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Victorian Poisonous Books Removed from French National Library

by | May 8, 2024 | News

France’s national library has removed four 19th-century books from its shelves whose emerald green covers are believed to be laced with highly poisonous arsenic. Arsenic was commonly used for its colour pigmentation and the arsenic-containing green pigments – called Paris green, or Scheele’s green, after a German-born chemist – were frequently utilised for books.

The library said on that handling the books, which were printed in Britain, would probably cause only minor harm, but it was taking them away for further analysis.

“We have put these works in quarantine and an external laboratory will analyse them to evaluate how much arsenic is present in each volume,” it said.

The Paris institution identified the offending copies after US researchers discovered publishers in the Victorian era had used the chemical to colour book bindings. Testing hundreds of book covers for heavy metals since 2019, researchers at the University of Delaware have drawn up a list of potentially dangerous volumes as part of the Poison Book Project.

The World Health Organization warns long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly through drinking water and food, can lead to skin lesions and skin cancer, but it makes no mention of contact with objects containing it.

The Poison Book Project says arsenic-laced green bindings present a health risk to librarians, booksellers, collectors and researchers, and should be handled and stored with caution. The books – believed to contain arsenic because of their emerald green covers – were identified by University of Delaware researchers and include works like the 1862-1863 book of the Royal Horticultural Society and two volumes of Edward Hayes’s “The Ballads of Ireland” from 1855. Similar precautions have been taken in Germany while a book containing arsenic was found in a Leeds library in 2022.

The National Library of France said it would also examine other green covered books beyond the Poison Book Project list. 

 

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