Arsenic in Paper-Hangings.

Journal of the Society of Arts 307, 8.10.1858

The following extracts are taken by permission from the unpublished work "On Poisons," by Dr. Alfred S. Taylor, F.R.S., accompanied by remarks by that gentleman: -

"There is one form of chronic poisoning by arsenic on which it will be proper to make a few remarks, as the real cause may remain wholly unsuspected. Arsenic is largely employed in this country, under the form of emerald green (aceto-arsenite of copper), and of orpiment in the manufacture of decorative papers with which the walls of sitting and bedrooms are covered. Some persons have suffered from symptons of chronic poisoning by arsenic, in which no other cause was apparent than the continued respiration of the air of their rooms, charged probably at times with a fine arsenical dust. On examining the papers, they will be found in some instances loaded with arsenic, laid on in a rough and coarse manner, so as to be easily removable by friction. Arsenic is thus used in imparting a green tint to some of the most costly as well as the cheapest decorative papers. It is a practice fraught with danger in more respects than one, and under a proper system of medical police, it would not be permitted. In the kingdom of Prussia, the use of these papers is strictly prohibited. If there has not hitherto been much complaint on the subject, it may be attributed to the fact that the cause has not been suspected. Many obscure cases of illness, referred at the time to constitutional and other causes, may probably have been due to the effects of arsenical dust thus inhaled day and night by those who inhabited the rooms. Dr. Hunds, who suffered from the effects himself, has described two cases in which the prominent symptoms were prostration of strength, headache,thirst, loss of appetite - an inflammatory state of the conjunctivæ with heat and dryness of the fauces. (Medical Times and Gazette, May 23, 1857, p. 521.) A portion of the paper of the room in which these persons lived was sent to me, and on examination I found in the green pigment spread over it, a large quantity of arsenic. These facts should at least be borne in mind in cases in which it is suspected that poison is being secretly administered to another.

"Dr. Traill met with a case in which a child aged three years suffered severely from symptons of arsenical poisoning, owing to its having sucked some slips of paper coloured with this green pigment; some of the paper, still retaining colour, was passed in the motions. The child recovered (Edinburgh Monthly Journal, July, 1851, page 1.)

"Among other uses of this noxious compound, we find it employed for imparting a bright green colour to the shelves of bakers' and green-grocers' shops. An incident which occurred to myself will show that food may thus acquire an arsenical impregnation. Several loyves of bread were supplied to me, having upon the undercrust a quantity of green-coloured pigment, which on analysis turned out to be arsenite of copper, contaiing about fifty per cent. of arsenic! On inquiry, I found that the baker had recently painted the shelves of his shop with this pigment, and the hot loaves placed upon them had taken off a portion of the arsenical paint. It is easy to conceive that an accident of this kind, if undetected, might lead to serious results, and perhaps to very erroneous suspicions. (Medical Times and Gazette, April, 1854, p. 326.)

"Another alleged form of poisoning by this substance which has attracted some attention, is in the state of vapour or fine dust applied to the membrane of the lungs, or in the state of powder as applied to the skin. In the former edition of this work the following case was related. A young man, after having been engaged for nine days in printing with an arsenical green pigment, was seized with irritation and warey discharge from the nose, swelling of the lips and nostrils, and headache. The next day he experienced severe colic, and great muscular weakness; but these symptoms disappeared in about eight days. It is probable that, in this case, the arsenite of copper had been taken into the body in the state of fine powder. (See Arsenical vapours, ante, p. 426.) I have since been informed, that the persons who manufacture and hang the coloured paper on walls, suffer from boils, inflammation of the eyes, and other symptoms of irritation. In one case now under treatment, pustular tumours have shown themselves on the writsts and ankles, and there is excessive sensitiveness and irritability of the skin. If removed the patients soon recover. In a former page I have alluded to the mytsterious deaths of a whole family (see cases of the Arzone family, ante, p. 120). The father was a pigment-manufacturer, and there is a great reason to believe that he and his family fell victims to the respiration of arsenical dust or vapours. According to M. Bouchardat (Annuaire de Thérapeutique, 1846, p. 209), the workmen who handle the emerald green in making the papers, are subject to serious disorders of health. They sometimes suffer from eruptions of the skin - one of the local effects of poisoning by arsenic (see Assoc. Med. Journal, 1856, Spet. 6, p. 271, 757; Sept. 20, p. 810, and ante, p. 371), with oedema (watery swelling) of the face, and boils frequently forming in the actorum. There is irritation with discharge of fluid from the mucous membrane of the nose, and abundant salivation. In the more advanced stage, there are colicky pains, headache, and prostation of strength. (See Ann. d'Hyg. 1847, ii. p. 56; and Journal de Chimie, Juillet, 1858, pp. 394, 397.)

