In which we learn how arsenic was once added to candles to make them better and cheaper and, oh yeah, they were killers.
In 1837, in London, England, Dr. A. B. Granville was a member of a committee of the Westminster Medical Society that undertook the task of ascertaining whether or not there was arsenic in certain candles being sold commercially, and, if so, how much arsenic was present and to what effect the fumes might have on humans. At the time, candles were necessary and widely used for lighting purposes, and the cheapest were made of tallow, or animal fat. Paraffin had yet to be discovered. Any reference to “wax” in the report is a reference to beeswax, though also used for candles at the time was spermaceti, a reportedly gorgeous wax found inside sperm whales.
We can only assume that due to the prowess of his pen, Dr. Granville was chosen to write this committee’s final report. The more I read Granville’s writing, the more I admire it, and the complete text of the report follows. (I omit the appendix, though it too is worth reading. If you are so inclined, here is a link to the full document.) I find the report worth reading not only for Granville’s writing, but for several other reasons, not the least of which being how it relates to our current times, to how we perceive candles specifically, and to scientific research in general. I leave it to you, though, to find your own interest in it, if any, and to make your own correlations.
A word of warning: Section IV details experiments that used animals, some of whom were passively exposed to arsenicated candle fumes and subsequently died. If you do not wish to read these details, you are advised to skip Section IV.
Report of the Committee of the Westminster Medical Society, on Arsenicated Candles.
London: December, 1837.
Westminster Medical Society
Meeting of Saturday, the 9th of December, 1837.
The Committee appointed to inquire into the truth of the statement made respecting the presence of arsenic in certain candles now extensively used in this country, have agreed on making the following report.
I. Reasons for the Appointment of the Committee.
It will be in the recollection of the Society, that at their meeting of Saturday, the 28th of October, a member brought to the notice of the Society the fact of an hypochondriacal patient having fancied himself injuriously affected by the use of particular candles supplied to him at an hotel; in consequence of which he had forwarded a piece of one of them for analysis to a professor of chemistry, who had reported that the candle contained a notable quantity of arsenic, sufficient to account for the morbid symptoms described by the patient. As neither the name of the patient, nor that of the chemist, was mentioned, the allegation rested solely on the responsibility of the member who represented it to the Society, and who added, that from information he had subsequently obtained, there were reasons to apprehend that the practice of adding a large quantity of arsenic to a particular sort of candles, at present purchased in London, was by no means confined within narrow bounds. He therefore submitted to the meeting, that the question, being one which deeply concerned the public health, was deserving of the serious consideration of the Westminster Medical Society.
After a lengthened discussion—the Society, having heard, on the one hand, the opinion of a high legal authority read, declaratory of their competency to investigate every part of such an allegation; and, on the other hand, having received much valuable information from an eminent chemist present, (not a member of the Society,) which went to confirm the statement of the presence of arsenic in candles, came to the resolution, on Saturday, the 4th ult., of appoint ing a committee, consisting of Dr. Addison, Dr. Scott, Dr. Ch. J. B. Williams, Dr. A. Todd Thomson, Dr. James Johnson, Mr. Costello, Dr. Granville, Mr. Golding Bird, Lecturer on Experimental Philosophy at Guy’s Hospital, (all members of the Society,) Mr. Everitt, Lecturer on Chemistry at the Middlesex Hospital; and Mr. Richard Phillips, Lecturer on Chemistry at St. Thomas’s Hospital, (not members of the Society;) with instructions to make every necessary inquiry into the general question as to the presence of the poison in candles, and in what proportion; and also as to the probable effect it might have on animal life during combustion: eschewing, at the same time, every personal reference to the manufacturers and sellers of such candles.
To these instructions your Committee have strictly adhered, and they now present to the Society the result of their labours.
II. History of the New Candles.
Those who have followed the progress of analytical and organic chemistry for the last quarter of a century, need not be reminded, that Chevreul, one of the most distinguished French chemists of the present day, in the course of a laborious and interesting investigation into the nature and elementary composition of animal fats—an investigation which lasted ten years, and has been characterised by Berzelius as the most complete and most perfect that has ever been undertaken by chemists—discovered that common tallow consisted of two distinct substances: the one solid, the other of the consistence and appearance of olive oil; to the former of which he assigned the name of Stearine, (tallow,) and to the second that of Elaȉne, (oil.)
The first of these substances, the only one with which the Committee had any concern, when modified by saponification, crystallizes (in its pure state) in long brilliant and silky needles, arranged in large compact masses, beautifully white, almost odourless, and resembling, in a great degree, those square lumps of pure spermaceti, which may be seen exhibited in the windows of wax chandlers’ shops in London. With these physical advantages over ordinary tallow, and another also, namely, that of resisting a much higher temperature without melting, it might have been expected that this modified Stearine, as it will be called for brevity’s sake in the course of this Report, or solid Stearic acid, would soon have been employed for the purpose of fabricating a superior sort of candles. Such, however, was not the case, until several years after its discovery, namely, about six or seven years ago, when Stearine candles were first manufactured in Paris; for they appeared to have formed part of the exhibition of the products of French industry which took place in that capital in 1834, and which has been described in a work in three vols. 8vo., by Baron Charles Dupin.
