These Ancient Books From A Danish Library Could Kill You

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Next time someone says ‘it won’t kill you to pick up a book,’ refer them to this article.

Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark recently discovered three rare books dating back to the 1500-1600s. They were excited to discover these volumes had mediaeval manuscript fragments within the covers. And oh yeah, a deadly poison — arsenic.

They took the books in for further examination after finding it hard to read the Latin texts within the covers due to an ‘extensive layer of green paint,’ obstructing the handwritten letters.

Daily Mail

The poisonous qualities of these books were detected by conducting a series of X-ray fluorescence analyses (micro-XRF)….

… So we took them to the lab. The idea was to filter through the layer of paint using micro-XRF and focus on the chemical elements of the ink below, for example on iron and calcium, in the hope of making the letters more readable for the university’s researchers.

But XRF-analysis revealed that the green pigment layer was arsenic.

Arsenic is a natural element that is very common within nature. However there is also a man-made, mass-produced version, which was commonly used as an aesthetic for coloring in the 1800s; it was used in wallpapers, clothing, you name it. And it was tremendously poisonous,  killing countless people. It can even cause cancer if found in large amounts in drinking water.

You can see a pic of one of the killer books in the tweet below.

So what exactly happens to your body if you come in contact with poisonous levels of arsenic? Let’s just say it’s not good.


Photo: Wellcome Collection

So why in the hell did this book-maker slab his reads with the most poisonous substance on Earth? The researchers believe it had nothing to do with aesthetics, but believe the arsenic was used to protect the books from insects and rodents.

Hmm. I hope renaissance readers wore gloves.

Oh, and you know how you’ve always been tempted to touch the paintings at the art museum just to see what happens? Don’t. If it’s from the 19th century and includes the color ‘green,’ the paintings likely have arsenic paint.


Josh Helmuth is a sports reporter in St. Louis who contributes to Mandatory. He’s pretty certain the last book he read was arsenic-free. 

 

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