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Which Turned Out to be Lethal

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. Indeed, ignorance can be costly, heartbreaking andsometimes- lethal. We might snigger at fashion plates who dripped deadly nightshade in their eyes or the practices of quack doctors, but who are we to judge? It was only relatively recently we discovered the harmful properties of all sorts of things. Here are a few of the deadliest ‘silent killers’ in history ...

Arsenic Fans of murder mysteries are well acquainted with this mother of poisons. What they might not know is our Victorian forefathers used it in practically everything. Wallpaper. Soaps and shampoos. Cures for morning sickness, asthma, eczema and acne. An early form of Viagra. When fabric was dipped in it, it turned a striking shade of green. This, when applied to playing cards, toys, clothing and even underwear, could have dire results. One ball gown was discovered to contain sixty grains of Scheele’s Green arsenic per square yard- enough to poison twelve people! Since it was commonly used for rat poison, anybody could buy arsenic without a licence. Its innocuous appearance led to all kinds of ghastly accidents, like the funeral where the cooks served rice pudding with arsenic instead of sugar.

Lead One theory posited about the fall of the Roman Empire was it was caused by the plumbing- or, rather, lead piping drove the aristocracy and thus the emperors mad. A more likely culprit seems to have been the copious amounts of wine, boiled in lead cauldrons. Since your average Roman drank two litres of wine a day, that would be a good deal of ingested lead! Another inappropriate use of lead was Elizabethan makeup. Since the monarch was the height of fashion, women artificially tinted their faces to look like her. The most common cosmetic was ‘ceruse’- a mixture of white lead and vinegar, smeared in a thick layer over the face, neck and bosom. Unsurprisingly it was highly toxic.

Radiation It seems incredible now, but during the Cold War years, members of the American public were bombarded with radiation. Tourists watched nuclear testing from a ‘safe’ distance, as though they were watching a firework display! There are reports of company CEOs keeping radioactive bars on their desks as paperweights. Other peculiar uses of radiation included toilets (it’d glow as it flushed), shoe fitting fluoroscopes and treatments for acne and freckles in beauty salons. Tragically many children and babies were radiated for thymus problems in the Fifties, only to develop cancer years later.

Smoking Although it had been practised since ancient times- shamans in the Americas used tobacco to attain a trance state- smoking didn’t reach our shores till the 16th century. By then it had gone from religious rite to social activity, quickly adopted by European traders. Not everybody was keen: James I wrote a polemic, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, and tried to enforce a 4000% tax increase. Before the 1940s, objections to smoking were as likely to be socioeconomic as moral or health related. In 1950 Richard Doll published the first study to draw links between smoking and lung cancer; a few years later it was made official. This about-turn finally convinced a sceptical public- doctors had endorsed them as health aids.

Asbestos Before its ban by the European Union, asbestos was hugely popular in building and manufacturing materials. Its advantages seemed endless: it was strong, sound absorbent, resisted fire, heat and electrical damage, and- always desirable- extremely cheap. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, its uses multiplied. These included: ceilings, fire doors, fire blankets, shoes, curtains, floor tiles, gas mask filters, plaster ... Like arsenic, it stretched into every walk of life. And like arsenic, it was secretly lethal. The proof? Prolonged inhalation of its fibres can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, pleural thickening and pleural plaques. It’s estimated at least 1% of British men over forty have either suffered or currently suffer asbestos related illnesses. Anybody who has worked in an industrial capacity or lived in an area where it was manufactured might be at risk.

Want to know more? Follow these great links! Review of The Arsenic Century: For more uses of arsenic at home and abroad during the Victorian era, why not try The Arsenic Century, the fascinating factual read by James Whorton? Asbestos Advice Helpline: Worried you or a loved one might have been affected by asbestos? The helpline has everything you need to know. Sources and Uses of Radiation: Want to know more about how radiation can be used? Try here.

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