From authentic documents in their possession, your Committee learn, that the mode of manufacturing candles with Stearine, had at first presented difficulties which were only overcome by some process that was kept a profound secret in Paris; and a knowledge of which was sold some time after to a London manufacturer, who immediately introduced it into this country. The names of the parties are known to your Committee, and will be found in the minutes of their meetings, as well as among the documents laid before the Society; but the introduction into this Report of such names, or of that of any other manufacturers of Stearine candles, under whatever denomination they be sold, has been deemed unnecessary and unadvisable.
Although Stearine was prepared in London in considerable quantity, candles manufactured with it were not, at first, so numerous as they have become since; owing to the secret process employed, to render them fit for sale. Your Committee have been informed, by a very intelligent manufacturer of candles, who made use of, but has since given up the process in question, that an individual, in possession of the secret, went about to the candle-makers in London to sell, for a consideration, not only the mode, but the very material, with which Stearine was to be made fit to be converted into showy and attractive candles for the market.
The material in question was very soon ascertained by some of the candle-makers to be powdered white arsenic; and thus having emancipated themselves from the tax which they formerly paid for what had now ceased to be a secret process, those persons were enabled to extend the field of their operations, whereby the practice of manufacturing Stearine candles with arsenic, became very soon almost general. Nay, such was the effect produced on the market by the appearance of this novel and extensive branch of trade, (at a price lower than that of any other candle except those of common tallow,) that some of the most respectable manufacturers of wax and spermaceti candles, were compelled to resort to the making of the new Stearine candles, (according to the then well-known process, which your Committee have learned, consisted in putting one pound of white arsenic in every hundred weight of Stearine,) in order to retain their customers, and, in some measure, indemnify themselves for the losses sustained, in consequence of the great diminution that had necessarily followed in the sale of every superior sort of candles.
As is generally the case in all matters of this kind, notwithstanding the notoriety of the practice among the trade, the public, whose welfare was likely to be affected by it, remained in ignorance of the fact, that in using the new Stearine candles they were burning arsenicated candles; until Mr. Everitt mentioned the subject in a lecture delivered in June last, before the Medico-Botanical Society—and again until Dr. Scott, in October, as stated in the introduction to this Report, brought it to the notice of the Westminster Medical Society, and led them to the present investigation.
III. Chemical Experiments to Prove the Presence of Arsenic.
The admission made by the parties themselves, who employed it, that arsenic was contained in the candles in question, might have been deemed sufficient for the purpose of the present investigation: but your Committee could not rest satisfied without verifying the fact by chemical analysis, and still less without ascertaining the quantity present in each candle: as that point was held to be of great importance in determining the probable injurious effects of such candles on the human constitution.
Accordingly, a great many specimens of the candles in question, were procured from several shops, under various denominations, and were submitted to accurate analysis. This was confided principally to Mr. Everitt, who repeated his experiments before several of the Members of the Committee, and whose results were afterwards corroborated by some fresh experiments made by Mr. Golding Bird, supported by the testimony of Mr. Richard Phillips. The Society, through the kindness of the first of these three chemists, had an opportunity of witnessing, at one of their ordinary meetings, the repetition of some of the experiments in question, which consisted not only in testing the water (with which the suspected Stearine had been boiled for some time) by proper re-agents denoting the presence of the white oxyde of arsenic; but also in reproducing the metallic arsenic from the precipitate that had been obtained in the liquid bymeans of sulphuretted hydrogen gas.
Through the various experiments which he made, and often repeated, Mr. Everitt satisfied your Committee that the quantity of white oxyde of arsenic, or arsenious acid, contained in the candles submitted to analysis, varied in different samples from ten to eighteen grains in the pound of four candles, and that the largest proportion of it, namely, four grains and a-half in each candle, was found in the specimen which bore the lowest price of sale.
By another set of very ingenious experiments, conducted with the greatest precision, it was ascertained that this quantity of arsenious acid is only mechanically mixed with the Stearine and not dissolved in it, (the saponified Stearine appearing to be scarcely capable of holding any portion of it in solution:) and it is worthy of remark, that a larger quantity was found at the top of some of the candles, which in the act of moulding forms the lower end in the mould, than at the bottom. The difference between the two ends amounted to nearly one-third of the whole: so that when such a candle is first lighted it must emit a larger quantity of arsenious acid, than when it is nearly burnt out. These several quantities of the poisonous substance are given out during the combustion of the candle, in the form of subtle vapours of arsenious acid, a fact which was proved by the deposits obtained on the inner surface of glass vessels placed over the lighted candle, and which deposits were carefully examined.
But in order to leave no vestige of doubt on this point, Mr. Everitt contrived a little apparatus, by means of which the vapours emitted by a suspected candle in a state of ignition, were obtained, partly in a solid form, adhering to the inside of the body of a retort; and partly dissolved in the condensed steam deposited in the horizontal tube of the same retort, which was kept, for that purpose, in a constant state of refrigeration. Under both those forms arsenious acid was detected.
It is to the interesting question of what are the productions of the combustion of arsenicated animal fats, that one of the members of your Committee, Mr. Golding Bird, chiefly directed his attention. He first experimented on arseniferous gases, and afterwards instituted some direct trials with a mass of fat, in which arsenious acid was mixed, and which by means of a wick was set on fire. In watching the operation in both cases, Mr. Bird convinced himself of the fact, that according as the combustion is impeded or free—that is, according as more or less oxygen has access to the flame—metallic arsenic—or the so called black oxyde of arsenic (?)—or arsenious acid is given out and deposited under their respective characteristic forms. According to Mr. Golding Bird’s experiments, there might be a point of such low combustion in the burning of arsenicated fats, as to give rise to that most deleterious and fatal gas called arsenuretted hydrogen gas.
In the course of their analytical inquiries, your Committee received specimens of candles for examination from clubs, institutions, and private families, some of which were found to be arsenical, while others were not so. And in order not to leave any point undetermined, the analysis, in some instances, was extended to wax, spermaceti, and the old-fashioned composition candles, in none of which the noxious material was detected.
It would be superfluous to specify more minutely or technically to the Society, the several operations gone through by your Committee, with a view to settle the chemical question of the presence of arsenic in the above candles. It is sufficient to state, that the fact of its presence in such candles was established beyond all possible doubt, and that the quantity contained is considerable.
IV. Comparative Physiological Experiments on Animals with Arsenicated and Ordinary Candles.
Your Committee next directed their attention to the best mode of ascertaining, as far as such an investigation can admit of demonstration, the probable effect which the respiring of the ascertained quantity of arsenical vapour might have on animal life; and after some consideration, it was determined to expose various living animals to an atmosphere in which arsenicated, or stearine candles, were burning, at the same time that an equal number of the same species of animals, and, as nearly as possible, of the same age and strength as the first set, were placed in an atmosphere of similar dimensions, wherein spermaceti candles only were used.
The Committee being anxious to convince the Society that every measure of precaution necessary to ensure accurate results in the physiological experiments about to be undertaken was adopted, have directed the apparatus employed on the occasion to be brought into the Society’s apartment, at this meeting, in order that it may be examined precisely under the circumstances in which it was used, when the experiments were performing.
The apparatus represents two sets of two chambers each, made of deal boards, the one set measuring two feet by three and three feet deep, and the second two feet by two and three feet deep. Their interior is ventilated by contrivances similar to those which are recommended for large assembly-rooms, namely, by several openings at the bottom and top; so arranged, that the whole, or only part of them, may be used. The top, or roof, of the chambers takes off to admit of the ready introduction and removal of the animals; and there is a glass-door in front, through which all that passes within can easily be observed. These wooden chambers stood at the height of two and a-half feet from the ground, supported upon wooden uprights, and they were fixed within a spacious and lofty apartment, well lighted and well ventilated. The two largest chambers were marked A and B, the smaller C and D. Into the letter A two strong and lively linnets (Fringilla Linaria) were introduced, confined in a large cage together, raised on a stand, and placed in the centre, with two guinea-pigs and one rabbit in perfect health. In letter B a similar cage was placed with two guinea-pigs and one rabbit. Four arsenicated candles, one in each angle of the chamber, were lighted in A; and an equal number of spermaceti in B. In C two greenfinches, (Fringilla Chloris,) and in D two other linnets, strong and lively, (particularly the birds in C,) were confined, within a cage properly suspended, with three arsenicated candles lighted in the first chamber, and three spermaceti candles in the second.
The experiments in A and B began at two P. M. Monday, the 27th November, and those in C and D at half-after three P. M. Tuesday, the 28th November; and all of them were continued, from day to day, until Saturday evening, the 2nd December, beginning each day about ten o’clock A. M. and terminating at the same hour in the evening, when the cages were taken out, and all of them suspended in an ante-room, cleaned the next morning, and a fresh supply of food and water for the day administered, before they were again replaced in the experimental boxes.
A thermometer was suspended in each of these boxes, so as to be easily seen by the observer, and a strict watch kept by some member or other of the Committee, but especially by Dr. Scott, at whose house the experiments were made, respecting what was going on within the boxes in reference to the state of the animals, their movements, and power of feeding, the temperature and ventilation of the chambers, and the manner of burning of the candles. All these remarks were instantly committed to writing as soon as made; and your Committee beg to lay before you this curious register, which extends over a week’s time, during which observations almost hourly were made for seventy-two hours. In the course of that period several pounds of arsenicated candles were burnt in A and C. As a general statement it may be remarked that, with the exception of the first day, when it varied from eighty to ninety degrees, the temperature of all the boxes was kept, more or less, at the standard of summer heat, as the most congenial to the animals submitted to the experiment,—that ventilation was maintained as perfect as it could be,—and that in neither food appropriate to each, nor in drink, were the animals stinted in the course of the experiments.
