Occasionally at Envirochem we get requests to test wallpaper or paint for arsenic content.
Some Victorian properties still contain wallpapers with the specific dark blue/green colour or pattern called Scheele’s green. When in-situ and in good condition it does not pose a health threat. In this way it is similar to lead containing paints – when they are in good condition or have been painted over with a new paint there is only a small risk, with the largest uptake routes being dust via hand-to-mouth and accidental consumption of flakes or chipped paint. But when the surface starts to break down there is the potential for lead containing dust to be released, disturbed and inhaled.
However, with arsenic containing wall papers there is an additional and interesting effect. If the paint or wall paper becomes damp, then a specific type of mould can grow on the wall paper that can metabolise the arsenic in to a volatile form of arsenic called arsene. This arsene gas can then be inhaled by the occupants. Even if concentrations are low, prolonged exposure can lead to arsenic bio-accumulating in the body. It was this that is believed to have contributed to the death of Napoleon when imprisoned on the island of Elba.
We have had an example when owners of a hotel were experiencing a range of health issues months after a flood. Envirochem found the classic green Victorian wall paper in some rooms and behind a wardrobe, which was still damp, and mould was growing on the wall paper. Hospital tests found elevated levels of arsenic in the two hotel owners.
The method of analysis for arsenic in paint is analogous to our recently UKAS accredited method for lead and chromium in paint.
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