Paris green is an inorganic compound. As a green pigment it is also known as Schweinfurt green, emerald green or Vienna green. It is a highly toxic emerald-green crystalline powder that has been used as a rodenticide and insecticide, and also as a pigment, despite its toxicity. It is also used as a blue colorant for fireworks. The color of Paris green is said to range from a pale blue green when very finely ground, to a deeper green when coarsely ground.
In 1867, farmers in Illinois and Indiana found that Paris green was effective against the Colorado potato beetle, an aggressive agricultural pest. Despite concerns regarding the safety of using arsenic compounds on food crops, Paris green became the preferred method for controlling the beetle. By the 1880s, Paris green had become the first widespread use of a chemical insecticide in the world. It was also used widely in the Americas to control the tobacco budworm, Heliothis virescens.
Paris green was heavily sprayed by airplane in Italy, Sardinia, and Corsica during 1944 and in Italy in 1945 to control malaria. It was once used to kill rats in Parisian sewers, which is how it acquired its common name.
Over the centuries, arsenic has been used as a pesticide and fungicide. From the 19th century onward, an inorganic compound known as Fowler’s solution (1% potassium arsenite solution) was used for the treatment of leukemia, psoriasis, chronic bronchial asthma and as a tonic (Zhao and Chen, 2005). Organic arsenic compounds were used for the treatment of syphilis and trypanosomal infection prior to the introduction of antibiotics. Medical folklore also indicated that various inorganic arsenic-containing tonics were consumed in the therapy of acne, psoriasis, sexual disorders, anemia and rheumatism. Arsenic as copper acetoarsenite was used as a pigment in paints, the best known being “Paris green”. Before electricity, coal fires were used for heat and light; these produced hydrogen gas, which when combined with arsenic which was present in “Paris green” of wallpaper formed toxic gas, arsine. A fungus Scopulariopsis breviculis present in damp wallpaper also metabolized the arsenic in Paris green to arsine.
Current uses of arsenic are in pesticides (lead arsenate, calcium arsenate and sodium arsenite), herbicides (mono sodium arsenate and cacodylic acid; dimethyl arsenic acid), cotton desiccants (arsenic acid) and wood preservatives (zinc and chromium arsenate). Arsenic is also used as a bronzing and decolorizing agent in the manufacture of glass, and in the production of semiconductors (gallium arsenide, indium arsenide, aluminum gallium arsenide), as a desiccant and defoliant in agriculture, and as a by-product in the smelting of non-ferrous metals, particularly gold and copper, from coal residues (Hall, 2002). In India, herbal medicines are suspected to contain arsenic. Arsenic in homeopathic preparations and for the treatment of hematological malignancies is also being practiced. In Korea, arsenic is prescribed in herbal medicine for hemorrhoids.
Paris green, also called emerald green, was a popular pigment used in artists’ paints by (among others) the English painter J. M. W. Turner, Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir, and Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin, Cézanne, and Van Gogh.
The dangers of of ‘Paris Green’
Paris Green was the country’s first popular insecticide, despite it being more expensive than other such products and was a bit troublesome to use as it had to be mixed with liquid and continuously stirred so that the powder didn’t sink to the bottom. Most farmers had a rusty can of the powder somewhere inside their home or barn.
Whether by accident or intentional, it was discovered that less than one-eighth of a teaspoon of the powder would kill a person if ingested. The resulting death would be an agonizing one and potentially slow. The painful effects could last anywhere from two hours to several days before the physical misery stopped and life ended.
Severe abdominal pain and vomiting was usually followed by convulsions and heart disruption before organ failure and hemorrhages began.
On March 26, 1890, 61-year-old Albertus Courtland Bromley of Woodville, took his life by ingesting Paris Green. He was discovered that afternoon, by a neighbor, inside the home where he lived alone.
Not far from where he lay dead was a bottle partially filled with whiskey and, not far from that was an old can of Paris Green. While his cause of death was officially listed as suicide by poison, some thought he might have mistaken the can for his whiskey bottle and accidentally dumped the toxic contents into his mouth.
Eight years earlier, on July 26, William Stillman Hoxsie died around midnight from the effects of a dose of Paris Green. The 49-year-old lived with his 79-year-old uncle Gideon Wilbur Hoxsie on Shannock Hill Road in Richmond and had been occasionally exhibiting signs of insanity.
Hundreds of despondent people from all over the country ended their lives during the late 19th and early 20th century by ingesting a product which began as a colorful hue and went on to bring about intentional death to insects and humans alike.