An Everyday Poison

A 19th-century pharmacist compounds medicines, including opium, cocaine, and arsenic, for customers.

A 19th-century pharmacist compounds medicines, including opium, cocaine, and arsenic, for customers.

While wallpaper manufacturers claimed their arsenical paper was safe and questioned any evidence against them, chemists and doctors grappled with the existence of chronic low-level poisoning from nonfood sources. Since doctors prescribed small doses of arsenic as a medicine, many believed that tiny doses would not cause sickness. Not until the 1880s, as the number of clinical histories mounted, did a consensus emerge: arsenic at any dose was unhealthy.

If this book has any heroes, it’s the toxicologists and doctors who tracked the poison to its source, whether in cases of murder or environmental poisoning, and who agitated for laws restricting arsenic’s availability. The arsenic conflict between public welfare and private enterprise generally pitted reforming doctors and chemists against government and manufacturers, with the former often losing to laissez-faire principles. In the end it was consumer revulsion at being deliberately poisoned rather than legislation that forced manufacturers to produce arsenic-free products.

Whorton’s concern breaks through in the occasional passages where he compares past and present responses to proposed legislation. Then (regarding arsenic): “‘It was not an advantageous proceeding,’ one opponent thundered, ‘to treat the people of this country like children.’” Now (regarding trans fats): “There is solid resistance from those who deplore governmental interference with private enterprise [for example]: ‘I can’t believe that there are people dumb enough to support such an intrusion into personal choice’” (p. 157). Of greater present concern to Whorton are new synthetic products entering our environment—products whose long-term effects cannot be clearly predicted. He writes, “As with arsenical candles and papers and fabrics, these items will become established in commerce before their dangers are recognized, ensuring that any attempt to curtail their use will be resisted by manufacturers . . . and fought or ignored by politicians ideologically opposed to government interference with business” (p. 359). When science met the marketplace in the 19th century, politics ruled. Whorton fears that the 21st century will be little different.

Michal Meyer is the editor-in-chief of Chemical Heritage.