"More than ten years since, Dr. Martin announced that the use of this arsenical green in oil-paint had an injurious effect upon those who inhabited apartments recently painted with this substance. Four pounds of Scheele's green had been used in painting the walls of a low damp room. In a few days a putrescent and highly disagreeable odour was perceptible. When the windows were closed, those who remained in the room experineced headache, pain in the chest, and other disagreeable symptons. The colour was scraped from the walls, and the room was then inhabited without any of these unpleasant symptons being observed. Dr. Martin attributed the effects to the production of arsenuretted hydrogen. The poisonous salt may, however, have been itself carried off in vapour, like white lead, under similar circumstances, by the oil of turpentine. In a note attached to this case, it is stated that since the mixed acetate and arsenite have been substituted for carbonate of copper in painting the walls of rooms, many persons who have slept in rooms painted green, have complained in the morning of headache, nausea, dryness of the mouth and throat, and cough. The symproms went off during the day. In one instance the foul odour was referred to mice, and the wainscot was about to be removed, when a suspicion arising that it was owing to the green colour used as a pigment, this was removed, and the smell disappeared. (Gaz. Med. 13. Fev., 1847, 180.)

"I have elsewhere referred to the probable effects of wall-papers loosely covered with the aceto-arsenite of copper (ante p. 364). This pigment contains fifty-nine per cent- of arsenic, and from some of these papers the noxious material may easily be scraped or removed by friction. A square foot of the paper may yield from twenty-eight to seventy grains of the arsenical pigment, and in rooms exposing five or six-hundred square feet, a large quantity of arsenic is thus distributed over an extensive surface. Dr. Hinds, of Birmingham, noticed, that in occupying a room which was covered with a wallpaper of this kind, he suffered from severe depression, nausea, pain in the abdomen, and great prostration of strength. These symptons appeared every evening that he sat in the room: this led him to suspect that they were connected with this room, and on examining the paper he found in it a quantity of arsenic. (Lancet, 1857, vol. i., p. 193). Two other cases occurred in his practice, where similar symptoms were produced in a man and his wife, under similar circumstances. To these I have elsewhere referred (ante, p. 365). Dr. Halley, of Harley-street, suffered from constant headache, dryness of the throat and tongue, with internal irritation. In about three weeks, he became completely prostrated, and was threatened with paralysis of his left side. He called on me and described his symptoms, bringing, at the same time, a portion of the wall-paper of the room in which he was in the habit of sitting; and this I found to be loaded with arsenic. He removed the paper, and since then has recovered his health. Several cases have since come before me, in which, whether rel or imaginary, symptoms of a similar kind have been referred by persons to the habitation of rooms papered with the arsenical green. At the same time, there have been many cases in which the occupation of rooms thus papered has been attended with no injurious effects. This fact, as well as a few imperfect experiments, have led some persons to affirm that the arsenical papers have not produced the effects ascribed to them. (see Pharmaceutical Journal, April, 1858, p.520, and May, 1858, p. 554). The connexion of cause and effect, however, appears to me to be too plainly made out in the cases of Dr. Hinds and Dr. Halley, to be set aside as a mere coincidence. The symptoms in both cases were  similar, and such as arsenic is well known to produce; there was no other source of arsenic, and no other cause to explain them; and they entirely ceased on the removal of the arsenical paper. It may not be easy to detect arsenic in the air of a room thus prepared, but then it is equally difficult to detect lead in the air of freshly painted rooms, in which persons have been paralysed by passing a night. In the year 1837, and subsequently, arsenic was largely used in the manufacture of a spurious kind of wax-candle. The workmen suffered from boils and other disorders, and some who occupied rooms in which such candles were burnt, complained of symptoms like those of arsenical poisoning. As in reference to the arsenical papers, it was alleged, - because arsenic could not be detected in the air of a room, and all persons did not suffer from the use of the candles, that the illness was owing to some other cause. Although there are difficulties in explaining how it happens that more accidents do not occur, it appears to me there is already sufficient evidence to justify an enforcement of the Prussian regulation prohibiting the use of arsenic for such a manufacture, or in allowing the paper to be sold only on the condition that the words "arsenic, poison," are stamped upon it. (See Pharm. Journal, May, 1858, p. 553.)

