History’s deadliest colors - J. V. Maranto | Summary and Q&A

May 22, 2017
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History’s deadliest colors - J. V. Maranto

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This video discusses the dangerous pigments that were historically used in various products and their harmful effects on humans. It highlights the toxicity of radium, lead white, synthetic greens, and orange colored glazes containing uranium oxide. These substances were used in toothpaste, medicine, water, food, beauty products, jewelry, paint, textiles, wallpaper, soaps, and dinnerware. The video explains how lead, arsenic, and radiation can cause severe health issues ranging from learning disabilities to cancer.

Questions & Answers

Q: What were the properties of radium and how was it used?

Radium was a radioactive element discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. It had a glowing, luminous green color and was believed to have restorative properties. As a result, radium was added to various products such as toothpaste, medicine, water, food, beauty products, and jewelry.

Q: When did we realize the harmful effects of radium, and what were they?

The realization of radium's harmful effects came in the mid-20th century. Despite its visual benefits, radium turned out to be a highly radioactive element with severe health risks. Prolonged exposure to radium can cause radiation sickness, bone cancer, and other detrimental effects on the human body.

Q: What were some historical uses of lead white pigment, and why was it a problem?

Lead white pigment was used by artists as a brilliant white color in oil or tempera paint. It was the only practical choice for white paint until the 19th century. The problem with lead white was that it contained lead, which is toxic to humans. Artists would grind a block of lead into powder to create the pigment, releasing highly toxic dust particles. This resulted in lead poisoning, leading to symptoms like painter's colic, palsy, melancholy, coughing, enlarged retinas, and blindness.

Q: Why did artists continue to use lead white pigment despite its toxic effects?

Artists continued to use lead white pigment because of its desirable properties. Lead white had a density, opacity, and warm tone that couldn't be matched by other pigments. Artists like Vermeer and later the Impressionists were drawn to its glow and visual appeal. It was only later in the 1970s that lead white pigment was banned due to its harmful effects.

Q: What were the synthetic greens called and how were they used?

The synthetic greens were called Scheele's Green and Paris Green. They were introduced in the 18th century and became popular choices for paint and dye for textiles, wallpaper, soaps, cake decorations, toys, candy, and clothing. These greens were far more vibrant and flashy than natural pigments, making them desirable for decorative purposes.

Q: Why were the synthetic greens dangerous, and how did they impact human health?

The synthetic greens were dangerous because they were made from a compound called cupric hydrogen arsenic, which contains arsenic. Arsenic exposure can damage the way cells communicate and function in the human body. High levels of arsenic have been directly linked to cancer and heart disease. Factory workers in 18th-century fabric factories were often poisoned by the arsenic, and women wearing green dresses reportedly experienced symptoms of poisoning from arsenic absorbed through their skin.

Q: Were there any notable incidents related to the use of synthetic greens?

Yes, there were some notable incidents related to the use of synthetic greens. It was rumored that bed bugs did not live in green rooms, which may be due to the toxic nature of these greens. Additionally, Napoleon's death has been speculated to be a result of slow arsenic poisoning from sleeping in his green wallpapered bedroom.

Q: What happened when the arsenic recipe for synthetic greens was published in 1822?

The intense toxicity of synthetic greens stayed relatively unknown until the arsenic recipe was published in 1822. This led to increased awareness of the dangers associated with these pigments. However, it took a century for the compounds to be repurposed as an insecticide.

Q: What was the use of uranium oxide in colored glazes, and what were the risks associated with it?

Before World War II, uranium oxide was used by manufacturers of ceramic dinnerware to create brilliant reds and oranges in colored glazes. The radioactive properties of uranium were unknown at that time. However, later discoveries revealed the risks of radiation and associated cancer risks. Even though ceramic production using uranium was restricted during the war, the use of depleted uranium in ceramics and glass resumed in the late 1950s. Vintage fiestaware made during this time may still have surfaces with hazardous levels of radioactivity.

Q: What is the current stance regarding vintage fiestaware with radioactive glazes?

Vintage fiestaware with radioactive glazes still exists, and while the levels of radioactivity are low enough to not pose an immediate health risk on a shelf, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns against using these dishes to eat food off of them.

Takeaways (in one paragraph)

The historical use of dangerous pigments like radium, lead white, synthetic greens, and orange glazes containing uranium oxide highlights a lack of understanding of their harmful effects on human health. The toxicity from lead, arsenic, and radiation resulted in severe health issues ranging from learning disabilities to cancer. Thankfully, our scientific understanding has improved over time, leading to the pruning of hazardous colors out of our lives, although occasional issues with synthetic food dyes still arise.

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