Little Details

A Fact-Checking Community for Writers

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Poisoning - toxic paint pigments
chat noir
leyosura wrote in little_details
Hi!
Thank you in advance for your help with this one.

My story is set in the late 18th century in Europe, and I have been trying to research poisoning by the ingestion of highly toxic paint pigments.

The best candidates for this seem to be vermillion (which contains cinnabar, a compound of mercury) or orpiment (which contains an arsenic compound). I have researched poisoning by both arsenic and mercuric compounds, but most of the data I come across seems to be about the effects of long-term, gradual poisoning.

My question is, would it be possible to for someone to be killed relatively quickly by ingesting one of these pigments? By quickly, I mean over a few hours or at most a couple of days. If so, what sort of quantity of the pigment would be required? How would the symptoms of ingesting a large quantity quickly differ from the effects of long-term poisoning?

Is there any other paint pigment used in the 18th century that would kill somebody this quickly? If so, what quantity would someone need to ingest and what would be the symptoms of poisoning?

I have searched for toxicity of paint pigments, cinnabar poisoning, mercury poisoning, orpiment poisoning, ingestion of cinnabar, etc, but I can't seem to find anything on the quantities that would be required.

Many thanks for your help.

.

Arsenic Green. They used it in paint and dye, and it was known to kill women who wore ball gowns dyed that color.

Re: You might research

marycatelli

2014-07-22 02:55 am (UTC)

how true. Arsenic-based dyes may be the truth behind the legends of clothes dyed in dragon's blood that killed the wearer. (The legends expediently speeding up the process.)

Re: You might research

nuranar

2014-07-22 03:36 am (UTC)

Was arsenic green used in the 18th century? That was mostly a 19th century phenomenon, I thought. I believe the poisonous ballgown stories are from that time; it was an issue because the very fine cotton fibers were aspirated.

White lead was a common cosmetic. This blog has a lot of research and articles on 18th century cosmetics, including re-creation of many (but with substitutes for the poisonous or the no-longer-available): http://madameisistoilette.blogspot.se/


Re: You might research

nuranar

2014-07-22 03:37 am (UTC)

Hmm. I tried to comment but because of a link, it was supposedly marked as spam. Trying again:

Was arsenic green used in the 18th century? That was mostly a 19th century phenomenon, I thought. I believe the poisonous ballgown stories are from that time; it was an issue because the very fine cotton fibers were aspirated.

White lead was a common cosmetic. There's a blog has a lot of research and articles on 18th century cosmetics, including re-creation of many (but with substitutes for the poisonous or the no-longer-available). It's on Blogspot, titled "Madame Isis' Toilette."

Re: You might research

leyosura

2014-07-22 06:02 pm (UTC)

Yes, I think you're right, arsenic green was 19th century.
White lead make-up is a possibility, although I think it was more of a gradual poisoning. Thanks for your help anyway.

Have a look at the wiki article on Scheeles Green. If burning candles dyed with it can make you pass out you could maybe extrapolate a quantity from that..
Also I'm sure if you downed a tube of Flake White it wouldn't take more than a few days to die. 'Nibbling' on his paints gave Van Gogh seizures x

Flake white is one I haven't looked into. Thanks, I'll check it out.

The poisoning is long-term and gradual because no-one was consuming large quantities. To have someone die quickly, they need to eat more. Wiki has the toxic dose at 70-200mg (depending on body size), so if it's good quality orpiment (about 60% arsenic) you'd need to consume about 120-340mg of orpiment in one go, which is not a huge amount to eat, though extremely expensive.

That's really helpful. Thanks.

Try arsenic - it's one of the components of Prussian or Parisian blue. Invented in 1706, according to Wikipedia. It's not a plant toxin, but it is one that would be easy to get hold of for a painter in those days, and no one would think twice about an artist having some.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussian_blue

Do you mean cyanide? I can't seem to find anything about arsenic in Prussian blue, but it seems that cyanide was used to produce various blue paints.

Although, unless Prussian blue has changed a lot since the 1700s, I'm not sure you can use Prussian blue itself for your poison -- apparently, it's not toxic and is in fact used to treat radniatio poisoning.

Yes, I meant cyanide, sorry - arsenic was used in various greens, rather than blues, and it was rather late when I posted that.

Prussian blue isn't toxic, because the cyanide is neutralized in the process of creating the pigment, but it wasn't uncommon in those times for painters to create their own pigments. Creating your own Prussian blue or other cyanotic blues would be dangerous if not done right, but would also mean that you could adjust proportions to create the exact shade you wanted rather than trusting to a chemist to create it for you and having to worry about variances between batches, etc. when working on a large piece. And frankly, given some of the OTHER pigments that they were working with, cyanide wouldn't seem too scary! A large number of the pigments that are used in the paintings from the pre-Industrial times would get a place shut down by the EPA if they were found in an art studio now, and the artist would probably wind up in jail to boot.

The "official way" to check quantities is to:

(1) find the chemical name for the pigment (e.g. orpiment = arsenic sulfide)
(2) Google "MSDS (chemical name)"--this will give you the material safety data sheet
(3) Look for the "LD50". This is the lethal dosage that makes 50% of the population die. It should be in mg/kg. You'll have to figure out your character's rough body weight in kg and multiply by the LD50 to get the lethal dosage.

This is just what I need. Thanks for your help.