In reporting the result of their observations made on the animals during those experiments, your Committee intend strictly and rigidly to adhere to a statement of the facts and phenomena observed, without venturing an opinion as to any relation which such facts or phenomena might bear to the vapours of arsenic, as a cause. Having once proved the presence of the poison in candles, and its volatilisation during combustion; and having faithfully reported in the register laid before the Society, what several of the members had an opportunity of repeatedly witnessing in respect to the progressive condition of the animals experimented upon, your Committee leave it to the Society and to those who may peruse the present Report, to draw their own conclusions.
After exposure to the candles containing arsenic, for the space of three or four hours, one of the birds in A became visibly affected, but recovered in the night, on the experiment ceasing. At the termination of the first hour, (on the resumption of the experiment on the following day, Tuesday,) the same bird became again affected, and in an hour more it died. Its death was followed by that of the second bird half an hour later. These two birds had been in an arsenicated atmosphere for seven hours and a-half altogether.
Three more linnets were immediately put into the cage of chamber A, with two arsenicated candles instead of four. In about four hours they became dull and stupefied on their perch, although, at first, they appeared particularly the reverse: they seemed much inconvenienced for the rest of that day. On Wednesday three Stearine candles with arsenic were lighted, and the three birds who had recovered in the course of the preceding night, were not long in exhibiting symptoms of uneasiness. They drooped their wings, breathed laboriously, and kept their beaks constantly open. They continued so through that day. On the following day, two of them became much more distressed three hours after exposure to the candles; an hour later one of them fell, as if from vertigo, from its perch, and in half an hour it died. The day after witnessed the death of its two remaining companions, although when replaced in their chamber A, at ten o’clock that morning, they appeared to have recovered their usual state of health. On that day, at twelve o’clock, one of these latter birds had been seen to gasp for life, unable to remain on the perch, and the other became equally affected by one o’clock P.M. The register of observations at this part of the experiments states, “that the respiration of the two birds was difficult, and that a convulsive action of the whole body, moving backwards and forwards, was noticed, with the head drawn on one side, the eyes closed, and the beaks open and pointed upwards. On being stirred, one of them strove to gain another perch, but failed and fell to the bottom of the cage, where it made various struggles to fly upwards and regain its station, without success. It, at last, after various crawling attempts, gained the edge of the water-cup, on which it balanced itself in a state of evident convulsion, breathing with difficulty, its beak wide open, and the eyes closed. Its sufferings increased in the course of the next three hours, and at eleven o’clock P.M. it was dead. Its companion presented at the same time similar symptoms of distress, which terminated likewise in death, as before stated, in the course of that night.
As for the two greenfinches, exposed, sometimes to three, and at other times to two arsenicated candles only, in chamber C, —being much stronger and larger than the rest, they seemed to resist a longer time without exhibiting signs of uneasiness; but they began, at last, to do so towards the end of the third day, particularly with regard to respiration, and the presence of perpetual thirst. They, also, died at last, on the night of Monday, the 4th instant, having been exposed, but at intervals only, for the space of forty-nine hours to arsenical vapours. The last struggle of one of them was for water; and the position in which it expired, is so striking an evidence of that fact, that your Committee have deemed it right to leave the cage undisturbed, in order that the Society may see how the little creature, having reached the cup, and by stretching its neck over the edge of it, having succeeded in dipping its beak into the fluid, expired in that very position.
With respect to these seven birds which died in the course of a week, your Committee will only offer a few general observations, in addition to the symptoms already specified. First, it was remarked that they drank at least four times as much water as the other birds not exposed to the arsenicated candles; that when they had taken a seed into the beak, and broken the shell, they resorted to the water, and immersed the bill before they swallowed the seed; that they gradually lost their inclination for food; and, lastly, that they were affected, during the best part of the experiments, with diarrhoea, accompanied by a continual propulsive and retractive action of the anus. The discharge was a greenish serous fluid, very different from the fæculent matter of birds.
The bodies of five of these animals were confided for chemical examination to Mr. G. Bird, who reported, that distinct, though minute, traces of arsenic were found in them, under circumstances which led him to believe that the poison had been either inhaled or swallowed.
Your Committee have only to add, in respect to these experiments, that the two linnets, which had only been exposed to the burning of spermaceti candles, under equal circumstances of temperature, ventilation, space, and food, never exhibited the smallest deviation from health, and are now alive and well.
Of the larger animals, your Committee has only to report, according to the daily entries into the register, that those in the arsenicated chamber A evinced signs of distress from the second day; the rabbit in particular, which became dull from that time, was constantly lying on its side, its flanks drawn in, and its breathing quick, accompanied with a tremulous motion. These symptoms, which were not noticed in the rabbit of chamber B, kept increasing towards the end of the week, when the experiments were put an end to; at which time the eyes of the animal had become dull, the ears were drooping, yawning occurred frequently, and the guinea-pigs as well as their companion refused corn. They would take only green food, of which, however, they partook in diminished quantities; while they accepted eagerly of water twice in one day. The same species of animals, on the contrary, confined in chamber B, invariably refused the water; they seemed as lively and playful at the end of the week as when they were first put in; nor did they appear to have lost flesh like those confined in chamber A.
