In the mid-1700s, Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered a copper derivative that was a particularly vivid green. Scheele’s discovery — known as Scheele’s Green — was used as a pigment for all sorts of artistic works, particularly among the European elite. Wallpaper, in particular, was made using Scheele’s Green to achieve the hue desired by designers and customers alike. Unfortunately, Scheele’s Green was soft on the eyes but not nearly as kind to the ears, nose, throat, and the rest of the human body. The pigment was made from copper arsenide and as anyone who has ever read Arsenic and Old Lace will attest, arsenic is a toxin. It can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and more. Continued exposure to arsenic can ultimately result in death. While the dangers of consuming arsenic were well known, they attempted to assassinate Napoleon with arsenic, few people understood that arsenic was also dangerous if inhaled.
Despite its vivid and eye-catching nature, doctors eventually discovered that arsenic in paintings and wallpaper could kill. The ink flaked off the paper only to be inhaled by those nearby. Moisture, abrasion, or heat caused the release of toxic vapors. Soon reports of mysterious illnesses and deaths of small children or even entire families gained the attention of the general public. It was not, however, until the late 1860s that doctors connected those maladies with the presence of luminous green paper on the walls. So, did we learn to respect heavy metals? Well no. As wallpaper gave way to white painted walls, we introduced a new poison into our homes – lead.
So next time you are in a grand home with beautiful green or white walls, ask yourself, am I safe?
Better life through chemistry…