Arsenic was discredited centuries ago as an almost odorless, tasteless poison, often used by and against the ruling classes of Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
But what is the history of arsenic poisoning and how does it kill?
It turns out that a vital element also plays a role in making arsenic deadly.
What is the history of arsenic poisoning?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is widely distributed in the earth’s crust, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (opens in new tab). Pure arsenic — a steel-gray, brittle solid — is typically found in the environment in combination with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, sulfur, carbon, and hydrogen, often resulting in white or colorless powders that have no odor or distinctive taste. Therefore, you usually cannot tell if arsenic is present in food, water, or air.
Historically, arsenic has been known as both the “king of poisons” and the “poison of kings” for its toxic power and popularity with rulers who wanted to quietly eliminate their rivals, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Toxicological Sciences (opens in new tab).
There are many stories describing the deadly use of arsenic. For example, in biomedical historian James C. Whorton’s book “The Century of Arsenic (opens in new tab)(Oxford University Press, 2010), Whorton told the legend of the Roman Emperor Nero, who freed himself from his 13-year-old stepbrother and potential rival, Britannicus, by pouring arsenic into his soup.
According to the Toxicological Sciences report, powerful and wealthy Italian families like the Medici and the Borgia are also said to have used arsenic to root out their rivals. The use of arsenic in murder was common until the 18th century when chemical methods for detecting arsenic poisoning were developed by looking for the element in hair, urine, or nails. to Britannica (opens in new tab).
Today, arsenic poisoning is more accidental than intentional. Humans are most commonly exposed to arsenic through drinking water in areas where arsenic levels in dissolved minerals are naturally high. according to CDC (opens in new tab). Other sources of accidental exposure to arsenic include contact with contaminated soil or dust, wood preserved with arsenic compounds, or certain foods such as rice and some fruit juices. (Rice takes up unusually high levels of arsenic from the soil compared to other crops, according to the FDA (opens in new tab); the Agency Remarks (opens in new tab) that arsenic can enter apple and other juices due to naturally high levels of arsenic in soil and water, past use of arsenic-based pesticides in the United States, and current use of such pesticides in other countries.)
What makes arsenic toxic?
The toxicity of arsenic results from its proximity to phosphorus on the periodic table. Since arsenic and phosphorus have similar atomic structures, they have similar properties. Both possess chemical keys that unlock access to cellular functions. But while phosphorus is essential to life, arsenic is disruptive and deadly, Mark Jones, a chemistry consultant and member of the American Chemical Society, told Live Science.
Arsenic’s similarity to phosphorus means that “arsenic can very easily replace and interfere with phosphorus in many basic chemical reactions in biology,” Jones said. “This means that arsenic can act as a broad spectrum poison against insects, weeds and pretty much every life form.”
For example, phosphorus helps cells produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the main source of energy in all known organisms. according to the American Chemical Society (opens in new tab). Arsenic can mimic phosphorus in chemical interactions where enzymes use oxygen to release the energy stored in sugar glucose and capture it in ATP. This can cause arsenic to interfere with the vital chemical reactions that phosphorus is involved in.
“You can think of enzymes and the chemicals they act on as locks and keys,” Jones said. “Arsenic is like a key that isn’t cut properly – if it goes into a lock on a door, not only will it not unlock that door, it can get stuck there and prevent another key from getting in to unlock that door.” In this way, arsenic can block many vital chemical pathways.”
By chemically blocking cell locks, arsenic can damage almost every organ in the human body. Large doses can cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, shock, cardiac arrhythmia, and multiple organ failure, ultimately leading to death CDC (opens in new tab). Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic in drinking water is associated with conditions such as skin conditions, an increased risk of diabetesHypertension and different types of Cancerincluding lung and skin cancer, the CDC (opens in new tab) says.
The individual susceptibility to arsenic poisoning varies greatly; According to Britannica, some people can tolerate doses of the element that would kill others. In a 2018 study published in the journal mammalian genome (opens in new tab)researchers reported that people’s genes, diet and gut microbes can affect their chances of surviving an encounter with the deadly toxin.
Despite its deadly potential, arsenic poisoning is treatable if caught early Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (opens in new tab). A key drug is dimercaprol, which was developed by British scientists during World War II as an antidote to arsenic-based chemical weapons. The drug works by absorbing arsenic and neutralizing its toxicity. according to the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab).
Although arsenic has a reputation for being deadly, it can also help cure diseases. according to the Wellcome Library in England (opens in new tab). In 1909, German chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues developed an arsenic-loaded compound called Salvarsan, which became the first effective treatment for syphilis. according to the Science History Institute in Philadelphia (opens in new tab). The principle behind how Salvarsan works, in which a drug seeks out and destroys diseased cells, eventually found application in chemotherapy, the Wellcome Library reported.
Originally published on Live Science.
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