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History’s Deadliest colors

Color has always been an integral part of design because it is ever present in the natural world, Scientific and qualitative studies of pigment have shown that the way it is perceived varies from person to person and is relative to the conditions in which it is present. It can trigger emotion and carries semiotics that vary from culture to culture. Essentially, color is a powerful artistic tool when harnessed correctly. Some of these colors that were used to make paintings or a work of art were made of dangerous materials that are toxic to our human body and comes from a variety of sources.

There are a lot of pigments that could be found throughout the world and some are yet to be found but in this paper, we will learn or analyze more about the world’s deadliest color throughout history ranging from ancient history to the atomic ages. We will also be learning about its history, how it was produced, its properties and the effects of those pigments on the environment and to ourselves.

These pigments are:

  1. White lead

Gettens, R.J., Kühn, H. and Chase said that this product is great for coloring since it gave off a brilliant shade of white but it is a highly toxic substance since it could disrupt our learning capabilities because it inhibits the absorption of calcium. [1]

  1. Scheele’s Green

John Timbrell explores what makes this particular pigment harmful, this substance was later on used as an insecticide and pesticide. [2]

  1. Radium (Green)

Marie Curie along with his husband, Pierre Curie discovered this substance in an Uranite sample. When this substance was found, it emitted a glowing green, but this substance is highly radioactive. [3]


1. White Lead 

Lead white has the warmest masstone of all the whites. It has a very subtle reddish-yellow undertone that is almost unnoticeable unless you are looking for it, or comparing lead white side by side with other kinds of white. This undertone is minimal in the best quality of lead whites. Lead white (native mineral is cerusite) is a carbonate of lead which was in use since antiquity and was prepared from metallic lead and vinegar. It was the only white used in European easel paintings until the 19th century when its poisonous lead content restricted its manufacture and sale as an artist’s pigment. Lead white is also the fastest drying of all of the whites because of the drying

action of the lead pigment upon the oil. This makes lead white particularly valuable for painters who need a relatively fast drying time for underpainting or Alla Prima techniques. [4]

Used since antiquity as early as 400 B.C. It was mentioned by Pliny and Vestruvious who describe its preparation from metallic lead and vinegar. Lead white was the only white used in European easel paintings until the 19th century when its poisonous lead content restricted its manufacture and sale as an artist’s pigment. Some companies offer this color under the color title Cremnitz white, but this is a misnomer because the original pigment for Cremnitz white has not been made since 1938. [4]

Strips of metallic lead are placed in porous earthenware pots, over weak acetic acid (vinegar) in sheds with fermenting manure that produce heat and CO2. After a few months, the acetic and carbonic acid reacts with the surface lead forming a white crust which is scraped off, dried, and ground. Anyway, many recipes for the pigments manufacture have been recorded over the centuries. Since lead white is a poisonous compound if inhaled as a dust or ingested, grinding in manufacture was a dangerous industry and as a result the process was banned after legislative action. [4]

Studies has shown that exposure to lead particles can be harmful especially to unborn babies and young children. Children absorb more lead than adults due to their growing bones and other organs which lead can become deposited in.

The signs and symptoms in young children can include:

  • irritability and fatigue
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • hearing loss
  • developmental delay and learning difficulties

Although children are at increased risk of the effects of lead poisoning, exposure via drinking contaminated water can also result in illness in adults. Even if you are experiencing these symptoms, it does not always mean you have lead poisoning.

Symptoms in adults can include:

  • high blood pressure
  • abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • joint and muscle pain
  • pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities
  • headache
  • miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women
  • fatigue
  • memory loss [5]


2. Scheele’s Green

Scheele’s Green, also called Schloss Green, is chemically a cupric hydrogen arsenite (also called copper arsenite or acidic copper arsenite), CuHAsO3 It is chemically related to Paris Green. It is a yellowish-green pigment which in the past was used in some paints, but has since fallen out of use because of its toxicity and the instability of its color in the presence of sulfides and various chemical pollutants. [6]

Scheele’s Green was invented in 1775 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele. By the end of the 19th century, it had virtually replaced the older green pigments based on copper carbonate. [6]

Scheele’s Green was used as a color for paper, e.g. for wallpapers and paper hangings, and in paints, wax candles, and even on some children’s toys. It was also used to dye cotton and linen. Scheele’s Green is more brilliant and durable than the then-used copper carbonate pigments. However, because of its copper content it tends to fade and blacken when exposed to sulfides, whether in the form of atmospheric hydrogen sulfide or in pigment mixtures based on or containing sulfur. [7]

Emerald green, also known as Paris Green, was developed later in an attempt to improve Scheele’s Green. It had the same tendency to blacken, but was more durable. By the end of the 19th century, both greens were made obsolete by cobalt green, also known as zinc green, which is far less toxic. Scheele’s Green was used as an insecticide in the 1930s, together with Paris Green. Despite evidence of its high toxicity, Scheele’s Green was also used as a food dye for sweets such as green blancmange, a fondness of traders in 19th-century Greenock; this led to a long-standing Scottish prejudice against green sweets. [8]

In the 19th century, the toxicity of arsenic compounds was not readily known. Nineteenth century journals contained reports of children wasting away in bright green rooms, of ladies in green dresses swooning and newspaper printers being overcome by arsenic vapors. There is one example of an acute poisoning of children attending a Christmas party where dyed candles were burned. [8]

Two main theories on the cause of wallpaper poisoning events have been proposed: dust particles caused by pigment and paper flaking, and toxic gas production. Tiny particles of the pigment can flake off and become airborne, and then are absorbed by the lungs. Alternatively, toxic gas can be released from compounds containing arsenic following certain chemical processes, such as heating, or metabolism by an organism. When the wallpaper becomes damp and moldy, the pigment may be metabolized, causing the release of poisonous arsine gas (AsH3). Fungi genera such as Scopulariopsis or Paecilomyces release arsine gas, when they are growing on a substance containing arsenic. The Italian physician Bartolomeo Gosio published in 1893 his results on “Gosio gas”, that was subsequently shown to contain trimethylarsine. Under wet conditions, the mold Scopulariopsis brevicaulis produced significant amounts of methyl arsines via methylation of arsenic-containing inorganic pigments, especially Paris green and Scheele’s Green. [8]

In these compounds, the arsenic is either pentavalent or trivalent (arsenic is in group 15), depending on the compound. In humans, arsenic of these valences is readily absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, which accounts for its high toxicity. Pentavalent arsenic tends to be reduced to trivalent arsenic and trivalent arsenic tends to proceed via oxidative methylation in which the trivalent arsenic is made into mono, di and trimethylated products by methyltransferases and an Sadenosyl-methionine methyl donating cofactor. However, newer studies indicate that

trimethylarsine has a low toxicity, and could therefore not account for the death and the severe health problems observed in the 19th century. Arsenic is not only toxic, but it also has carcinogenic effects. [8]


3. Radium

Radium is a chemical element with symbol Ra and atomic number 88. It is the sixth element in group 2 of the periodic table, also known as the alkaline earth metals. Pure radium is silverywhite, but it readily reacts with nitrogen (rather than oxygen) on exposure to air, forming a black surface layer of radium nitride (Ra3N2). All isotopes of radium are highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope being radium-226, which has a half-life of 1600 years and decays into radon gas (specifically the isotope radon-222). When radium decays, ionizing radiation is a product, which can excite fluorescent chemicals and cause radioluminescence. [9]

Radium, in the form of radium chloride, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. They extracted the radium compound from uraninite and published the discovery at the French Academy of Sciences five days later. Radium was isolated in its metallic state by Marie Curie and André-Louis Debierne through the electrolysis of radium chloride in 1911. [10]

In nature, radium is found in uranium and (to a lesser extent) thorium ores in trace amounts as small as a seventh of a gram per ton of uraninite. Radium is not necessary for living organisms, and adverse health effects are likely when it is incorporated into biochemical processes because of its radioactivity and chemical reactivity. Currently, other than its use in nuclear medicine, radium has no commercial applications; formerly, it was used as a radioactive source for radioluminescent devices and also in radioactive quackery for its supposed curative powers. Today, these former applications are no longer in vogue because radium’s toxicity has since become known, and less dangerous isotopes are used instead in radioluminescent devices. [11]

Radium was formerly used in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. A typical self-luminous watch that uses radium paint contains around 1 microgram of radium. In the mid-1920s, a lawsuit was filed against the United States Radium Corporation by five dying “Radium Girl” dial painters who had painted radium-based luminous paint on the dials of watches and clocks. The dial painters routinely licked their brushes to give them a fine point, thereby ingesting radium. Their exposure to radium caused serious health effects which included sores, anemia, and bone cancer. This is because radium is treated as calcium by the body, and deposited in the bones, where radioactivity degrades marrow and can mutate bone cells. [12]

During the litigation, it was determined that the company’s scientists and management had taken considerable precautions to protect themselves from the effects of radiation, yet had not seen fit to protect their employees. Additionally, for several years the companies had attempted to cover up the effects and avoid liability by insisting that the Radium Girls (female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint) were instead suffering from syphilis. This complete disregard for employee welfare had a significant impact on the formulation of occupational disease labor law. [13]

As a result of the lawsuit, the adverse effects of radioactivity became widely known, and radium-dial painters were instructed in proper safety precautions and provided with protective gear.

