From ornaments to decorations, and even the food we eat, many everyday items from the past and present contain elements and other material that could kill humans. That is, at least, if you are exposed to the right dosages that cause harm.
Although hazardous materials are heavily controlled under current Health and Safety laws, in the past there were fewer restrictions, if any. The Victorian and Edwardian homes were particularly hazardous places to live with most things from the decorations to bedside ornaments being a potential source of exposure to dangerous elements and materials.
In the following article, we'll take a look at 13 examples from past and present. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Victorian Wallpaper had Arsenic in It
Victorian homes were some of the most lavishly decorated of all times but they were also one of the deadliest places to live in. Many products within them contained substances that are very harmful to human health and could even kill humans.
One such product was Victorian wallpaper. Specifically some of the dyes or pigments used in wallpaper patterns during the Victorian period.
One famous example was the vivid green pigments produced by Carl Scheele in Sweden.
The brilliant coloration was produced by Carl using Copper Arsenite. The richness of the pigment made Scheele's Green (as it would come to be called) highly desirable by many manufacturers and interior decorators.
During the period, many famous artists from the pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements began to use vibrant greens, like Scheele's, in their works. This would, in turn, make similar pigments very common in the home and in fashion in general.
Not all green paints and pigments contained arsenic but many did. Before reaching Britain the issues related to such paints had been recognized in Europe but were largely ignored by British Manufacturers - that is until customers began to die under mysterious circumstances.
By 1859, companies like William Woolams and Company began to produce and advertise "arsenic free" wallpapers much to their great commercial success. Their competitors quickly followed suit or went bankrupt.
2. Older "Glow in the Dark" Products Used Radium Paint
During the first half of the 20th Century, luminous paint and other "glow in the dark" products became very popular. Many of these either contained or were made of pure Radium.
The specific hue emitted by Radium was very popular amongst consumers of the time and companies would often sell "pure" Radium light pulls or bogus cure for all treatments.
Millions of wristwatches and other instruments came with Radium painted luminous dials. In 1917 the world's first large-scale glowing watch company, Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, was founded in Orange, New Jersey.
Competitors would soon spring up to feed the market's appetite for these luminous devices.
Many of these dials were painted by hand with each, on average, painting 250 dials a day. Soon these workers, often young women, began to become very ill and died from their exposure to Radium.
Companies would quickly adapt working conditions and stamped out the technique of "lip-pointing" paintbrush bristles to a fine tip. Despite this, hundreds of workers would die from cancers like leukemia throughout the 1920's.
3. Older Ironing Boards Were Made From Asbestos
So far we've seen that Victorian wallpaper could kill you and your bedside alarm clock emitted radiation in times gone past. So you might wonder what other everyday objects could potentially kill humans in the past.
Before the widespread ban on mining and selling of asbestos products in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world, asbestos was used in many products around the home.
One prime, seemingly innocuous domestic object was the 'common and garden' ironing board. As irons are, by their very nature hot, older wooden or metal ironing boards needed some form of thermal insulation to prevent burn damage or accidental burning of the user of the ironing board.
For this reason, ironing board heat pads for storing the iron when heating up or not in use and coverings for the board were commonly made of asbestos products. This could be insulation board or cement for the pads or woven textiles for the coverings.
Like all Asbestos products, their presence alone was not necessarily a bad thing. But as soon as they were damaged or broken, Asbestos fibers would be released and inhaled potentially leading to some pretty nasty Asbestos-related diseases.
Although they are no longer manufactured, there are still plenty of them out there, you might even be able to find one at your local car boot sale.
4. Older Paints Contained Lead
One of the most notorious everyday objects that contained harmful elements. Lead was a major component of lead in paint for many decades prior to the late 1970's.
It was also in great demand because it is washable and highly durable compared to non-lead containing alternatives. Lead-containing paint use peaked in the 1920's by was already in decline by the end of the 1940's - but it can still be found in many buildings around the world today.
Although not inherently dangerous if left alone, when the paint became damaged, chipped or peeled, or worse, was sanded down, it could release significant amounts of lead into the air. This could be directly inhaled, absorbed through the skin or consumed if people didn't wash their hands before eating.
Significant exposure to Lead can cause Lead poisoning that can be very detrimental to human health with young children and pregnant women most at risk.
From the 1950's onwards, various states in the U.S. began to ban, and it was completely banned in paint, in 1978. Other Western nations would soon follow suit.
5. Compact Fluorescent Bulbs Contain Mercury
Compact Fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) are a great way to reduce lighting costs (75% savings is often quoted) for your home or business but they also contain some pretty nasty elements that are potentially harmful to you.
The element Mercury, for instance, is vitally important for the operation of fluorescent lighting in general. Despite this, you shouldn't be overly concerned as only around 4 mg of Mercury is used per bulb.
To put this into perspective a traditional mercury thermometer contains about 500 mg.
These bulbs work by producing light when an electric current passes between two electrodes (also called cathodes) in a tube. This tube is filled with low-pressure mercury vapor and inert gases, such as argon and krypton.
Light is generated when electricity excites the mercury vapor to produce UV light that in turn interacts with the phosphor coating on the tube to produce visible light.
CFL's are completely safe (as they are hermetically sealed) so long as the bulb is intact or in use.
Mercury is considered highly toxic in a methylmercury form which, incidentally, is known to build up in some fish and shellfish species - examples being Tuna or swordfish. High exposure effects most of the human organs and is particularly dangerous for unborn babies and young children.
Once they have expired, it is very important you don't break them and dispose of them properly as Mercury is also very harmful to the environment. You should always try to dispose of them at your local toxic waste depot or recycling center rather than let them be buried at landfills.
6. Solar Panels Are Full of Cadmium
Solar panels have become very popular over the last few decades but did you know that some are packed with potentially dangerous elements? Older PV panels tend to be made be primarily made of some form of silicon but newer models are increasingly being built using thin-film solar cell technology.
This approach is cheaper than more 'traditional' panels and will likely come to gain significant market share in the future. These thin films tend to be made of Cadmium Telluride or Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS).
Both of these applications make use of a secondary layer of cadmium sulfide. Cadmium is a heavy metal that is both carcinogenic and genotoxic and, therefore, a potential mutagen.
Although it is highly unlikely to be of concern in our every day lives there is a concern when it comes to disposal of the panels at the end of their lives. There are few, if any, regulations in place to deal with such panels at present.
7. Batteries Contain a Cocktail of Nasty Elements
Another classic everyday object that could, potentially, kill humans is batteries. Most contain a cocktail of nasty chemicals that could, if consumed, cause you no end of problems.
Older batteries tended to contain lead, sulfuric acid and, in some cases, cadmium. Anyone of these will ruin your day if accidentally exposed to them, This is only really a problem when the batteries cell has been breached and the battery is leaking its contents.
Any older lead-acid batteries could potentially cause serious harm to young children and unborn babies/pregnant women. This is because their bodies are still developing and lead exposure can seriously damage cerebral and neurological development as well as damage other organs.
Sulfuric acid is a very strong acid is highly corrosive. Contact with it can cause serious damage, especially to areas like your eyes which could cause permanent blindness.
As discussed above Cadmium (in Nickel Cadmium) batteries are very dangerous if ingested. High exposure will permanently damage someone's kidneys and can be absorbed through the skin.
More modern Lithium-Ion and Nickel-metal-hydride batteries are considered relatively safe but all should be kept out of children's reach none-the-less.
8. Alum Was Used to Make Bread Whiter Than White
During the late 19th Century in England, there was a high demand by the so-called middle class for white than white bread. This created a demand that was happily filled by bakers across the nation.
To achieve the aesthetics of the bread demanded by their clients, bakes would add significant quantities of Alum to the dough. This would produce incredibly white bread but it came at a cost - potentially getting sick.
Alum also had the benefit of being a great replacement for more expensive ingredients to bulk the bread and make it heavier.
The problem got so bad that the British Government had to get involved and in 1875 the introduced the Sale of Food and Drugs Act that prevented 'adulterations' of products.
Alum is defined as:-
"Also called potash alum, potassium alum. a crystalline solid, aluminum potassium sulfate, K2SO4⋅Al2(SO4)3⋅24H2O, used in medicine as an astringent and styptic, in dyeing and tanning, and in many technical processes." - Dictionary.com
These salts are soluble in water and tend to have an acidic, astringent and sweet taste. It can be ingested in small quantities relatively safely but in large quantities, it can be problematic.
Alum adulteration led to malnutrition and also caused bowel problems like constipation and diarrhea which could prove fatal.
9. Parkesine Was an Early Plastic That Could Self Combust
If you have never heard the term Parkesine, you are not alone. It was devised by an English inventor called Alexander Parkes and was, in fact, an early form of plastic.
Parkes produced his Parkesine in 1856 from various mixtures of nitrocellulose, alcohols, camphor, and oils.
