TAXIDERMISTS

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Arsenic is a chemical element that can be found in soils, used in taxidermy since the 5th century BC. It was placed in the underside of the skin of an animal to help preserve and protect it from insects. From the 18th century to the late 20th century, arsenic compounds were commonly applied as a preservative to biological specimens and ethnographic objects, not only as insecticides, but also as herbicides, rodenticides, and antibiotics. Arsenic in the form of soap mixtures and sprays (arsenic trioxide and sodium arsenite) was used to preserve bird and mammal skins and mounts. Arsenic was also used as a fixative in the preparation of wet specimens to control the growth of microorganisms. Arsenic compounds retain their toxicity, and once treated, objects containing arsenic can probably never be fully decontaminated. Following its application, arsenic tends to adhere strongly to hair and feathers. Sometimes the compounds may be visible as white powder. In general, the older the specimen, the greater the likelihood that arsenic will be present. Accordingly, curatorial staff must exercise precautions when handling biological specimens collected and prepared before the 1980s. (The use of arsenic in the field preparation of specimens and in some museum applications post-1980 has been documented.)

Arsenic is now recognized as a toxic chemical when exposed to humid air. Those who prepared specimens historically were exposed to the chemical through skin absorption, inhalation, and ingestion. Organs infected include: stomach, liver, intestines, heart, lungs, blood vessels, kidneys, nervous system, skin, and nails. Short-term effects of arsenic exposure include weakness, headache, gastro-intestinal discomfort, changes in skin and nail texture and pigmentation, respiratory problems, coughing, irregular heart beat, breathing difficulty, and chest pain. Long term effects include general abnormalities to the pigmentation of the skin and abnormalities to nails and skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It is linked to nonmalignant respiratory diseases, numerous diseases of the nervous system, emphysema, kidney diseases, and many heart diseases. As a carcinogen it causes various cancers, including liver cancer, cancers of the reproductive organs, skin cancer, and lung cancer. Today, those who work with museum specimens protect themselves with a hazmat suit and a respirator when they deal with old taxidermy, taking care when they vacuum dust and debris from specimens.

Many early taxidermists who worked with California islands specimens died of apparent arsenic-related causes: