You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘arsenic’ tag.


Disturbing news from the world of workplace safety.  Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old Canadian sculptor, has been suffering from worsening pain, splitting headaches, and nausea for nearly a decade and a half.  She visited a range of specialized neurologists and endocrinologists, but none of them could pinpoint the nature of her malady which grew worse to the point that she was immobilized and suffered complete loss of hearing in one ear.  She was unable to distinguish up from down, forgot the names and faces of people, she knew her whole life, and discovered herself wandering the streets for no reason shouting profanities.   The doctors suspected heavy-metal poisoning, but Genser vehemently insisted that her materials were all natural.


If you are an artist yourself, you are probably shouting—but this is clearly heavy metal poisoning!  And you are right: Genser finally was diagnosed with acute arsenic and lead poisoning after one of her physicians insisted on a blood test.  Yet Genser was not a painter (like me, sigh) nor did she cast in metals or use exotic glazes and stains.  Her only materials were silver and mussel shells which she polished agonizingly by hand.


She obtained the blue mussels from a market in Toronto’s Chinatown and ate the mollusks with friends.  She then used the shells for her larger than life anatomical sculpture of Adam, the mythical first human from the Abrahamic faiths.  Sadly, whoever was providing the shellfish was obtaining them from water which was heavily polluted.  Mussels store metals in their shells, and Genser’s polishing, sanding, and shaping freed the trapped pollutants into dust which she inhaled (although eating 3 meals a week of mussel flesh probably didn’t help either).  The story is even more troubling when one reflects that blue mussels are an Atlantic shellfish and Toronto is at least 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the waves.


Hey! Has anyone noticed that Toronto is apparently right next to New York State? Where were these mussels from anyway?

The moral here in not “don’t be an artist” or “don’t eat mussels” (although, come to think of it, those are extremely plausible lessons).  Instead everyone needs to be careful in the modern world to watch out for hazardous materials which proliferate in unexpected ways from novel sources.  Of course, this is hardly a soothing message since most of us are not chemists (much less endocrinologists) and it looks like even those experts can’t always see where problems are coming from.  Maybe the real lesson is that humankind’s vast numbers and sophisticated industrial society are fundamentally inimical to the web of life which sustains us.  Actually, that is an even less comfortable message…but, well, I am not a politician here to sooth you with lies.  We have learned how to protect ourselves from the natural world.  Now we are going to have to learn (quickly) how to protect the natural world from ourselves.


Anyway, let’s take a look at the sculpture that caused such suffering for Genser (see the photos above from the artist).  It looks like the metal-poisoning started to fundamentally work its way into the sculpture itself—in terms of conception, execution, AND material (obviously).  Yet there is something oddly appropriate about the subject matter (Adam’s choices, after all, are a metaphor for humankind’s great metamorphosis from hunter-gathering beings to civilization-building farmers and crafters).  The dark armless statue with the alien face and the black glistening muscles and nacreous organs, seems to be a sort of manifestation of heavy metal poisoning.  The whole 15 year project has inadvertently become a performance piece about the pain of the world (just think of those poor mussels which can’t even move to escape their poisoned home waters).  I hope that the short-lived media burst helps Genser’s career, but I also hope she switches media as soon as possible.  While we are making wishes, let’s express some really heartfelt aspirations to be better stewards of the oceans.  They are the cradle of life…yet they are being sadly abused.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination.  At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market.  Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy.  There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s.  The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic).  Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning.  Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day).  In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp.  As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced.  In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe.  Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color.  Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain.  To quote, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us.  At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

The Crown of Eric XIV (before a twentieth century refurbishment)

The crown of the King of Sweden was manufactured in Stockholm in 1561 by a Flemish goldsmith named Cornelius ver Welden for the Swedish King Eric XIV.  Despite its antiquity, Eric XIV’s crown was not used for many years.  Swedish monarchs from three successive families, the House of Palatinate-Zweibrücken, the House of Hesse, and the House of Holstein-Gottorp (which successively controlled the Swedish throne between 1654 and 1818) preferred to be crowned with the crown of Queen Christina. However the House of Bernadotte, which has ruled Sweden since 1818, used the crown of Eric XIV for coronations…at least until 1907 which was the last time anyone wore any of the Swedish crown jewels at all.  The crown (along with Queen Christina’s crown and the other royal regalia) is now permanently on display in the vaults of the Royal Treasury, underneath the Royal Palace in Stockholm. Extensive changes were made to the crown of Eric XIV during the nineteenth century. These involved larger sparkly gems and the addition of a blue orb however the changes were undone when the crown was restored in the early twentieth century.

The Crown of Eric XIV today

The additions of the nineteenth century and their later removal may be of interest to jewelers, however the earliest changes made to the crown of Eric XIV are much more dramatic and merit explanation.  Originally the crown of the King of Sweden bore four pairs of the letter ‘E’ and ‘R’ in green enamel which were initials for “Ericus Rex.” These letters were all covered with cartouches set with pearl (which give the crown an ungainly look) after Eric XIV was deposed by John III.

Eric XIV lost the throne to John III (who was his brother) for good reasons.  Eric was an intelligent, handsome, and well-liked prince.  He romantically pursued Princess Elizabeth Tudor of England (later Queen Elizabeth I) for many years until his father’s death caused him to return from England and assume the throne of Sweden. He vigorously prosecuted the Livonian War by conquering Estonia and repelling Danish invasions.  But his reign fell under the dark shadow of mental illness–for the young king is believed to have suffered from schizophrenia.  He began to treat the Swedish nobility with increasing paranoia and highhandedness and he persecuted his brother John (who was the ruler of Finland and married to a powerful Polish princess). The king ultimately had his brother John incarcerated and removed nobles from his privy council. In 1567 he arrested five noblemen from the powerful Sture family.

Eric XIV of Sweden (Steven Van der Meulen ca. 1543-1561)

All of this seems familiar enough for kings, but Eric’s subsequent behavior leapt into the realm of madness.  Unable to convince the riksdag (a sort of noble parliament) of the Stures’ guilt for any crime, the king broke down completely before the assembled members.  The king then visited the Stures in prison and informed them of his intent to pardon them. Then, deciding that they could never forgive him, Eric flew into a frenzy, drew his dagger and stabbed Nils Sture.  Together with his guards he murdered the remaining Stures.  Then in extreme agitation, the king fled the castle.  His aging tutor found him and tried to soothe him, but the king commanded his tutor’s death (an order which the guards carried out) and then fled madly into the forest.  For days he could not be found and only eventually was he discovered in a nearby village dressed as a peasant. The king remained insane for half a year, but upon his recovery he resumed his duties.  When Eric began to exhibit traces of his malady again in 1568 (stabbing his secretary to death with a household object), his brother and the nobles joined together to overthrow him.  He spent the rest of his life imprisoned going in and out of insane fits.  In 1577, he died from arsenic which was probably concealed in his pea porridge by order of his brother John III.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023