Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Richard and Nancy Lyon

Arsenic Poisoning

Even as mystery novelists were giving arsenic a bad name, the element was being hawked as a cure-all. 

For more than 150 years, doctors prescribed an arsenic-based tonic known as Fowler's Solution for everything from kidney disease to cancer to deafness to psoriasis to jealousy — until it was discovered, in the 1940s, that the presumed curative had side effects that included cirrhosis and skin and bladder cancer.

Fowler's Solution
Fowler's Solution

Arsenic, a poisonous metallic element, is everywhere in the natural environment — in the air, in the earth, in the water and even in foods, especially seafood and meat.

The average human being ingests one milligram of arsenic a day, primarily from food. Most of it is eliminated through urine and feces, but over time 10 to 20 milligrams of non-toxic arsenic accumulate in the body.

Experts say these forms of arsenic are not a serious health problem.

The same is not true of arsenic trioxide, one of the most toxic and prevalent forms of the element, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Although it, too, appears naturally in our environment, arsenic trioxide is produced primarily from byproducts of copper smelting. It is used in wood preservatives and in weed and bug killers, as well as in the manufacture of glass and ceramics.

Arsenic trioxide, odorless and tasteless, is white or transparent and resembles sugar crystals.

When ingested in even small does, the substance can cause fatal damage to key organs — the gastrointestinal tract, the kidneys, the heart and the brain.

"Ingestion is the most important route of acute exposure of arsenic trioxide," according to the federal agency. "Ingested arsenic trioxide is quickly absorbed and can be extremely hazardous. Significant tissue and organ damage and death may result."

The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal hemorrhage, swelling of the brain and rapid or irregular heartbeat.

The agency adds, "Most acute intoxications are from suicidal or homicidal ingestion."

In other words, precious few die from accidental arsenic trioxide poisoning.


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