It had been arranged that, with a view to obtain some information as to what became of the arsenical vapours, when once they were dispersed through the chamber, an earthen dish should be fixed over one of the candles at the height of two feet and a half; and, also, that shallow basins, holding distilled water, should be placed on the floor near each candle. This arrangement, however, was not made until the third day of the experiments, and was therefore in force only for thirty-six hours altogether. Notwithstanding the shortness of the period, Mr. Everitt discovered, both on the surface of the dish in question and in the distilled water, ample traces of arsenic; showing, that when arsenicated candles are burning, the poisonous particles may fly upwards or fall on the objects in the apartments near the candles.
V. Historical Recapitulation of Recorded Facts Proving the Injurious Effects of Arsenical Vapours.
Such are the authentic facts observed by your Committee, to the simple narrative of which they deem it prudent to confine themselves. But although they consider this to be the most proper course, with regard to their own observations; your Committee would think, that they had but imperfectly fulfilled that part of your instructions, which directed their attention to the probable effect of arsenious vapours on animal life, if they did not briefly bring under your consideration the information they have collected upon that point.
It has been stated, that during the combustion of arsenic associated to animal fats, in which both hydrogen and oxygen are present, the three possible states in which vapours may arise, according to the degree of combustion going on, are: first, arsenuretted hydrogen gas; secondly, a vapour holding a mixture of metallic arsenic and its so called black oxyde; and, lastly, a vapour of white oxyde of arsenic or arsenious acid. The first is only a possible, but not a very probable occurrence. When it takes place, its effect on animal life is quickly fatal. The second can hardly take place at the temperature at which the combustion of Stearine candles goes on. But the third is a more general case, and it is to its effect on health and life, that the Society need direct their attention.
Of the fatal effect of arsenuretted hydrogen gas, the annals of science present two most lamentable examples.
The first is that of the death of Gehlen, which should be read where it is most feelingly detailed, namely, in the “Annales de Chimie,” vol. 95. p. 110, in an extract of a letter from M. Ruhland to M. de Guyton Morveau, relating the death of M.Gehlen.
“Munich, Aug. 1st, 1815.“My colleague, M. Gehlen, who must have been known to you from the journal that he conducted for several years, has just died in a most miserable manner. During the last fifteen days we had been preparing together arsenuretted hydrogen gas. The alcaline solution which we employed being too dilute, the gas was very slow in manifesting its peculiar odour. Whilst filling in succession several bottles, M. Gehlen attempted to judge, from its odour, the instant when the hydrogen commenced to combine with the arsenic, and it was thus he was poisoned. An hour had scarcely elapsed, ere he was attacked with incessant vomiting, rigors, and alarming depression. He died in my arms after nine days of unheard-of sufferings, (souffrances inouies,) a victim to his zeal for the advancement of science. During the first moments we administered all remedies that appeared applicable, especially potass, milk, &c., but with so little success, that we must conclude that arsenic combined with hydrogen is more dangerous than in the metallic state, although the actual quantity of the metal inspired may be infinitely small. It is probable that, if, in the metallic state, arsenic attacks chiefly the organs of digestion; when combined with a gaseous body, it acts more directly upon the nervous system.”
This case appears particularly important to your Commitee, from the very minute portion of poison inspired, so little of arsenuretted hydrogen gas being really present, that the gaseous mixture appeared to have been destitute of any particular odour.
A second melancholy instance of death by the inspiration of the same arsenical gas, was referred to in Committee by Mr. Phillips, as having only last year occurred at Falmouth. The statement is taken from a Cornish paper of the 30th of December, 1836, and shows, like the preceding case, how awfully dangerous is this species of arsenical gas, although the quantity of it may be very minute.
“On the 5th of December, 1836, Mr. J. E. Bullocke, who has resided some time with Mr. Beard, at Falmouth, delivered a lecture on the gases at the Mechanic’s Institute, and on the 19th performed a series of experiments in illustration of that lecture. Among others he hazarded an experiment on arsenicated hydrogen gas, procured by pouring sulphuric acid on arseniate of zinc but the gas jar not having as much water in it as he supposed it had, (he being near-sighted) and the atmospheric air above the water diluting the gas, he inconsiderately applied his mouth to draw up the atmospheric air, while the process of the generating of such gas was going on, and unhappily inhaled a portion of the gas itself, which being poisonous, affected his whole nervous system and ultimately his lungs. The case baffled the skill of his medical attendants, and although for several days no alarming apprehensions were entertained, to the great grief of his father and sister, and a circle of attached friends, he died on the 29th, that is, twenty-four days after the accident.”
What may be the condition of the atmosphere around a vessel or a burning candle, emitting vapours holding black oxyde of arsenic, as it has been called, your Committee are not able to state, nor is it to their purpose to inquire. Still they find it asserted by Dr. Merat, in his voluminous work on Materia Medica, that the poudre à mouches, (which is the preparation of arsenic alluded to,) employed in France to destroy flies, is fatal to them, if they but approach the atmosphere around the vessel containing its solution.
