Home Facts You Can Feel Blog Let’s talk about: Arsenic at Science Space Wollongong

Let’s talk about: Arsenic at Science Space Wollongong

It only takes one person to mention our element of the month at Science Space Wollongong to conjure imaginative stories of political intrigue, plotting and murder. Arsenic has been associated with deadly poisons since ancient times.

From Emperor Nero poisoning his step-brother to women using it to give their cheeks a rosy glow, element number 33 has an interesting place in history.

What is it? 

Arsenic in its elemental form is a dull grey solid. It might seem harmless, just like any other rock, but touch it and you could be in for a world of trouble. It just loves to mess with DNA, seeking out and switching off a bunch of important enzymes involved in the repair of those vital strands of chemicals that make you, you.

For centuries, Arsenic was used as a poison pretty successfully. Due to its tastelessness, it initially just looked like a bad case of food poisoning. In fact, in the 1500s the famous Italian Borgia family were pretty notorious for slipping it into their enemies drinks via elaborate rings at dinner parties!

Would you like Arsenic with that? Cesere Borgia was rumoured to wear a ring that contained arsenic powder. You didn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side.

Where can we find it? 

It might surprise you to learn that you can find it pretty much everywhere in trace amounts. It’s actually a real problem in some areas of the world where they rely heavily on groundwater. The World Health Organisation estimates that 140 million people in 50 countries have been exposed to unsafe levels of the stuff. They’re working really hard to reduce that by testing the water and helping developing countries at risk to switch to other sources like rainwater or filtration systems.

Arsenic in action!

Humans have known about it for years. Emperor Nero famously did away with the competition between him and the throne using it. People in the 1700’s used it to kill lice in their hair. And around the same time, it was commonly used as a blush. WHAT?! By using the arsenic powder, a pink tinge was produced on the face; it felt like magic but in reality, it was doing serious damage to capillaries in the skin. Ouch!

This seems…. sensible? Look it was a different time.

Also interestingly, according to the Postgraduate Medical Journal, Arsenic is actually approved for use in treating a rare form of leukaemia! If it’s used in the right form, it can target specific cells (like cancer cells) and kill them. Cool right?!


Be sure to tune in next month as Ur in for a real treat with what some people have called the most dangerous metal on eath…that’s right, it’s Uranium!





Arsenic – the “Poison of Kings” and the “Saviour of Syphilis”