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When the walls were painted with poison


It was a hue of verdant fern – a hint of forest, a flash of emerald – a vegetal contrast to the misty mists and factory-stained skies of England at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

The color – Scheele’s Green, named after the Swedish chemist who invented it in 1778 – was everywhere in Victorian England, from the walls of Buckingham Palace to the factories where child workers painted the leaves of faux foliage. The tint has appeared in paint and bookbinding, in candy and cake decorations, in children’s clothing and toys.

Vibrant ombre was the “it” color of 19th century Britons. It was everywhere. And it was deadly.

Scheele’s Green was made by mixing copper and oxygen with arsenic, an element that can be found naturally in the earth’s crust, oceans and groundwater. Victorian doctors prescribed arsenic to treat fever, asthma and eczema. Today, arsenic trioxide is an effective chemotherapy drug for acute promyelocytic leukemia.

But for centuries, people have known that arsenic has poisonous, even lethal power. Sometimes called “the king of poisons and the poison of kings”, arsenic became a popular way to quietly get rid of royal rivals. It was readily available, odorless and tasteless, and the immediate symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps – could be attributed to cholera or other common illnesses of the time.

As early as 1839, a German chemist warned his countrymen that damp rooms wrapped in the alluring Scheele’s Green could produce poisonous acid inside the walls. Shortly after his report, published in the daily Karlsruher Zeitung, four children in London died of respiratory distress; their room had just been carpeted in green. Tests on the wallpaper showed 3 grains of arsenic per square foot, a lethal dose.

Other deaths and illnesses have been attributed to the tint of arsenic, including the nighttime distress of a Birmingham doctor who suffered from cramps, dizziness and an irresistible urge to vomit after spending time in his green paper study. He concluded: “There’s a lot of slow poisoning going on in Britain.”

But Green Wallpaper was a robust business. Designer William Morris, whose popular wallcovering designs used the vibrant dye, also owned shares in his father’s mining company, the largest producer of arsenic at the time. He mocked the fear of arsenic, saying doctors who warned about the chemical “got bitten like people bitten by witch fever.”

What actually happens in a human body exposed to arsenic largely depends on the dose, says Michael J. Kosnett, associate assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

A high dose triggers gastrointestinal symptoms followed by low blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmias. If a person survives this bodily insult, the next few days can lead to a drop in white and red blood cell counts, followed by peripheral neuropathy – pain, tingling, and possibly numbness and weakness in the hands and feet.

“People who died of acute arsenic poisoning — a dose high enough to kill you within hours — died of fluid loss and shock that led to cardiovascular collapse,” says Kosnett.

But arsenic also causes long-term damage, multisystem erosion that Victorian doctors and patients probably couldn’t have traced back to close brushes with Scheele’s Green.

Arsenic causes skin cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer; it may also contribute to liver and kidney cancers. “And there’s a whole panoply of non-cancerous effects at a sufficient dose,” Kosnett says. “There are associations with hypertension, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes. There is also emerging evidence that arsenic may contribute to adverse reproductive outcomes and neurocognitive development.

What 19th-century observers noticed—and documented, in medical textbook illustrations, grim newspaper articles, and the occasional cautionary cartoon—was the hyperpigmentation and physical deterioration resulting from arsenic exposures. inhaled or ingested. A drawing, from an 1862 edition of Punchdepicts “The Arsenic Waltz”, a skeleton dressed in very thin pants and a tailcoat bowing to another skeleton, a wasting woman inside the skirt in the shape of a bell of her dress.

In 1879, when a visiting dignitary at Buckingham Palace fell ill after sleeping in the green-wallpapered guest bedroom, Queen Victoria ordered the paper removed from the palace walls. By the time the British government began to regulate arsenic in food in 1903 (they never officially banned it in household articles), the public – spurred on by newspaper reports of the ill effects of Scheele’s Green – had already moved away from chemically contaminated products.

Manufacturers have developed safer colorants, although even today’s commercial greens are not perfectly environmentally friendly; they are made with chlorine, which cannot be safely recycled or composted. The thirst to imitate the fertile palette of nature, to evoke an Edenic green, to bring in the outside, remains inextinguishable… and problematic.


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