Of the deleterious effects of the vapours of arsenious acid on the human frame, which more directly bear on the present question, we find in the Annals of Modern Medicine a well-authenticated example, in the experiment made on himself and a friend of his, by Dr. Joseph Waltl, who published the results in the twenty-seventh volume of the Reportorium fur die Pharmacie, edited by Buchner. Having imagined that arsenious vapours might be useful in curing that most obstinate disorder of the skin called ichthyosis, Dr. Waltl wished first to ascertain what effect they might have on the human constitution. He, therefore, determined to try that effect on himself. Accordingly he projected six grains of arsenious acid on thoroughly incandescent coals, and as soon as the arsenious vapours were disengaged, he removed the chafing-dish to a remote part of the room in which he was. In the course of the night, he experienced extreme difficulty of breathing, a constriction of the windpipe, a dreadful headache, while his pulse became frequent and irregular. Similar symptoms, but much severer, occurred in the person of his friend, who chose to try the same experiment on himself afterwards; and Dr. Waltl concludes from these experiments, that arsenious vapours affect, as diluted poison, by their immediate contact with the aerial vessels of the lungs.
It may not be out of place here to observe, that during the experiments which were carrying on at Dr. Scott’s, that gentleman, who watched them with perseverance, experienced smarting and uneasiness of the eyes, which on one occasion compelled him to resort to the application of cold water to relieve it. After the experiments were concluded, he had no such sensation.
VI. General Evidence of the Effects of Arsenical Vapours.
Thus far the evidence of the dangerous effects of arsenicated vapours or gases, on the human constitution, is direct, and supported by personal facts. That which is supported by facts of a more general nature is equally conclusive; and your Committee have only to refer the Society to what takes place at Joachimsthal in Bohemia, and in the mines of arsenicated iron, called mispickel, and of arsenicated cobalt at Maremberg in Saxony, where it is said, that owing to the danger of the operation of parting the two metals, by fire, criminals condemned to the galleys only are employed in it. It is notorious, that at all those mines the workmen are either short-lived, or retire early from their occupation, in a state of the most wretched health, which has rendered necessary the institution of benevolent funds for their support during the remainder of their lives.
The same remarks apply to workmen engaged in similar operations, in other parts of Europe, particularly Siberia, Silesia, the Hartz, and France, in all which places the conviction of the deleterious effects of arsenical vapours on the constitution of man, is such, that prizes have been founded for such as shall discover the best method of obviating them. Ebers of Breslau has distinctly stated the very injurious effects produced by such vapours on the workmen in the mines of arsenical ores at Reichenstein. On looking nearer home, we find the evidence equally conclusive with regard to the injurious effect of arsenical vapours on animal as well as vegetable life in the mining districts in Cornwall. The testimony of Dr. Paris on this point, given in his first volume of Medical Jurisprudence, is incontrovertible.
If the Committee turn to by-gone professional writers, touching this part of their subject, they meet in their pages with general corroborative statements of the positive mischief produced by arsenicated vapours. Tachenius has related his own case of sufferings from the vapours of arsenic, undergoing sublimation, to which he had been for some time exposed. Timaeus, in his Medical Histories, reports a similar instance of an apothecary at Colberg, who in subliming arsenic inhaled part of the vapours, was seized with faintness and tightness of the chest, profuse perspiration, and palsy. In more modern times, Mahon, in his Medécine Legale, has enumerated the morbid symptoms known to be produced by arsenical vapours, among which are to be found those observed by your Committee in the birds alluded to in this Report.
Such being the case, is it too much to assume, that whenever a large number of candles of arsenicated Stearine are lighted in a room, a club house, an assembly, a theatre, or a church, filled with people, who remain for some hours exposed to the vapours arising from the combustion of those candles, mischief to the health of some, at least, of the parties, may be expected? Let us suppose that the interior of Drury-Lane Theatre, whose brilliant lustres hold exactly one hundred and fifty-two candles, were to be lighted with Stearine candles for cheapness sake, and under the impression that such candles are better looking than other composition candles, burn better, last longer, and give a clearer light; (all which has been promised by their manufacturers, but which your Committee have found from experience not to be quite correct;) in that case 608 grains of arsenious acid would be vaporized, and float in the air during the time of the performance. Is any one prepared to assert, that not one of the individuals present on such occasions would receive the slightest injury from an arrangement of this kind, and from the subtle particles of the arsenic wafted to and fro, through the atmosphere of the house, by the system of ventilation employed in it?
Nor is it surprising that minute particles of so violent a poison as arsenic, when applied to the mucous membranes of the mouth, and bronchia during inspiration, should give rise to injurious effects; when we know from experience how small a quantity of that substance will produce death, if applied even to a small portion of the human body denuded of its skin. The Society cannot but recollect, on hearing this part of the Report, the striking case so candidly published by Roux, in his new edition of Operative Surgery, of a young woman who died in three days, poisoned, in consequence of the application of the arsenical paste, which Mons. Roux had ordered, instead of the common caustic, to a very small ulcer occurring after the cicatrization of a large wound.
