As early as the 12th century AD and presumably until shortly before the Second World War, some inhabitants of Styria and the mountainous regions of Tyrol consumed high quantities of arsenic (also called Hidrach, Hittrach = Hüttenrauch, which means ‘smoke of the hut’) by licking it like a candy or placing arsenic powder on speck or bread. Although a dose of 0.1 mg As is usually fatal, arsenic-eaters may ingest up to three or four times this quantity without severe poisoning. However, rather than becoming tolerant, it appears that absorption in the stomach and intestines is reduced as arsenic-eaters showed typical symptoms of poisoning once arsenic was injected.
Arsenic eaters are reported to have consumed up to 0.3-0.4 mg of arsenic trioxide over longer periods (30 years or more). Some of them consumed ‘artificial orpiment’, which contains up to 90% arsenic trioxide, produced by melting the oxide with sulfur. Generally, Arsenic eaters began by consuming small amounts of arsenic, typically about 10 mg, which they increased every 2 or 3 days up to 0.3-0.4 mg (Przygoda et al. 2001). Accidental poisonings were rare due to the detailed knowledge and the fact that the ‘expertise’ developed was passed on in the family.
The existence of arsenic-eaters is the origin of the so-called ‘Styrian-defense’: not only in Austria, but for instance also in the UK, trials dealing with arsenic poisoning had to consider if the victim might have been an arsenic-eater. In the Victorian era arsenic was easily available and practically everywhere: in dresses, wallpaper, food (arsenic was used as a colorant), cosmetic products, confections, medication, and so on.
In addition to a small number of Austrians in some mountainous regions, Mithridates VI, Darwin, Napoleon*, and Queen Victoria are known to have regularly consumed arsenic to prevent poisoning, as well as for its (initially) positive effects: a warm feeling in the stomach due to an irritation of the lining of the stomach (similar as it happens during the consumption of alcohol), increased appetite and well being (consequently, people gain weight) and last, but not least, due to its performance-enhancing (also sexually) characteristics.
With increased consumption, the negative effects prevail (see the previous post and this presentation)
Not only humans consumed arsenic: from the 17th century onwards, it was regularly given to horses prior to sale, giving them the appearance of being healthier, younger and more vital with a shiny coat due to the increased amount of oxygen in the blood. Schulz 1939 noted that the regular consumption of arsenic also affects the growth of bones; pregnant animals given arsenic usually died during birth since the young were far too big to pass through the pelvis.
* Napoleon was most likely not poisoned with arsenic; the fact that his hair (if it is even his hair) contains high levels of arsenic might be due to conservation using arsenic. Also, he might have used Fowler’s solution extensively. Furthermore, it is known that his green wall paper contained arsenic; this, together with mildew, may have resulted in the formation of organic arsenic compounds which might have also contributed to his death.
…though… anyone some pudding?
- Whorton, J. C. The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play (2011).
- Przygoda G. – Feldmann J. – Cullen W. R. 2001. The arsenic eaters of Styria: a different picture of people who were chronically exposed to arsenic. Applied Organometallic Chemistry 15, 457–462. DOI: 10.1002/aoc.126
- See the movie (in German) about ‘arsenic-eaters’ in Styria/Tyrol, Austria.
- Schulz H., Vorlesungen über Wirkung und Anwendung der unorganischen Arzneistoffe: für Studierende und Ärzte (Berlin 1939).
- Most K. H. Arsen als Gift und Zaubermittel in der deutschen Volksmedizin mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Steiermark, PhD Thesis, University of Graz, Austria (Graz 1939).