April 2017

Sickly Green

This green paper was lining an antique cupboard I purchased. I was told it could be toxic. Is this paper dangerous?

Answer

Arsenic bottle label. QM collection.Arsenic bottle label. QM Collection Portion of green wallpaper. Fortunately this paper does not contain arsenic. In the past some green dyed paper products were indeed toxic and contained arsenic. The green paper you have is unlikely to be toxic because appears to be a more recent wallpaper print. It was probably printed in monochrome and the green colour added at a later time.

Arsenic was widely used in Victorian times. Its uses extended from wallpaper to insecticide and on occasion even murder! Arsenic was mixed with verdigris (copper acetate) to produce popular green and yellow pigments used to dye various products such as textiles and wallpaper. The colour names that contained arsenic included Scheeles green, Paris green and Emerald green. In 1879 Buckingham palace had the green wallpaper removed from several rooms due to the risk of arsenic poisoning.

Arsenic could be found in the beautiful green dresses, waistcoats and cravats that the Victorians wore and in some brands of soap, postage stamps and paint. Arsenic was also used as an insecticide, a fly deterrent on meat and in the early 20th century the filtering process of beer!  Strangely it was also used as anti-venom by the British forces in India in the form of the Tanjore pill - a mixture of arsenic and black pepper. Other medical uses included asthma treatment (mixed with tobacco), baldness treatment, Dr Simms Arsenic Complexion Wafers and eczema treatment.

Whether eaten, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, arsenic caused unimaginable suffering. Even after the danger was recognised it was still necessary to use caution to avoid exposure. For example, women used ammonia to test if dress material contained arsenic. If a material turned blue when ammonia was applied to the surface then it contained arsenic. Rat poison powder contained arsenic, and was so commonly mistaken for flour and sugar that the packaging was changed to prevent confusion.

Arsenic use was not discontinued in Britain until the late 1800’s, more than 50 years after the rest of Europe recognised the dangers. Even museums and collectors suffered from the use of arsenic. Arsenic poisoning was a common cause of death among taxidermists as it was used to treat the animal skins. In the past the Queensland Museum also used arsenic in the preservation of animal specimens. There are now health and safety measures put in place for handling these older specimens. 

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