Your Committee are almost afraid of being taxed with unnecessary prolixity, in the adducing of evidence to prove what might be considered almost as a truism. When, however, they reflect that in the very Society to which this Report is to be presented, the question as to whether arsenical vapours, generally, would be injurious or not to the human frame, was deemed and declared by some few members to be a problem; and that consequently, if arsenious acid were shown to exist in candles in general use, it was not easy to demonstrate that its vapours would be injurious to the consumer of such candles: they felt that they could not do otherwise than endeavour to make their case complete.
VII. Corroborative Evidence from Inquiries in, and Correspondence with, Foreign Countries.
But whatever doubt the Society may choose to entertain on this point; the case is certainly far different with regard to the public authorities of other countries, who, we find, have adopted the sounder conclusion, that all arsenical mixture with such a common article of consumption as candles, must be detrimental to public health, and ought strictly to be forbidden.
On this important part of their investigation, your Committee have obtained great assistance from one of its members, who, immediately after the Committee was appointed, addressed letters on the subject of the inquiry to Dr. Pariset, secretary general of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Paris; to Mons. Chevreul, the discoverer of Stearine; and to one of the Chiefs of division in the Prefecture of Police in Paris, in whose department the Conseil de Salubrité is placed.
The immediate replies obtained by the member alluded to, from the several parties just mentioned, give an additional interest to the present investigation, and invest it with a degree of importance which the Society must be glad to see connected with what may be considered as the first inquiry into a great question practically affecting the public health, in which the Westminster Medical Society has embarked, with the view of interposing their effectual efforts between probable danger and the public, and thus protect (in the total absence of a better and more authoritative protection in this country) the latter from the former.
The documents alluded to will be laid before the Society in the original, and will be read, should the meeting require it; but they will best form an Appendix to the Report, where they may be referred to by those who may wish for farther information.
For the present purpose of your Committee it will be sufficient to state briefly, that Monsieur Chevreul’s communication deprecates, as perfectly unnecessary, the admixture of arsenic in Stearine candles, and contradicts the assertion of the manufacturers of Stearine candles in England, that without arsenic such candles cannot be made fit for sale. He considers that the knowledge of the fact that arsenic is present in Stearine candles, will prove ultimately fatal to the propagation of an otherwise neat, useful, and cheap mode of domestic light; and he urges his correspondent in this country, who had been his pupil, and had been present at the discovery of Stearine, and Elaȉne in Paris, twenty-two years ago, to oppose with all his energies so disastrous a practice as the mixture of arsenic in Stearine candles.
The official communication from the Prefecture of Police,—which was transmitted with a readiness and dispatch that reflect credit on the liberality of that department of the French government, to the member of your Committee already alluded to, who had solicited it,—is, in the present inquiry, of paramount interest. It first states, that in consequence of having ascertained that certain candles manufactured by two persons, whose names are given at full length, contained arsenic, and during their combustion, gave out arsenious vapours, producing “les plus graves inconveniens pour la santé,” the Prefect of Police had directed the Council of Salubrity immediately to institute an inquiry into the matter. The result of the inquiry is then given as an historical narrative, and a certified copy of the Report itself is also sent in corroboration of that narrative. It will be sufficient to mention the names of the persons appointed to examine the question, and to draw up the Report, to be satisfied of the manner in which the business has been conducted. The names of Deyeux, Barruel, Gauthier de Claubry, Chevallier, and Cadet de Gassicourt, are sufficient to stamp that document with great value. The Report mentions that arsenic was found in the candles examined,—that in the opinion of the members of the commission a slow but repeated action of the vapours arising from such candles, cannot fail to take place on the animal economy, in a certain degree, especially on such persons as are weak, highly susceptible, or in bad health,—and that the government ought not only to forbid the use of such candles, as then manufactured, but also to watch with a jealous eye, in order to prevent any such manufacture for the future. It is needless to add, that the conclusions of the Report were adopted by the Prefect, and that every trace of arsenicated candles was obliterated from the capital of France.
The Prussian Government had, in accordance with the same spirit, but a long time before, forbidden, by a special edict, the use of the yellow orpiment or sulphuret of arsenic, with which wax candles were generally coloured in Prussia, and this is found stated in Roemer’s Police Judiciaire.
VIII. Practical Remarks on Stearine Candles.
In spite of the length to which their Report has already extended, your Committee deem it essential to the completion of their inquiry, to conclude with some useful and practical remarks.
The various specimens of candles examined by your Committee were either procured at different shops, or were given to them under the following several appellations:–Stearine candles—German wax—Imperial wax candles —French candles—Pressed tallow—tropical candles—moulded wax—and Venetian wax. The Committee have been told (but of this they have no personal knowledge) that candles of the same description were sold, some time ago, under other denominations, such as adamantine candles, pearl candles, &c. In fact, each candle-maker thinks it essential to give a different name, as well as to affix a different price to his own candles made of one and the same material; namely, Stearine.
