Libraries are removing ‘poisonous’ books from shelves – but not for the reason you think

Be warned, colourful books may hold a dark secret (Picture: Getty)

The Poisonous Book Project might sound like something started by parents in the US trying to ban ‘controversial’ titles, but in fact the movement is exactly as it appears.

A search for poisonous books. As in books with covers so hazardous to human health some libraries are removing them from shelves.

They could also be lurking in bookstores and homes all over the world – but don’t panic yet.

Only old titles are a risk, so nothing in Waterstones is going to cause any danger. Except to your bank account.

The reason for their potentially poisonous nature lies in the covers – specifically the dyes used to make them pop, some of which can contain arsenic, mercury or lead.

Mark Lorch, professor of science communication and chemistry at the University of Hull, explains how these dangerous ingredients came to be smeared on our favourite reads.

Green books can spread arsenic (Picture: Evan Krape/University of Delaware)

‘During the 19th Century, as books began to be mass produced, bookbinders transitioned from using expensive leather covers to more affordable cloth items,’ he says. ‘To attract readers, these cloth covers were often dyed in bright, eye-catching colours.’

Ah, so as always, businesses cut costs and the consumers suffer.

‘One popular pigment was Scheele’s green, named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a German-Swedish chemist who in 1775 discovered that a vivid green pigment could be produced from copper and arsenic,’ says Professor Lorch. ‘This dye was not only cheap to make, it was also more vibrant than the copper carbonate greens that had been used for over a century.’

More dyes were developed based on Scheele’s discovery, prompting the spread of bright but deadly greens in a range of products, from books and clothes to candles and wallpaper. 

Although they looked eyecatching at first, they broke down easily, releasing cancer-causing arsenic.

Red, green and yellow dyes were commonly made using poisonous ingredients in the 19th Century (Picture: Getty)

‘The frequent reports of green candles poisoning children at Christmas parties, factory workers tasked with applying paint to ornaments convulsing and vomiting green water and warnings of poisonous ball dresses raised serious concerns about the safety of these green dyes,’ says Professor Lorch, writing for the Conversation.

‘This issue became so notorious that in 1862, the satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon titled “The Arsenic Waltz”, which depicted skeletons dancing – a grim commentary on the deadly fashion trend.’

Green paint may have even been the reason for Napoleon’s death, having developed stomach cancer while living in exile in a green-painted house on St Helena. High levels of arsenic were detected in his hair.

However, it isn’t just green dyes that have proved deadly.

Vermilion red, created using mercury sulphide, was often found on the inside of books, while yellow dye was often based on lead chromate.

Napoleon’s green house on St Helena (Picture: Wikipedia)

‘The bright yellow of lead chromate was a favourite with painters, not least Vincent van Gogh, who used it extensively in his most famous series of paintings: Sunflowers,’ says Professor Lorch. 

‘For the Victorian-era bookbinders, lead chromate allowed them to create a range of colours from greens – achieved by mixing chrome yellow with Prussian blue – to yellows, oranges and browns.’

With this rainbow of deadly dyes, should book collectors and auctioneers be concerned?

‘You would probably have to eat [an] entire book before you’d suffer from severe arsenic poisoning,’ says Professor Lorch. However, casual exposure to copper acetoarsenite, the compound in the green pigment, can irritate the eyes, nose and throat.

More Trending

Read More Stories

‘It is more of a concern for folks who may regularly handle these books where frequent contact could result in more serious symptoms. Therefore, anyone who suspects they might be handling a Victorian-era book with an emerald green binding is advised to wear gloves and avoid touching their face. Then clean all surfaces afterwards.’

So far, the Poisonous Book Project has identified 238 arsenic editions across the world. While the chances are you don’t have one on your shelves, the team has designed an emerald green swatch bookmark to help identify risk.

Otherwise, if you find an 1832 edition of Canine Pathology by DP Blaine and Thomas Boosey, or an 1857 copy of Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, hold your breath and back away quickly.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *