The old phrase, “pick your poison” doesn’t generally refer to poison at all, but rather the choice between two undesirable options. When it comes to arsenic, though, there’s nothing metaphorical about the type of poison in play; in fact, it’s this element’s most famous attribute.
Unassuming but Long Understood
In its natural form, arsenic is a crystal metalloid that is commonly found in minerals, but the element in its free form is very rare on Earth. Because it is odorless and tasteless, arsenic has been a favorite surreptitious poison for centuries.
This element was discovered all the way back in 1250 by a German alchemist named Albertus Magnus. All arsenic on Earth is found in the crust, delivered by minerals like arsenopyrite.
King of Poisons
Arsenic has some use as an alloy in technical devices like semiconductors, or as a means of adding color to pyrotechnics, but far and away the most common use of arsenic relates to its poison.
While arsenic is now strictly regulated, there was a time when it was widely available and undetectable. Today, a body can be tested for arsenic because the element bonds with hair follicles, but even deadly materials have their uses.
Some rat poisons still contain a fair amount of arsenic, though these products are carefully labeled and protected.
Pop Culture’s Favorite Weapon
Throughout history, plenty of authors and scriptwriters have called upon arsenic to serve as the culprit in their stories, like Agatha Christie’s Arsenic and Old Lace.
The poison’s ease and enigma is likely what makes it the subject of such interest, but a growing body of evidence suggests that negligible amounts of arsenic may be useful for supporting life, so don’t count this deadly element as all bad just yet.