"Dr. Böcker of Bonn, one of the most recent writers on Toxicology, refers to the effects of chronic poisoning produced on persons inhabiting rooms of which the walls are covered with arsenical paper hangings, and states, that on several occasions he has been called upon to treat such cases. A removal of the cause has generally proved sufficient. Dr. Böcker considers that a damp state of the wall renders them injurious. (Die Vergiftungen, 1857, p. 132.)"

Note. - I append an abstract of a notice issued by the Prussian government in reference to arsenical paper-hangings on the 3rd September, 1857. (Cuspers Vierteljahrschrift für Gerichtliche Medicin, Januar 1858, p. 184, Art, xxiii.)

"The Board of Police cannot too strongly impress on the public, the danger to health arising from the use of arsenical colours, especially in the habitation of rooms the walls of which are painted with such colours, or are covered with arsenical paper-hangings. The breathing of the vapours (air) in such rooms, has produced all the effects of slow poisoning by arsenic, namely, disordered digestion, difficulty of breathing, cough, colicky pains, weakness of the muscles, trembling and loss of power in the limbs, falling off of the hair, abscesses in the skin, emaciation, a wasting fever, and death. In removing arsenical papers from walls, they should be first well washed with salt-water, as the respiration of the arsenical dust may cause serious symptoms or death. The Board of Police earnestly entreat all medical men in thei respective districts to advise the removal of arsenical colours from the dwellings in which they may be used.

"KONIGL. POLIZEI, Præsidium.
"Berlin, 3rd. Sept. 1857."

REMARKS. - It is not my intention to take part in the controversy which has arisen on this subject. It appears to me that it is leading the mids of the public from the true subject at issue. Mr. Phillips may be right in his conclusion that he could detect no arsenious acid in the air of a room covered with these poisonous paper-hangings; and "Crystallographer" may be right in assuming that the octahedral crystals seen by Dr. Halley may not have been arsenic but "microscopic diamonds" derived by some mysterious process from the carbon of the paper, or of the atmosphere. The wustion is not one of chemistry or crystallograpgy, but really one of pathology. Certain symptons, unquestionably those of arsenical poisoning, have arisen in certain persons who inhabited rooms of which the walls were covered with these papers. They have existed with the papers; they have disappeared on their removal. These facts are perfectly in accordance with those collected by the Prussian Government, and which have induced that overnment authoritatively to prohibit the use these paper-hangings.

Mr. Phillips brings forward his own case and that of his family, as a proof that the use of such papers is not noxious or injurious to the health. It would be easy to produce cases from the arsenic works of Cornwall, to show, by the exemption of some workmen, that the vapours of arsenic were not poisonous; and, from white-lead works, cases which show that many workmen do not suffer from lead poisoning; but it is well known that we are not all constructed alike in reference to the effects of poisons, and it is just possible that there may be a susceptibility to the action of arsenic in a few, while the majority may escape.

* Leading article in daily News, Sept. 1st, 1858.
** Journal of Society of Arts, August 37th, 1858, p. [---]

I must, however, express my surprise at Mr. Phillips's conclusion, which appears to me substantially to admit the great danger to which the use of these papers in our dwellings must expose us; whilst at the same time, his paper is leading the public to believe, because he found no "octahedral crystals," that there is no danger at all*. He says: -
"In conclusion, I beg toexpress my opinion that no danger need be apprehended from a paper such as the one annexed, in which but a small proportion of the surface is unglazed, provided ordinary care be used when removing the dust from the walls, but that even if such care were not exercised, it is doubtful (!) whether any pernicious effect would be felt by those inhabiting the room."**

The questioon immediately suggest itself - What will happen in the dwwellings of those who cover their walls with cheaparsenic papers entirely unglazed? On eo fthese I have now before me, and the arsenical pigment is rubbed off the surface with the slighters friction. Again, it would appear from his statement that even the glased arsenical papers must be dusted with care. The breathing of the green dust of arsenite of copper may be just as fatal to life as the breathing of microscopic crystals of white arsenic; and, supposing that by careless dusting, &c., the poisonous material is diffused in a room, and is breathed by persons inhabiting it, it is by no [--- means?] doubtful but certain what the effects would be.

