Friday, August 25, 2017

Antimony—Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #29

Antimony is an element, a "metalloid" like arsenic. Its symbol in the periodic table of the elements is Sb, because it is most commonly found in the sulfide mineral stibnite

In the ancient world, stibnite was known as kohl. Egyptians famously used it for eye make-up. It was an important part of their culture as early as the Proto-dynastic Period (3100 BC ) They believed it protected the eyes from eye ailments and the glare of the sun.

Egyptians used antimony for eye make-up

Antimony compounds were often used for medicine. Pliny the Elder described several different compounds, which he designated "male" and "female" to be used in small doses for treatment of various ailments. 

But they were all known to be poisonous in larger doses. 

"The Monk-Killer"

In fact, the name antimony is said to come from the Greek word ἀντίμοναχός, anti-monachos. Which means "monk-killer". Some dispute this, but since compounds containing antimony can kill, the name makes sense.

Antimony by itself hasn't been proved to have a toxic effect on humans. It's the compounds that are the problem.
Antimony is rarely found in its pure metallic state

The thing is, antimony is rarely found in its pure isolated form. But it is part of many compounds, both natural and manufactured. A lot of those compounds are poisonous.

Inhaling antimony trioxide dust can cause a number of lung ailments, including lung cancer. And antimony chlorides are corrosive to skin. Scary stuff.

Symptoms and Treatment

Symptoms of an antimony overdose usually appear within 30 minutes of ingestion. There will be vomiting, sweating, diarrhea, and an acrid, metallic taste in the mouth. External exposure can cause skin irritation. Severe antimony poisoning has symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning.

Some people work in industries where they are at greater risk of exposure to antimony compounds, and the cumulative effect can cause health problems like skin irritation "antimony spots," lung irritation, and gastrointestinal problems. Port workers often come into contact with toxic levels of antimony because it is used in brake pads on the vehicles used for loading ships.

Treatment is the same as for arsenic and other heavy metal poisoning—gastric lavage if it has been ingested recently, then treatment with chelating agents that will bind with the metal so the body will eliminate it naturally. Three common drugs for treatment of metal poisoning are: BA. (Dimercaprol), Calcium EDTA (Calcium Disodium Versenate) and Penicillamine.

Uses of Antimony

Today antimony compounds are used in the manufacture of such varied products as flame retardant, polyester, safety matches, paint, glass art, and the manufacture of TV screens.

Combined with lead, antimony is used in lead-acid batteries, bullets, electrical cable sheathing, type (in printing machines), solder, pewter, and organ pipes.

In medicine, the antimony compound, Potassium antimonyl tartrate, or tartar emetic, was used as a treatment for parasitic infections in humans and animals for many years, although it has been replaced more recently.

Other antimony-based drugs, such as meglumine antimoniate, are still used in veterinary medicine for skin conditions and infections.

The Most Infamous Antimony Poisoning Case: Dr. Charles Bravo

The 1875 poisoning death of London barrister Charles Bravo, four months after he married his wealthy second wife, the scandalous Florence Ricardo, was one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Victorian era.

Bravo had been involved in scandal himself since he had fathered a child out of wedlock, and Florence had been shunned by her family for her extramarital affairs. 

Charles Bravo was poisoned with antimony
Charles Bravo was known as a bully and an abuser. His groomsman and housekeeper described him as a nasty employer.

Bravo's death by antimony poisoning (in the form of tartar emetic) was drawn out, lasting from two to three days, and painful. The strange thing about it was that he would do nothing to help his doctors find out the cause of his condition.

Many people thought he might have accidentally poisoned himself while trying to poison his wife, who had developed a mysterious chronic illness right after the wedding.

He himself was taking laudanum for a toothache, and the theory is that he mistakenly took the "medicine" he'd been giving his wife, and it killed him.

Apparently he told his housekeeper he had accidently taken the tartar emetic, but later changed his statement, perhaps in hopes of incriminating his wife.

But other investigators suspected the housekeeper herself of the murder. The unhappy groomsman was a suspect too.

The coroner held two inquests, and the details were considered to be so scandalous that women and children were banned from the room while Florence testified. The first had an inconclusive verdict. The second returned a verdict of murder.

But no one was ever arrested. Florence died two years later.

Books Inspired by the Bravo Case

The first time I heard about the Bravo story was in reference to John Dickson Carr's classic Gideon Fell mystery from 1949 Below Suspicion.

Agatha Christie also refers to it in her Ordeal by Innocence

The 1948 Ray Milland film So Evil My Love (based on the novel by Marjorie Bowen) has elements of the story as well. 

Had you heard the story of Charles Bravo? Can you think of any other books or films where antimony is the murder weapon. Do you read John Dickson Carr? You don't hear much about him anymore. 

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series

Part 28: Mustard Gas

It's HERE! The New Camilla Randall Mystery

It's #6 in the series, but can be read as a stand-alone
At all the Amazons (FREE in KU)

Why does everyone think Camilla has the lost Portuguese crown jewels? And what has turned polite little Buckingham into an attack cat? Can Camilla keep her boyfriend Ronzo safe? Or will the murderous Mack Rattlebag find out Ronzo faked his own death?

It's one surprise after another in this warp-speed comedy-mystery where a too-perfect doctor may or may not be in cahoots with a bunch of homicidal New-Agers. Will Camilla and Ronzo, and the tarot cards, solve the mystery?

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