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Toxic chemicals found in more than 200 books of the nineteenth century: how to recognize "deadly" editions

Anna BoklajukNews
Library

Old books of the nineteenth century had green bindings with an alarming arsenic content, which publishers began to use instead of leather to reduce the cost of publication. Among the titles of books published in the mid-1800s were The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, Esquire (1845), The Liberty Bell (1856), and A Winter Wreath of Summer Flowers (1855).

Researchers at the University of Delaware also identified red and yellow bindings that contain mercury and lead, using X-rays to test the chemical compounds. Scientists are now warning the public to watch out for books with covers in these colors, saying exposure can cause respiratory problems, lesions, and cancer. This was reported by the DailyMail.

Victorian-era publishers began mass-producing books in the early 1800s, but it was quite expensive because books were historically created with leather covers. So they started to create book covers that contained green dye because it was a cheaper alternative to leather, but they didn't know that the arsenic used to make the dye could be deadly.

These books are still in libraries today, hiding among the piles of volumes from institutions around the world, and when each one is discovered, it is placed in a quarantined environment for further analysis.

Last week, the Bibliothèque nationale de France withdrew four of its books with emerald green covers that may contain arsenic, and while they are likely to cause only minor damage, the library is running tests before considering returning them to the shelves.

"We have quarantined these works and an external laboratory will analyze them to assess how much arsenic is in each volume," the library told The Guardian.

Arsenic exposure has been linked to increased respiratory symptoms, poor lung function, and chronic lung disease, but long-term exposure can lead to skin damage and cancer.

The arsenic in the cover was first discovered by Melissa Tedone, a conservator at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, when she was repairing the spine of the book, and the green pigment began to peel off the surface, CBC Radio reports.

The book's cover was tested using X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy, which is used to study chemical compounds, and confirmed that the dye contained arsenic.

"We're kind of going down this path of looking for all the toxic components that might be in book cloth. But we're also trying to document all mass-produced nineteenth-century book bindings that might contain any kind of arsenic," she said.

The researchers started the Poison Book project in 2019, when they tested hundreds of covers for heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, and chromium.

They also found that the books embossed with red ink contained cinnabar, a mineral also known as mercury sulfide, which ranks high on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's list of toxic substances. The dye can be found mixed with the marbled patterns that appear on the covers of old books, or as a single bright red color that dates back thousands of years, and can lead to mercury poisoning, with possible neurological and kidney damage, as well as respiratory problems.

Yellow book covers also contain traces of lead chromate, which is toxic in large quantities. However, yellow dye is not as much of a concern to scientists as red or green books.

People who work in libraries or who may have arsenic books at home should take steps to protect themselves from the chemical by wearing gloves when handling books and washing their hands immediately afterwards. They should also place books in plastic covers to prevent toxins from peeling off.

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