Book: A is for Arsenic
|My name is Alise, and I am a 1st year Analytical Chemistry student from TU Dublin. I have always had an interest in the chemistry of the world around us and how it can affect us in our everyday lives. I found it interesting that even something as simple as a pigment in our clothes can harm us if not researched enough, which is why I chose the use of arsenic in products like clothes and home décor as a theme. I found it interesting how such a dangerous element was used to make products and sold to unsuspecting customers. In my exhibit, I focus on a specific arsenic compound called Scheele’s Green, that was highly sought-after at the time because of its vivid green hue. Used in common paints, in specific conditions Scheele’s Green released a gas known as trimethylarsine, which then proceeded to poison the inhabitants of the house where this arsenic compound was present. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning include nausea, scaly patches on the skin and intestinal issues, all of which could lead to death. Thankfully, we do not need to be afraid of our home décor or clothes poisoning us since the use of arsenic compounds is now heavily regulated and they can only be used by professionals for specific things including pyrotechnics and bronzing.
While reading ‘A is for Arsenic’ by Kathryn Harkup, I became interested in how much our understanding of science can shape the products we can buy and use. For my exhibit, I focused on how arsenic was used as a pigment to dye products that were freely available to consumers, and the demand for these products during the Victorian Era. I found it fascinating that even though the negative effects of coming in contact with arsenic laced items were visible to people, poisonous arsenic compounds like Scheele’s Green dye were a sign of status due to their physical appearance. Today we know that arsenic is poisonous and not a suitable pigment to have in our homes because of the work of scientists. This idea of science changing the way we use different chemicals in our everyday lives applies even now, with scientists discovering that some chemicals cause health problems or other issues.
Of course, even if most people know that something is dangerous not everyone will take it seriously. In the case of my exhibit, the vivid Scheele’s Green was considered a fashionable colour during the Victorian Era and could be found in upper class homes. Even after doctors began noting the deaths, manufacturers didn’t stop producing arsenic-dyed products until they became prohibited by law. I believe that this topic is still relevant today, and that looking to history can help us to avoid similar things from happening in the future.