How Arsenic has been used for non Lethal Purposes in the Past

Heather Brennan's image for:
"How Arsenic has been used for non Lethal Purposes in the Past"
Image by: 

For most people the first word that comes to mind when you say “arsenic” is “murder.” While arsenic does have a long history as a poison of choice for many murderers, it has been used for a wide variety of other purposes as well. We are actually surrounded by arsenic in small quantities on a daily basis. It is an element that can be found in the earth, rocks, water and air. It can form metal alloys with other elements and is often mined unintentionally as a result. Arsenic has been used as everything from a cosmetic enhancer to embalming fluid. Although many of its roles have fallen to the wayside over the years, it still plays a key role in modern technology.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865) through to the early 20th century, arsenic was an important component of embalming fluids. Because arsenic stops the microbes responsible for decomposition, it was a logical addition to embalming fluid during the war, when it could take longer for bodies to be returned home for burial. Unfortunately, undertakers of the time failed to take into account some basic aspects of arsenic. As an element, it does not degrade or decompose. It either remains within the body of the deceased or it leaks out into the environment. The use of arsenic was eventually banned in the early 1900s due to health concerns. However, sufficient amounts of arsenic can still be found in some cemeteries from that time period to pose a serious risk to archaeologists and cemetery workers. There is also the risk of ground water contamination in these areas due to arsenic's being leeched into the soil from the decomposed bodies.

Fowler’s Solution was a popular Victorian cosmetic that contained arsenic. The ladies liked to drink it because it gave them rosy cheeks. They also rubbed it into their skin in a cream form to treat acne and provide a more translucent look to the skin. In the 1800s it was often considered a cure-all and was used for a variety of ailments, including fever and ague. Although it fell into disfavor due to side effects, it would reappear several times in different types of medications and treatments in the 20th century. It was found it to be an effective, albeit potentially dangerous, way of treating some parasitic infections. Five to ten percent of treated patients succumbed to arsenic poisoning, but they were free of the parasites at the time of death. These experiments and treatments would lead to recognition of its potential as a chemotherapeutic drug. Although most of those therapies have been discontinued as they proved ineffective, a new treatment for leukemia that uses arsenic was FDA approved in 2001. Trisenox (arsenic trioxide) remains in use for cancer treatment today.

In the 20th century, the main use of arsenic was in pesticides and herbicides, an industry where it is still used today. Risk of environmental contamination and accidental industrial poisonings has greatly reduced its use in North America, but it does still have a presence in the market. It can also be found in metallurgy, tanning, taxidermy and glass making. It is currently finding renewed use in semiconductors as gallium arsenide. These are used to create light emitting diodes (LED) and solar cells.

Although primarily known as a poison, arsenic has a rich history of use in fields such as medicine, agriculture, embalming and now electronics. It is important to remember that arsenic is poisonous in all its forms and must be handled with care, with thought given to its ultimate destination since it does not degrade or decompose. Nonetheless, few elements can claim such a unique history of usefulness in the history of mankind.

More about this author: Heather Brennan

From Around the Web

  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrow
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrow
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrow
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrow