inorganic arsenic is also carcinogenic to humans by inhalation and water routes. Certain areas of the world have naturally high levels of arsenic and have increased the risk of cancer among people who consume said water (e.g., Taiwan and Bangladesh).
- Arsenic compounds were often 'useful' to people seeking to hasten the collection of an inheritance by hastening the demise of a not-so-dearly-beloved relative. This method of collecting an inheritance was literal murder, but unlike other means of poisoning it imparted no taste upon a food or drink in which it was introduced. Until reliable methods of detecting arsenic in dead bodies became reliable, people literally got away with murder. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning were similar to those for cholera, a once-commonplace disease caused by germs. The Marsh test detects arsenic and related antimony very well, often resulting in the detection of a murderer and the retraction of any inheritance.
Arsenic poisoning was a popular method of committing murder in the 1800s and is still being used as murder weapon. In 2004, Indonesia's best known human rights activist was murdered by arsenic poisoning on a Garuda airlines flight from Singapore to the Netherlands by a deadheading Garuda pilot who was acting on behalf of a conspiracy of Garuda executives and the Indonesia State Intelligence Agency (BIN). Garuda refused to pay compensation to the widow despite two court orders.
Ministry of silly molecule names
- Arsole (C4H5As) is, as one might wager, a heterocyclic aromatic compound — colloquially you'd call it a ring.
- Cacodyl (C4H12As2) stinks like, well, caca.
- Arsine (AsH3), used in mass quantities by fabricators of gallium arsenide semiconductors, is a very nasty flammable and lethally toxic gas, definitely not something that one would want to be arsing around with.
Although we now know that arsenic is not the sort of thing to eat, historically it has been used in a wide range of beauty products, medicines, and other purposes.
- Skincare: pills or wafers containing arsenic were used in the late 19th century to remove freckles, pimples, and other skin blemishes. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 helped stop this in the US.
- Rouge: arsenic was used as a beauty product due to its ability to promote red cheeks, which it does by damaging capillaries.
- Arsenic was actually one of the first major cures for syphilis, with Paul Ehrlich and Sahachiro Hata's preparation Salvarsan discovered in 1909.
- GFAJ-1, living critters that allegedly can eat arsenic without negative consequences. This is not actually all that remarkable: eukaryote (complex organisms whose cell(s) have internal structures such as a nucleus) are more susceptible to chemical poisoning because they have complex biochemistries where lots of different types of cells must interact together. Prokaryote (simple organisms whose cell(s) don't have internal structures) however, find it a lot easier to cope with some unpleasant chemical, as they can often stuff it into a cell vesicle and, if they are lucky, evolve a way to deal with it. This is why it is a Bad Idea to pollute the oceans with toxic chemical waste, as it may well be eaten by legions of pelagic superbugs who will evolve to rise out of the deep and wreak a terrible revenge upon the world. Although you may think this is something out of a bad B-Movie, it actually did happen in earth's prehistory when photosynthesizing microorganisms managed to pollute the entire planet's atmosphere with oxygen and totally alter geochemistry and life on Earth forever. Gosh. (Sorry, we were talking about arsenic, right...?)
- It was once used as an aphrodisiac. See Toxic Lozenges by Jenny Diski (a review of The Arsenic Century by James Whorton. See also Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac? by William R. Cullen.
- Old Cemeteries, Arsenic, and Health Safety
- Yeah, right.
- Realgar (xiong huang), Acupuncture Today.
- Study finds toxins in some herbal medicines, Liz Szabo, USAToday.
- Environmental Protection Agency: Inorganic Arsenic Evaluation
- British Geological Survey: Arsenic contamination of groundwater
- See the film Arsenic and Old Lace if you like black comedies.
- Arsenic — The Near-Perfect Murder Weapon
- Airline Probed in Activist's Murder: Indonesian Officials Allege Coverup After Poisoning of Rights Figure
- WikiLeaks US Cables Point to BIN Role in Munir Murder
- Arsenic Pills and Lead Foundation: The History of Toxic Makeup, National Geographic
- The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England, Atlas Obscura, Dec 17, 2015
- Suffering for beauty has ancient roots, NBC News
- Arsenic – the “Poison of Kings” and the “Saviour of Syphilis”, Journal of Military and Veterans' Health (Australia) vol 21 no 4
- See the Wikipedia article on History of syphilis.