MadSci Network: Biochemistry

Re: Is there such a thing as arsenic addiction?

Date: Tue May 25 20:46:22 2004
Posted By: Samuel Conway, Product Chemistry Supervisor
Area of science: Biochemistry
ID: 1085461796.Bc

You pose an interesting question.  Apparently the use of arsenic in the
18th century has not been very widely documented.  I did find a reference
to it in a review of "The Pursuit of Oblivion:  A global history of
narcotics," by Richard Davenport-Hines (W. W. Norton, publisher). 
Apparently arsenic was believed to increase a gentleman's sexual potency. 
This could lead to an unfortunate psychological addiction -- a desperate
individual with strong feelings of inadequacy might be compelled to partake
out of the drug out of an obsessive need to improve his performance.  One
might think that shockingly short-sighted, but then, how many unhappy men
in today's society eagerly purchase shady "generic viagra" from the
internet when those pills have an equal chance of being filled with
powdered sugar or rat poison?

Among the symptoms of arsenic poisoning I have noted in several references
"euphoria" and "delirium."  A craving for these sensations might indeed
cause a person to become addicted to the drug, although it is difficult to
understand why.  Other symptoms include severe abdominal pain, nausea and
vomiting, diarrhea, and a host of other very nasty things.  Once again, one
might be shocked to imagine that someone would knowingly ingest a deadly
poison simply to get a cheap high, but today, we have some people who
engage in "huffing," or deliberately inhaling the solvent vapors from
aerosol paint cans.  Huffing can also produce some of the symptoms seen
with arsenic poisoning, yet people still do it.

As for face whitening, that will not lead to a true addiction, unless one
assumes that being a slave to fashion is equivalent to an addiction.  It
has been repoted that Elizabeth I of England used an arsenic-based cosmetic
to give her face its characteristic white appearance.  Apparently she did
not ingest or absorb a sufficient amount to cause toxic effects.

Is anyone addicted to arsenic in modern times?  It is possible, but I would
believe that such are few and far between.  Arsenic has gained so foul a
reputation that most people panic at its very utterance.  Wouldn't people
die before becoming addicted?  Not necessarily.  If they manage to stick to
small doses at first, such that they can experience the euphoric effects
without the unpleasant side-effect of death, they will happily try it again
and again and again.  We see the same thing with huffing, as people do
it over and over, slowly taking in more and more of the toxin in the
pursuit of more potent "highs," until they inhale a lethal dose.

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