Green for danger: the silent killer in the room

Green Victorian wallpaper

Homes have concealed many hidden killers over the years, from fire retardant and insulating asbestos wall coverings used so widely in Victorian and Edwardian times, to wallpapers with deadly arsenical dyes.  Astonishingly, while asbestos has became one of the most strictly controlled building materials, the use of arsenical dyes such as copper arsenite in both wallpapers and paint has never outlawed.  Breaking down over time slowly to release a dust containing arsenic, the young, the old and the infirm started falling ill and dying.  One physician in America famously produced a book of toxic wallpaper samples for public libraries.  He wanted to help people everywhere check whether the wallpaper in their homes was one of the most dangerous types.  If you could find your bedroom wallpaper in this book, your house was in serious need of redecoration!

Click here to read more about this unusual library book of wallpaper samples that saved lives in the nineteenth century.  It has been digitised, so you can see images of it online or download a copy, although the few surviving originals are reportedly far prettier to behold, even after they were hermetically sealed in plastic to stop them poisoning those who read them).  Sadly we have no books actually made out of wallpaper but check out this book about the history of wallpaper design.

Producing poisonous wallpapers is still perfectly legal.  The only reason you might struggle to wallpaper your bedroom with paper that “loads the air with the breath of death” is that sales of arsenic containing pigments fell sharply following the initial health scare, when doctors first recognised its harmful effects, particularly in children.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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