In particular, dial painters no longer licked paint brushes to shape them (which caused some ingestion of radium salts). Radium was still used in dials as late as the 1960s, but there were no further injuries to dial painters. This highlighted that the harm to the Radium Girls could easily have been avoided. [13]

From the 1960s the use of radium paint was discontinued. In many cases luminous dials were implemented with non-radioactive fluorescent materials excited by light; such devices glow in the dark after exposure to light, but the glow fades. Where long-lasting self-luminosity in darkness was required, safer radioactive promethium-147 (half-life 2.6 years) or tritium (half-life 12 years) paint was used; both continue to be used today. These had the added advantage of not degrading the phosphor over time, unlike radium. Tritium emits very low-energy beta radiation (even lower-energy than the beta radiation emitted by promethium) which cannot penetrate the skin, rather than the penetrating gamma radiation of radium and is regarded as safer. [14]

Clocks, watches, and instruments dating from the first half of the 20th century, often in military applications, may have been painted with radioactive luminous paint. They are usually no longer luminous; however, this is not due to radioactive decay of the radium (which has a half-life of 1600 years) but to the fluorescence of the zinc sulfide fluorescent medium being worn out by the radiation from the radium. The appearance of an often thick layer of green or yellowish-brown paint in devices from this period suggests a radioactive hazard. The radiation dose from an intact device is relatively low and usually not an acute risk; but the paint is dangerous if released and inhaled or ingested. Radium was once an additive in products such as toothpaste, hair creams, and even food items due to its supposed curative powers. Such products soon fell out of vogue and were prohibited by authorities in many countries after it was discovered they could have serious adverse health effects. Spas featuring radium-rich water are still occasionally touted as beneficial, such as those in Misasa, Tottori, Japan. In the U.S., nasal radium irradiation was also administered to children to prevent middle-ear problems or enlarged tonsils from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. [15]

In conclusion, there are a lot of color pigments throughout the world that could beobtained by synthetic means or natural means and some that are yet to be discovered or found, but we should be wary of what these pigments are made of since it could disrupt our health and thus make us sick. Lead white can disrupt learning skills of humans, Scheele’s green is a highly toxic and a carcinogenic substance and lastly Radium (green) is a highly radioactive element.

David Sasabone 2001611900



  • Gettens, R.J., Kühn, H. and Chase, W.T. Lead White, in Roy, A., (Ed), Artists’ Pigments, Vol 2, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 67–81
  • Timbrell, John (2005). “Butter Yellow and Scheele’s Green”. The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes. Oxford University Press.
  • Hammond, C. R. “Radium” in Haynes, William M., ed. (2011). CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (92nd ed.). Boca Raton
  • Douma, M., curator. (2008). Pigments through the Ages. Retrieved 5-11-2017, from
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  • Timbrell, John (2005). “Butter Yellow and Scheele’s Green”. The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes. Oxford University Press.
  • DANGERS IN THE MANUFACTURE OF PARIS GREEN AND SCHEELE’S GREEN. (1917). Monthly Review of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5(2), 7883. Retrieved from
  • Meharg, A. (2004) Venomous Earth: How Arsenic Caused the World’s Worst Mass Poisoning. Palgrave Macmillan United States.
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  • Retrieved 5-11-2017
  • Lide, D. R. (2004). CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (84th ed.). Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press
  • Terrill Jr, J. G.; Ingraham Sc, 2nd; Moeller, D. W. (1954). “Radium in the healing arts and in industry: Radiation exposure in the United States”. Public Health Reports. 69 (3): 255–62
  • Moore, Kate (2017). The Radium Girls, The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. p. 366.
  • Tykva, Richard; Berg, Dieter (2004). Man-made and natural radioactivity in environmental pollution and radiochronology. Springer. p. 78.
  • Accessed 5-11-2017

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