Books in Denmark library found to be poisonous

Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have discovered that three of the volumes in the university’s library rare books collection are poisonous. All three of them are history books. (Is it weird that that makes me inordinately proud?)

The books were not suspected of having killed a number of monks in a forbidding monastery in the Italian Alps. In fact, the study had nothing to do with identifying lethal literature. These three books were selected because they were known from previous investigation to have medieval manuscript fragments in their covers. Recycling old parchment was a common practice for bookbinders in the 16th and 17th centuries. Researchers aimed to use imaging technology to identify which Latin texts had been used to make the covers, or at least to recover legible passages.

The books were X-rayed, but the ink handwriting on the fragments was difficult to read through the thick layer of green paint on the outside of the covers. To break through the green barrier, the team tried using X-ray fluorescence analyses (micro-XRF) which is routinely used by painting conservators to analyze the chemical composition of pigments.

The idea was to filter through the layer of paint using micro-XRF and focus on the chemical elements of the ink below, for example on iron and calcium, in the hope of making the letters more readable for the university’s researchers.

But XRF-analysis revealed that the green pigment layer was arsenic. This chemical element is among the most toxic substances in the world and exposure may lead to various symptoms of poisoning, the development of cancer and even death. […]

The green arsenic-containing pigment found on the book covers is thought to be Paris green, copper(II) acetate triarsenite or copper(II) acetoarsenite Cu(C₂H₃O₂)₂·3Cu(AsO₂)₂. This is also known as “emerald green”, because of its eye-catching green shades, similar to those of the popular gemstone.

Paris green is an intense, brilliant color that was resistant to fading. These qualities made it popular, especially in the 19th century when it was found in everything from oil paints to clothes dyes to artificial flowers and wreaths. When people realized their dresses were killing them in the second half of the 19th century, Paris green fell into disuse as an aesthetic option and went on to a new career as a pesticide and insecticide. Researchers believe it was for the latter purposes that the book covers were painted with Paris green likely in the 19th century.

It seems we aren’t likely to find out what medieval Latin manuscripts were diced up by the bookbinders any time soon.

Under certain circumstances, arsenic compounds, such as arsenates and arsenites, may be transformed by microorganisms into arsine (AsH₃) – a highly poisonous gas with a distinct smell of garlic. Grim stories of green Victorian wallpapers taking the lives of children in their bedrooms are known to be factual.

Now, the library stores our three poisonous volumes in separate cardboard boxes with safety labels in a ventilated cabinet. We also plan on digitising them to minimise physical handling. One wouldn’t expect a book to contain a poisonous substance. But it might.


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Comment by Trevor
2018-07-03 06:07:17

Uh, now I want to know more about these grim stories of nursery wallpapers…

Comment by Igor Il Terribile
2018-07-03 11:53:00

:skull: Those who LIVE by the History book, might eventually DIE by the History book :skull:

Comment by Barbara JH Austin
2018-07-03 15:18:00

See James C Whorton, The Arsenic Century: How Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play (2011). He discusses the use of arsenic in food, textiles, etc. during the nineteenth century.

Comment by Eileen Gunn
2018-07-03 17:11:55

Ohmigosh! The green cake from Peter Pan! “We’ll bake a cake quite large/ and fill each layer in between/ with icing mixed with poison/ ’til it turns a tempting green!” I’ve been wondering about that since I was 8 years old….

Comment by Ambrosius
2018-07-04 08:38:22

Besides containing arsenic to deter rats from nibbling it wallpaper was also hung with arsenic-laced paste a double-whammy which one wit said lent new meaning to Oscar Wilde’s rumored deathbed quip, “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.”


Comment by Limneresque
2018-07-05 00:07:19

Alison Matthews David has a chapter on arsenic greens in her book Fashion Victims – The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. Artificial flower makers would dust the leaves with a green powder…

How strange that the widespread use of arsenic in the 19th century and the wreckage it caused is not more well known.

Comment by Cordate
2018-07-05 04:46:05

An international best-seller that everyone is dying to read!

Comment by Cerelle Bolon
2018-07-05 17:37:34

My cousin(who with his wife hangs historic hand blocked wallpaper) tells me, “When Napoleon was in exile on the island of Elba the wallpaper in his bed room was made with Paris green and breathing that every night is what killed him.” I know there are other theories but this sounds very plausible to me.

Comment by Dragonsword
2018-08-02 00:16:50

Check out a documentary series by the BBC called hidden killers in _blank_ home with the Era used in the title. it was either the Victorian era or edwardian Era episode that covered wallpaper poisoning from the emerald Green color used.

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August 2020


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