I am one of those who think that the fine and impalpable dust which is diffused through a room by currents of air, mechanical agitation, &c., is derived from the material on the walls as well as from the floor and ceiling. The walls generally present twice the extent of surface. If the powder on the walls is of an arsenical nature, it is not easy to perceive how, apart from the mechanical dusting of domestics (indispensable in most houses), we can prevent the occasional diffusion of a poisonous dust in an impalpable state. We are only made conscious of the existence of this diffused dust by the striking of a sunbeam across an inhabited room. They who prefer the "cheerful" green of an unglazed arsenical paper must, therefore, according to Mr. Phillips, be prepared to incur some risk - care must be taken that the walls are not too frequently or roughly dusted!

I have found, with respect to some of these papers, that they contain arsenic in a form soluble in water, and that in mixed patterns, parts of the papers surrounding the arsenical green colour are impregnated with arsenic. By scraping the arsenical pigment from the surface, or by soaking slips of the paper in water, the means of poisoning are always at hand. During the last summer I caused some of the arsenical paper to be moistened with water containing a small quantity of sugar. Flies which settled upon it were rapidly killed. As an objection to legislation for restricking the sale of arsenic, it was stated by a well-known pharmaceutist that arsenic might be easily procured for criminal purposes by scraping the walls of almost every dwelling house! This is an additional point for consideration in reference to the domestic use of this dangerous pigment. We require strong restrictions on the procuring of arsenic from a druggist's shop, and at the same time place the poison within reach of any evil-disposed person under such cirqumstances as to ensure secrecy of possession and use. A square foot of this paper contains enough arsenic to poison five or six persons.

In your Journal, Vol. v., p.652, and Vol. vi, p. 606, you have made a reference to my evidence on this subject before a Committee of the House of Lords. I may mention to you that the inquiry arose under these circumstances. Their Lordships desired to know what became of the large quantity of arsenic manufactured in and imported into this country. I informed them that a very large proportion was spread in the form of pigments over the walls of our dwelling houses. I have since learnt that one London manufacturer alone was in the habit of using about two tons of arsenic per week in the production of this green pigment for paper-hangings! Its cheapness and durability as a colour recommend it strongly to public notice. Since the evidence which I have before the Committee of the House of Lords, fifteen months ago, I have had still stronger reasons for holding the opinion then given respecting the danger attending the use of these papers. Mr. Phillips suggests glazing and [---] dusting. I would suggest that some other green colour should be selected, even at a little more cost. If the manufacture of arsenical papers is to be continued, the Prussian poison-symbol of a skull and cross-bones, with the motto Memento mori, should be printed as a pattern upon it - or, at least, it should be intimated to all who purchase the paper-hangings that they contain arsenic.

Alfred S. Taylor, M.D., F.R.S.
15, St. James's-terrace, Regent's-park,
September 27, 1858.


The following paper, by Dr. William Hinds, bearing immediately upon the same subject, is extracted from the Pharmaneutical Journal for the 1st. inst. : -

Certain carefully-prepared papers, which recently appeared on the above subject in the pages of the Pharmaceutical Journal, not having beem, as far as I am aware, [---]  replied to, I beg to ofer to the readers of the above interesting journal a few observations on this subject. [---] confusion of ideas seems to prevail extensively as to the facts brought before the public, while even the deleterious influence is itself denied in some quarters. It is by no means uncommon to see theoretical denials and disputes by some persons, in reference to facts and truths, which are nevertheless characterised by such stern features as tobe realised as facts and truths by others. The views advanced by myself and others as to the injurious effects of arsenical papers in rooms, I believe to be unquestionable. Arsenite of copper, as a poisonous pigment, I find frequently recognised by writers on medical jurispudence; but so far as I have been able to learn, to Dr. Alfred Taylor belongs the merit of more especially commenting upon the dangers to be apprehended from its employment. In his invaluable work, Dr. Taylor gives a case, in which "a young man, after having been engaged for nine days in printing with this arsenical green, was seized with caryza, swelling of the lips and nostrils, and headache. The next day he experienced severe colid and great muscular weakness." Dr. Taylor adds the valuable remark, that "in this case the arsenite of copper had been taken into the body in the state of fine powder."

