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The multipurpose poison

Metrohm International


Arsenic has many facets, but the primary one is the hazard it poses to millions of people around the world.

Throughout the course of history, people have found uses for the various properties of arsenic and its compounds. Red and yellow arsenic sulfides (As2S3 and As4S4) were used in antiquity as makeup and for hair removal. Artists used arsenic compounds as pigments - as for instance in Van Gogh's "Self Portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin" (1888). So-called Paris Green (copper(II) acetoarsenite) gives the background of this painting its characteristic color. And, to name just one medical application: the first effective drug to be used against syphilis was the arsenic compound arsphenamine (1910). The best-known use of the element with the atomic number 33, however, is as a poison. People in various regions of the world struggle even today with arsenic as a contamination in drinking water.

Arsenic looks back on an unparalleled career as a poison in literature and film. In the play "Intrigue and Love", Schiller's protagonist Ferdinand von Walter and his lover die of arsenic poisoning. The unhappily married Madame Bovary takes her life in the same way in the eponymous novel by Flaubert. In the classic 1940s film "Arsenic and Old Lace", two "charitable" ladies give arsenic to old gentlemen to free them from their dreary lives. Arsenic's career as a poison of choice was brought to a close by the Marsh test, which made it possible to detect arsenic poisoning posthumously beginning in 1836.

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