Arsenic poisoning

From Academic Kids

Arsenic poisoning kills by massively disrupting the digestive system, leading to death from shock. Symptoms include violent stomach pains, vomiting and delirium.

Roger Smith, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology Emeritus, Dartmouth Medical School, has stated that natural arsenic contamination of drinking water has been a problem in wells in Bangladesh and New Hampshire. The Bangladesh well poisoning is a particularly difficult problem: millions of people take their drinking water from wells that were drilled through arsenic-bearing rock layers. Chronic low level arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis as in Bangladesh can result in the victim developing cancer.

In the 700's, an Arab alchemist named Jabir became the first to prepare arsenic trioxide, a white, tasteless, odorless powder. Jabir's preparation seemed the ideal poison as it left no traceable, at the time, elements in the body. In addition to its use as a poison, arsenic was used medicinally for centuries and, in fact, was used extensively to treat syphilis before penicillin was introduced. Arsenic was replaced as a theraputic agent by sulfa drugs and then by antibiotics. Arsenic was also an ingredient in many tonics (or "patent medicines"), just as coca (unrefined cocaine) was an ingredient in Coca-Cola when it was introduced. In addition, during the Victorian era, some women ate a mixture of vinegar, chalk, and arsenic to whiten their skin.


Well known cases

Arsenic became a favorite murder weapon of the Middle Ages, particularly among ruling classes in Italy. Because the symptoms are similar to those of cholera, which was common at the time, arsenic poisoning often went undetected. Arsenic poisoning has been implicated in the illness and death of a number of prominent people throughout history.

Napoleon Bonaparte

There is a theory that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 1821) suffered and died from arsenic poisoning during his imprisonment on the island of St. Helena. Forensic samples of his hair did show high levels, 13 times the normal amount, of the element. This, however, does not prove deliberate poisoning by Napoleon's enemies: Copper arsenate has been used as a pigment in some wallpapers, and microbiological liberation of the arsenic into the immediate environment would be possible. The case is equivocal in the absence of clearly authenticated samples of the wallpaper. As Napoleon's body lay for nearly 20 years in a grave on the island, before being moved to its present resting place in Paris, arsenic from the soil could also have polluted the sample. Even without contaminated wallpaper or soil, commercial use of arsenic at the time provided many other routes by which Napoleon could have consumed enough arsenic to leave this forensic trace.

Charles Francis Hall

American explorer Charles Francis Hall ( -1871) died suddenly and unexpectedly during his third arctic expedition aboard the ship Polaris. After returning to the ship from a sledging expedition with an Esquimau guide, Hall drank a cup of coffee and fell violently ill. He collapsed in what was described as a fit. For the next week he suffered from vomiting and delirium, then seemed to improve for a few days. At that time, he accused several of the ship's company, including ship's physician Dr. Emil Bessels with whom he had longstanding disagreements, of having poisoned him. Shortly after, Hall began suffering the same symptoms, died, and was taken ashore for burial. Once the remnants of the expedition returned, a US Navy investigation ruled that Hall had died from apoplexy.

However, in 1968, Hall's biographer Chauncey C. Loomis, a professor at Dartmouth College, traveled to Greenland to exhume Hall's body. Due to the permafrost, Hall's body, flag shroud, clothing and coffin were remarkably well preserved. Tissue samples of bone, fingernails and hair showed that Hall died of poisoning from large doses of arsenic in the last two weeks of his life, consistent with the symptoms party members reported. It is possible that Hall dosed himself with quack medicines which included the poison. But it is considered more probable that he was murdered by Dr. Bessels or one of the other members of the expedition.

Clare Boothe Luce

A later case of arsenic poisoning is that of Clare Boothe Luce, the American ambassador to Italy in the years just following World War II. Although she did not die from her poisoning, she suffered an increasing variety of physical and psychological symptoms until arsenic poisoning was diagnosed, and its source traced to the old, arsenic-laden flaking paint on the ceiling of her bedroom. Another source (see below) explains her poisoning as resulting from eating food contaminated by flaking of the ceiling of the embassy dining room.

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pl:Zatrucie arszenikiem


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