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Sun Mar 31, 9:13 PM ET
By Jeremy Smith
LONDON (Reuters) - Arsenic, the classic poison slipped into the food and drink of emperors, politicians, popes and unsuspecting heiresses down the ages, is shaking off its disreputable history.
But many scientists and doctors are now coming to recognize arsenic's positive qualities.
Recent research suggests that small amounts of arsenic may actually benefit human health and the infamous substance is already used as a treatment for certain types of blood cancer.
A brittle steel-gray element, arsenic is not very poisonous in its natural state. But the adverse properties of its compounds, or arsenicals, have been known for more than 2,000 years and made it a virtual synonym for poisoning and sudden death.
One of these compounds, white-colored arsenic oxide, is extremely toxic and was for many centuries the murderer's poison of choice as it was notoriously difficult to detect in corpses. Scientists only developed a reliable test in the 19th century.
Unfortunately, this test came after the death in 1821 of France's former emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, now alleged by some scientists to have been slowly poisoned by fumes exuding from his decaying wallpaper -- dyed with a green pigment containing arsenic. Stomach cancer was the official verdict at the time.
After baffling authorities for years, it was discovered that if wallpaper containing these pigments became damp, the animal glues commonly employed in those days would form a mold which would convert the pigment into toxic arsenic vapor.
Along with cyanide and strychnine, white arsenic won such a terrible reputation that in France it was dubbed "inheritance powder" because so many people used the tasteless and odorless substance to murder rich relatives so they would inherit sooner.
Arsenic can kill quickly if consumed in large quantities, although small long-term exposure can lead to a much slower death. In earlier centuries, symptoms of arsenic poisoning have been easily confused with those of many other illnesses.
Despite its reputation as a first-rate poison, arsenic does have a better side and scientists have recently discovered several beneficial uses.
Arsenic's role in the treatment of disease is long and varied. Doctors have used arsenicals at various stages in history to treat sleeping sickness, tuberculosis and skin diseases, among other illnesses.
"People are frightened to death of arsenic," said Samuel Waxman, clinical professor and cancer specialist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
"They're frightened that it's poison, that it's a cancer-producing agent but...that drug was used in one form or another going back to Hippocrates. Its use peaked around the late 1800s, early 1900s, and it was one of the two or three drugs carried around by every physician, for almost anything."
Peasants in 19th-century Styria, now southern Austria and northern Slovenia, used to quite happily ingest large amounts of arsenic to boost their strength and sexual potency.
One arsenical discovered in 1909, arsphenamine, was the main treatment for syphilis until it was replaced by penicillin in the 1940s. And the compounds were used so widely in embalming in seventeenth-century Britain that arsenic leaching from old cemeteries is a known groundwater pollutant even today.
While arsenic's use in contemporary medicine has been severely curtailed, it still plays a role in treating severe parasitic diseases. Outside medicine, it is a key component of semiconductor devices, mainly in the form of gallium arsenide.
In the last few years, arsenic has won praise from the medical community after its trioxide, used for centuries by traditional Chinese herbalists to fight disease, was shown to have beneficial effects on certain cancers -- particularly acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL).
People suffering from this blood disorder have a mutated gene that creates a malformed protein in their bodies and interferes with the normal growth and death of certain white blood cells.
"It's absolutely conclusive that this drug is perhaps the most predictable form of treatment to obtain remission in this form of leukemia," Waxman said.
Trisenox, which some doctors say is less toxic than conventional chemotherapy, shows promise in treatments of other types of cancer and is undergoing clinical trials for lymphoma, prostate and cervical cancers.
Recent research shows that too little arsenic present in the body may be detrimental to the health of humans and animals, while tiny amounts may actually be of nutritional importance.
Arsenic has been shown to have a beneficial effect when fed to some laboratory animals and studies suggest that it may be needed for the proper metabolism of methionine -- an essential amino acid that helps to prevent hair, skin and nail disorders.
"I believe a small amount of arsenic is not harmful and most likely beneficial," said Eric Uthus, research chemist at the U.S. government-run Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center.
But Uthus, author of a number of scientific papers on arsenic, said that did not necessarily mean people should go down the potentially perilous route of taking arsenic supplements.
"There could be situations where arsenic supplementation may be beneficial," he said. "But in those cases it would be better to just improve the basic diet rather than supplement it with arsenic."
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