Parkesine was a great moldable material that was widely used for everything from brooches to billiard balls. It was popular at the time as it was very cheap compared to the traditional alternative of ivory.
It even had used in collars and cuffs and was easily cleaned.
Sadly as Hamlet would say "something is rotten in the state of Denmark". Parkensine turned out to be pretty flammable - especially when it aged.
It could even self-combust and was explosive on impact - not ideal for applications like billiard balls.
10. Talcum Powder Contained Asbestos
Talcum powder, also know as talc was and still is the go-to product to keep skin dry and prevent rashes. It was commonly used to prevent problems like 'nappy rash' for young babies.
Talc is generally a mineral formed from several key elements: magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. It is also a common product used in cosmetic products for the body or face as well as other consumer products and can be found in plastics, ceramics, paper and other products.
All well and good until you consider that Talc deposits tend to be associated with Asbestos deposits. It is unknown for how long Talc products were contaminated with Asbestos, or how much, but the highest risk of adverse health effects was by the miners themselves rather than consumers.
These workers were later found to have an elevated risk of developing cancer and other Asbestos-related diseases.
But don't fret, since the 1970's, all Talcum powder production is controlled, tested and is certified to be Asbestos-Free. Today, most Talc deposits can be found in the United States from the Appalachians to Nevada and New Mexico.
11. Arsenic Wafers Were Once Eaten to Improve Skin Complexion
At the turn of the 20th Century, it had become 'trendy' to take supplements to help with a lady's complexion - especially to make yourself as 'pale' skinned as possible. One such supplement was a cure-all Arsenic wafer advertised as having:
"the ‘Wizard’s Touch’ in producing, preserving and enhancing [the] beauty of form… surely developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, shapely contour of form, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin…"
These wafers were consumed on the premise that they could change the consumer's faces, soften sharp features and remove disfigurements.
Andrew Meharg, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, takes serious issue with the claims of the company that the wafers were "crafted by expert chemists" are were, therefore, completely safe.
Andrew notes that exposure to even minute amounts of Inorganic Arsenic (10 ppb) dramatically increases someone's risk of heart disease and even cancer. Higher doses will lead to more terrible side effects like kidney failure, epilepsy, and death but can also cause skin deformities - ironic when you think about it.
12. Apples Could Potentially Kill You Too
"An apple a day keeps the doctor away" so it is said but a bushel in one day might just see you end up in hospital. The humble Apple, as delicious as they are, can, in the right quantities, flood your body with enough Cyanide to potentially kill you.
When this substance is metabolized it degrades into another chemical called Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) which is potentially lethal if ingested. Cyanide kills by seriously inhibiting your blood's ability to absorb and transport oxygen.
But before you throw away that Apple in disgust it would take a lot of seeds to actually poison you. Estimates indicate that you would need around 1 cup of ground up Apple seeds to have enough concentration of Cyanide to prove fatal.
Plus the Apple seeds are pretty tough, after all, they have evolved to pass through an animal's digestive system and survive.
The National Institute of Health says on the matter:
13. Glossy Magazines Covers Could Dose You With Radiation
In order to entice consumers to buy their magazines or other publications, publishers print on some glossy paper. All well and good until you realize that in order to get the paper to look sleek and glossy and to produce a smooth surface for printing, the process requires the use of Kaolin.
Kaolin is so-called because it is mined in the Chinese region of Kao-Ling. Kaolin, when applied to paper, fills in the spaces between fibers in the paper and coats its surface at the same time.
This process makes the surface ideal for reproducing photographs.
Kaolin is a naturally occurring type of white clay, that like Bentonite in kitty litter, can contain elements of Uranium and Thorium. This type of clay is also a common food additive and over the counter drug ingredient.
Intrigued by this fact, researchers decided to conduct some experiments on an issue of one of the photo-heaviest magazines around - Playboy.
"Based on these measurements, I calculated that someone reading a 400-gram magazine would receive an exposure of approximately 1.5 x 10-3 microrem per hour (urem/hr)."
That's around 0.000015 sieverts. Don't worry that's far from enough of a dose to cause you to worry and ranges between the exposure you'd get 30-60 km from Fukushima and far less than your average medical X-ray.
Thankfully, the radioactivity of kaolin covered magazines is not high enough to be detected with a simple survey meter, but it is possible that a truck with a load of magazines could trip a radiation monitor.
So there you go, 13 Elements Found Harmful to Humans That are Found in Everyday Products. Can you think of any others? Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below.