Literary quarantine: National Library of France removes books believed to be laced with arsenic

Literary quarantine: National Library of France removes books believed to be laced with Arsenic
Literary quarantine: National Library of France removes books believed to be laced with Arsenic Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By David Mouriquand
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Four books have been quarantined in the National Library of France. Here’s why. Warning: Spoilers for the book and film 'The Name of the Rose'.


Remember Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film The Name of the Rose, based on Umberto Eco’s historical mystery novel of the same name?

In it, a Franciscan friar William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) heads to an abbey northern Italy to investigate a mysterious death – which turns into a series of untimely demises – linked to Aristotle’s "Second Book of Poetics", which describes how comedy can be used to teach.

Believing jocularity to be instruments of the Devil, some devious bastard (we won’t spoil that part here) poisons the pages to stop the spread of dangerous ideas, and those reading the book would ingest the poison as they licked their fingers to turn the pages.

Well, imagine that scenario. Just less nefarious, taking place in France and... different.

Indeed, not one but four books have been removed from France’s national library (which contains a collection of more than 16 million books), over concerns that their covers may be laced with poison. Arsenic, to be precise.

University of Delaware researchers have singled out the 19th century volumes, which all have green covers. Arsenic was commonly used to for its colour pigmentation and the arsenic-containing green pigments - called Paris green, or Scheele’s green (after a German-born chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele) - were frequently utilized for books.

In case you were fearing that you might be in danger, the four books, printed in Victorian-era Britain, include the two volumes of Edward Hayes' "The Ballads of Ireland" from 1855, an 1856 bilingual anthology of Romanian poetry by Henry Stanley, and a 1862-1863 book of the Royal Horticultural Society.

"We have put these works in quarantine and an external laboratory will analyse them to evaluate how much arsenic is present in each volume," said a spokesperson from the National Library of France.

The list of potentially hazardous titles was put together by the Poison Book Project, run by researchers from the University of Delaware in collaboration with Delaware's Winterthur Museum. The PBP team has tested hundreds of book covers for heavy metals since 2019, and has drawn up a list of titles that are potentially dangerous.

The Poison Book Project says books laced with the toxin should be stored with caution and could present a health risk to those handling them.

The World Health Organization warns long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly through drinking water and food, can lead to skin lesions and skin cancer, but it makes no mention of contact with objects containing it.

The National Library of France said it would also examine other green covered books beyond the PBP list. The PBP website states that arsenic can also be found in green leather and paper covers, and that more than half of the clothbound 19th-century books analyzed contain lead in the book cloth.

“Analysis of a range of bookcloth colors has identified iron, copper, and zinc, which, while technically heavy metals by density, are generally considered not to be toxic,” reads the website. “Analysis has also identified the following highly toxic heavy metals: arsenic, chromium, lead, and mercury.”

This isn’t the first time this has happened, as books have also been removed in Germany earlier this year, as a precaution over possible arsenic contamination.

Books from the University of Bonn were identified as contaminated with arsenic, with more and more universities taking green-colored books stemming from the 19th century off their shelves.

No news on whether they also had The Name of the Rose as a distant echo.

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