In 1921 Chicago, Otylia “Tillie” Kupczyk asked her landlord if she could store a coffin in the basement of their building. Tillie had bought the coffin on sale, and she had a feeling she would soon need it for her third husband, Frank. She had premonitions that he was about to die and she wanted to be prepared. Frank did indeed fall ill and pass away, as did Tillie’s two previous husbands. Tillie quickly cashed his life insurance check and was looking for a new man to marry. It didn’t take him long. She met Joseph Klimek at Frank’s funeral in April and they were married in July.
In November 1922, Tillie had a new insurance policy on Joseph’s life. After falling seriously ill, doctors found traces of arsenic in his stomach. The police immediately suspected his wife of poisoning his food. When it became apparent that Joseph would survive the arsenic attempt, the police turned their attention to Tillie’s deceased husbands. They exhumed Frank’s body, tested the tissue, and also found it contaminated with arsenic. Within six months, a jury sentenced Tillie Klimek to life in prison. She died in an Illinois penitentiary in 1936 of natural causes.
Arsenic may seem like a poison from the past, especially since it was about a mystery writer Agatha Christie favorite way to kill a character. But arsenic is a natural chemical element. Problematically, he appears in groundwater, sometimes from natural causes, but also from human activities such as mining or the use of pesticides. And about 300 million people around the world are at risk of arsenic poisoning from their water supplies, including 2.1 million Americans in 25 US states. This means that arsenic poisoning persists and continues to be a deadly problem, not a fictional one.
Arsenic, which straddles the line between metals and nonmetals on the periodic table, is heavier than iron, nickel, and manganese. It occurs naturally in minerals and has many industrial uses, such as lead alloys used in munitions or car batteries.
There are two types of arsenic: inorganic, which is found in drinking water, soils and sediments, as well as rice and some fruit juices. At high levels, inorganic arsenic is fatal to humans. The second type, inorganic, is present in seafood and is not toxic to humans.
Inorganic arsenic from contaminated groundwater can be found in most countries of North and South America, Asia, the Mediterranean and Australia. It is not common in Africa, Eastern Europe and most of the Middle East. Beyond that, high levels occur naturally in groundwater in a number of countries, including China, India, Mexico and the United States. In states like Minnesota, 10% of private wells have arsenic levels of 10 µg/L (micrograms per litre) or higher, which is the maximum limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Depending on how much a person consumes, they are at risk of acute or chronic poisoning. Both types are generally fatal; the World Health Organization estimates that prolonged exposure to arsenic at concentrations above 500 µg/L can cause chronic poisoning in one in 10 adults.
You may associate arsenic poisoning with sudden deaths in 20th century mystery novels, but humans have a much longer history than that. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, the “King of Poisons” was deployed for sinister purposes thanks to its lack of color, smell, or taste when mixed with foods and drinks.
Today, acute poisoning can happen accidentally when a person ingests something contaminated with an insecticide or pesticide that contains arsenic. In rare cases, it is used for suicide. Acute poisoning occurs with as little at 100mg, and can kill in as little as 24 hours. The process begins after ingesting the poison. It is absorbed through the small intestine and the victim usually experiences gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea.
In centuries past, its symptoms resembled cholera, which helped poisoners evade scrutiny. In the 1860s, for example, English serial killer Mary Ann Cotton used arsenic to murder 21 people, including three husbands and 12 of her children and stepchildren. For years, cholera or “gastric fever” was blamed until authorities realized otherwise.
Acute arsenic victims usually die of massive fluid loss, but some suffer from kidney failure, pulmonary edema, seizures, or cardiomyopathy. Similar to chronic poisoning, no system in the body is spared from the toxin.
While acute poisoning is agonizing but relatively quick, chronic arsenic poisoning can lead to years of suffering. This usually happens when a person drinks contaminated water daily without knowing it. Arsenic is a classified as carcinogenicand the long-term effects are called arsenicosis.
The first symptoms of arsenicosis often appear in the skin. A person may experience raindrop-like hyperpigmentation on their extremities as well as on their tongue. Over time, they suffer from keratosis of the hands and feet in which the skin hardens and forms nodules that grow. People with arsenicosis have also experienced black foot disease, peripheral vascular disease that begins with numbness or coldness in the hands or feet. The disease progresses to ulcers or gangrene and can lead to amputation.
Scientists have studied arsenicosis and found that symptoms vary, which can make diagnosis difficult. In a hospital study of clinical features of arsenicosis in West Bengal, all 156 cases had pigmentation. Nearly 77% had an enlarged liver; 70% weakness; other common ailments included cough, abdominal pain, burning eyes. In other studies, however, lung disease was the predominant symptom.
Long-term, chronic risks from arsenic have been linked to various types of cancers. Studies of arsenic poisoning in Chile and Argentina found a casual relationship suffering from bladder, lung and liver cancers.
Currently, there is no proven cure for chronic arsenicosis. Although some remedies may provide improvement, a person may never fully recover. That’s why arsenic remains one of the World Health Organization’s top ten chemicals. major public health concern.