This substance, when in its saponified and crystallised form, being brittle, arsenic is added to harden it, as well as give it more adhesion. The Committee had two Stearine candles made without arsenic, and certainly the difference in appearance and feel of the candle, was in favour of those which contained arsenic. The effect, however, sought to be produced by arsenic, your Committee are led to believe, may be produced also by a very small proportion of wax, as in the case of spermaceti candles, which cannot be made for the same reason, without using a 30th part at least of wax with it—for Cetine, the principle of spermaceti, likewise discovered by Chevreul, possesses, equally with pure Stearine, the particular brittle grain complained of.
Your Committee have learned from an experienced manufacturer, that for ten dozen of pounds of candles of Stearine, one pound of arsenic is employed. In order to make it intimately mix with Stearine and produce the desired effect, the temperature of the latter must be kept at 200 deg. of Farenheit. The wick, also, which is platted, is dipt in diluted sulphuric acid, till it is nearly rotted,—and a little gamboge is added to the mass to colour it yellow in imitation of wax. This imitation is farther strengthened by the opacity, which arsenic seems to impart to Stearic acid. But the public need not be deceived in the purchase of such candles—first, because the lowness of their price is in itself sufficient to show that real wax, or anything approaching to it, cannot form the least part of such a candle, and secondly, because there are characteristic features in the Stearine arsenicated candles, which happily distinguish them from all others. With regard to the price, however, that is not always a sufficient guarantee, for it has come to the knowledge of your Committee, that one of its members, upon sending for a genuine wax candle at a shop, got one as like to wax in appearance, as it was in price, but which proved to be an arsenicated Stearine candle! The latter may in a moment be distinguished from wax by the platted wick, which has never been yet used in wax candles; and from spermaceti candles, first by the transparency of the latter, and secondly, by this general character, that when the surface of either a spermaceti or a wax candle is rubbed backwards and forwards three or four times, with the edge of an ivory knife, the polish or lustre is much heightened; whereas the surface of the Stearine candle, treated in a similar manner, loses the slight polish it naturally has, becomes dull, and no effort can restore the lustre equal to that of the other parts of the candle.
The fractured surface too of the Stearine candle suddenly snapped in two, presents a very different aspect from that of the fractured surface of either spermaceti or wax candles. The latter or the wax candle, exhibits regular concentric circles or circular laminae around the wick; the other, or the spermaceti candle, looks like a broken piece of camphor or a broken watery turnip; whereas the fractured surface of the Stearine arsenicated candles looks spungy, is easily rubbed into a white powder by the finger nail, and, seen through a magnifying-glass, presents minute shining particles.
The presence of the arsenious acid, however, for immediate and practical purposes, may be detected, first by the garlic-like smell, which is perceivable when the candle is extinguished, while part of the wick is red-hot; and secondly, by placing, for a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, over a suspected candle, (the flame of which should be all the time perfectly steady,) a small bell-glass or shade, on the inside of which, if arsenic be present in the candle, a white powdery deposit will take place. This last experiment, however, is not of easy execution.
With respect to the alliaceous smell, every writer and experimentalist seems to have agreed upon its being an excellent popular test for warning people, that arsenic is present. Your Committee therefore, recommend, that it should be assumed, where it exists in candles, as a sufficient reason for at once discarding them. There are those who imagine, that if zinc were used in the Stearine candle, instead of arsenic, the smell, on extinguishing them, would be the same. In order to settle this question, your Committee, on two different occasions, made some direct experiments, by burning a wick in Stearine, in which white oxide of zinc had been abundantly mixed; but they could not perceive the smallest trace of the peculiar alliaceous, or garlick-like odour in question.
From all that your Committee have had an opportunity of learning and ascertaining, whether by direct experiments, personal inquiry, or authentic information, respecting this important question confided to their consideration, they can safely deduce the following conclusions:
First, that a practice has been introduced into this country, within the last two or three years, of manufacturing candles in imitation of wax, in which a considerable quantity of arsenic is mixed; and that this practice is daily extending throughout England.
Secondly, that the exposure of persons to the vapours arising from such candles, is likely to be detrimental to their health.
Your Committee having now brought to an end all that they have deemed it their duty, in compliance with your instructions, to offer to your consideration, might naturally feel inclined to propose to your notice some recommendation likely to render the Report useful in the cause of the public; but this they forbear from doing. They prefer leaving it entirely in the hands of the Society to determine, whether, as this country is still without a competent Tribunal or Board, where questions of such magnitude as this, trenching on public health and safety, might be referred for immediate attention; (in which deficiency England stands alone in the list of European nations,) the Westminster Medical Society, which has stepped forward, on the present occasion, to rescue their fellow-creatures from a probable danger, ought not to complete its work by some ulterior measure.
Dated the 8th of December, 1837.
J. Johnson, M.D.
A. T. Thomson, M.D.
Charles J. B. Williams, M.D. F.R.S.
Wm. B. Costello, M.D.
James Scott, M.D.
R. Phillips, F.R.S. &c.
Golding Bird, F.L.S.
A. B. Granville, M.D., F.R.S., &c. (Reporter.)
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Report of the Committee of the Westminster Medical Society, on Arsenicated Candles
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