This shows that Dr. Taylor's attention had been specially drawn to the subject. At hte same time I may remark, that to the best of my knowledge, no case of actual poisoning had ever been made public, as having occurred from simply inhabiting a room gung with the arsenical paper, until my own case was published in the Medical Times and Gazette in February, 1857. The accident occurred to me as far back as 1849; but the case being, as I then thought, so unique and unparalled, I hesitated to publish it until I had had means of collecting other cases, or until a favourable opportunity.

The way in which I was led, step by step, to certain conclusions as to the injurious effects, and also a description of these effects, are given exactly as they occurred in the paper mentioned, and to which I beg to refer those who may feel an interest n this subject.

In the next cases which came under my notice, the moral force of the evidence was so strong, as to satisfy the most sceptical. The injury occurred to a Mr. simpson, of this city, and to his wife. Mr. S. had enjoyed the best health until he had a green flock paper put on the walls of two sitting-rooms. In a very few days he experienced all the symptoms of slow arsenical poisoning, but without either believing in, or even suspecting the cause. He became seriously ill, as also did his wife; and a fine parrot, which was hung in one of the rooms, all at once drooped and refused food. At this stage a gentleman, who had known of my own case, suggested a solution of the mystery as to the cause of the illness, but Mr. S. repudiated the supposition. He then left town for his health, returning in a fortnight quite strong and vigorous, and confident he should continue so. In several days he became again seriouysly ill, and after long residence, he became deeply convinced, by the very force of circumstances and suffering, that the cause lay in the wall paper. He underwent the expense of an entire removal of the paper, and soon after all were well. The gentleman here mentioned, would, I am sure, be glad to give his experience to any person who might be sceptical as to the facts.

Mr. S.'s case is fully detailed, without names, in the scientific journal before mentioned, for May, 1857.

In the case published by Dr. Halley in the Times newspaper, the facts and results are as striking and forcible as in the other published cases.

I have to say one word as to the mode of escape from these arsenical papers of the poisonous colouring matter, and I must observe that a vast deal of entirely irrelevant speculation and equally futile experiments have been expended, with a view to disprove facts, about which it is astonishing that any reasoning person can have a just doubt. A sample of this irrelevancy I will presently mention.

I find papers in this journal for May and June, evidently from able contributors, denying our conclusions, which the space could request would not enable me extensively to notice. For this, however, there is the less necessity, inasmuch as the writers give but negative results for the most part. I believe I am justified in saying that our positive facts and forcible moral evidence are not shaken by mere negative results, and miniature and usually irrelevant experiments. neither is the question a mere chemical one, to be easily decided in miniature. The existence of the poisonous ingredient upon the paper is admitted, though one gentleman seeks to spoil this admission, by asserting (truly enough) that the flock portion is a mere dyed stuff, and contains nothing injurious. The injurious effects, moreover, of arsenite of copper, when inhaled, are equally admitted. Now, that mere water-colour pigment, without an overcoat of varnish, will give off, under certain hygrometric conditions, particles of its dust to the atmosphere, is perhaps so self-evident as not to require any laboured proof. The fact is indeed unquestionable. Take a feather or a soft white napkin, and run either never so lightly over a green paper of the ordinary kind, after it shall have been placed upon a wall by means of paste, and myriads of particles of the colour from the surface will adhere. Much, of course, is sent floating in the atmosphere of any room by the last possible disturbance of its contained air, as by draughts or the opening of doors. These particles will be then breathed into the lungs, and produce all the symptoms which have been described. A great deal has been said about volatilisation of arsenic and arsenical vapour, but it is not all to the purpose. Dr. Taylor's idea, as given in this journal for May last, and the same as it presented itself to me in the first case published, is, I believe, the only rational one - namely, that the finer and lighter particles of the colour escape as such. Now, what is the dose of this fine powder of Scheele's green necessary to produce bad symptons? That is a question to which I cannot give an answer. Probably it is extremely small in quantity. Dr. Taylor, whose labours place him at the head of his department, in this country at least, has not attempted, so far as I know, to give a reply to this question; and the means by which the deleterious particles become active in the system, present several difficulties not easily to be solved.

There is one experiment I would beg to urge strongly upon the gentlemen who are spectical as to our facts. It is that they should place themselves in the same conditions as those under which our facts were gathered. I shall be happy to furnish any gentleman who may wish to make the experiment, with samples of arsenical paper from which to select. Let a room be papered with one of these, and let the experimenter undergo the same experience as we who have suffered, and I shall have little doubt that he will come out of the trial fully convinced. It would be still better to make a series of trials, in order to avoid any incidental negation.

I may here mention the fact of the universal testimony [] workmen who have been in the habit of hanging green [hangings?] [---] the often severe sympoms which the experience [---] at work. One most powerful man, a paper [---] me he has repeatedly got so ill with caryza,  [---] , and prostation, while hanging green  [---] has been compelled to leave the room, and  [---] to finish his work. This man could tell  [---] that green paper was very injurious, though  [---] to be told that the colour was arsenical.  [---] to be borne in mind, that in all these  [---] were of the kind indicative of slow  [---] -enteritic irritation, with  [---], nausea, prostation, loss of muscle [---] and dryness of throat; and  [---] the cause was at first entirely  [---]. In my own case I  [---] notice to the colour of  [---] myself with an examination [---] suffering illness that my attention was gradually attracted to every altered condition of the room for years with no inconvenience. The sympotoms came on in three or four days after the papering. They ceased on my ceasing to occupy the room. They recurred every time I had sfor some hours again used it, and  they never appeared after the room was stripped of the injurious paper. Tje very same conditions, or very similar, were experienced by Dr. Halley, whose communication on the subject appeared in the Times of the 11th of January of the present year; and the same also in Mr. Simpson's case, to which I have before alluded.

I will now gove a speciment of the "experimetns" by which the facts we bring forward have been met. Several experiments have been detailed in this journal by Mr. F. A. Abel. I desire to be entirely just to Mr. Abel's efforts, but I cannot think his scientific knowledge was present to him at the time of those experiments. I will explain my meaning. On coming to the sevent experiment, Mr. A. Makes the following most remarkable statement. He says: "It should be mentioned that in all these experiments, the tube was plugged with cotton wool." Now we refer to the other conditions of these experiments, and we find that the temperature is raised to only 90° on the one hand, and on the other, the tube was plugged with cotton wool, to allow no particles to escape mechanically! Mr. Abel will forgive me for reminding him of a fact he already knows - namely, that arsenic can only be voltilised by heat at a temperature of 380°; and yet he sticks to 90°, and plugs the escape-tube with cotton-wool, to prevent the mere mechanical passing of arsenic. I am sure Mr. A. will see the entire inconsistency and inapplicability of his whole experiments, on a reconsideration of the subject.

In Mr. Dugald Campbell's experiments, given with candour and clearness, the conditions were essentially different from those in which arsenic is given off in a room; for while the 140°, the highest point to which Mr. C. raised the temperature, were less by no smaller a quantity than 240° than the temperature required for the volatilisation of arsenic; a square foor only of paper, and confined in a bottle, is a  very different thing from a square foot, indeed I might add 500 square feet, or 1000, pasted upon a wall, and subject to certain important hygrometric transitions, which favour the loosing of the colour, and its escape into the atmosphere of the room.

Some observations have also been made in the journal by Mr. B. H. Paul, and are given with great condour. Those remarks contain no experiments on the subject in question, and, as they are directed more especially against the gratuitously-conceived theory of vaporisation of pure arsenic by heat, inapplicable in the present case, require little remark. In conclsion, I may express my regret to perceive how completely an ascertained fact, as communicated by Dr. Taylor, in reference to the actual observance of particles of Scheele's green upon a slip of glass, can be ignored by a mere surmise.

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