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That Color Is To Die For

Very Peri. Living Coral. Classic Blue. Illuminating. These are just some of the names of the colors chosen to be the Pantone Color of the Year in the recent past. For more than 20 years colors like these have been influencing fashion and design decisions of people across the globe. From the earliest instances of art, potentially dating all the way back to 45,000 years ago in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, humans have been using different pigments, whether natural or synthetic, to color their lives. While some of these pigments are nice to look at, they pose some major dangers to peoples’ health and have, understandably, been replaced with safer hues in more recent years.

Vermilion and Cinnabar

The Descent from the Cross, Peter Paul Rubens, 1612-1614

Our first pigment is one of the most toxic: Vermilion. This vibrant red has been used as far back as the Romans and in Ancient China but has been replaced by Cadmium Red and other red pigments because of its toxic qualities. Vermilion comes from powdered Cinnabar, a red mercury sulfide. The dangers of this pigment have been known for centuries, even the Roman knew how dangerous it was to mine and use Cinnabar, however, the color’s great staying power and vibrancy led to its widespread use in art. Many Renaissance painters made use of the vibrant red to pack a punch in their works and in many of these the pigment is just as bright today as it was the day it was painted hundreds of years ago. However, mercury is incredibly toxic and can cause an array of health issues if exposed. These include neurological issues with walking, shaking, memory, and even death if you are exposed to large enough quantities. It’s best to stay away from Vermilion or Cinnabar and instead stick with a safer hue of red.

Uranium Orange

Photo courtesy Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity

Metallica. Slayer. Megadeth. Uranium? While all heavy metals, the first three in that list really aren’t dangerous, unless you listen to their music too loud, in which case you may experience some hearing loss. It’s that fourth one, uranium, that is our focus in our next dangerous color. Uranium has been used since the Roman Empire in 79 CE as a way to tint glassware and glazes for ceramics. This use continued all the way into the second half of the 20th century with shades ranging from yellow to red. So you could possibly still come into contact with this radioactive dish ware if you are an avid antiquer. The most well known of these radioactive ceramics glazed with uranium is Fiestaware. The orange-red dishes dating back to the 1930s had uranium in the glaze at rates of up to 14% which, to me, seems like a lot.

There are three ways that you can be exposed to the radioactivity of these dishes: gamma rays entering your body, beta particles on your hands from holding the dishes, and ingesting uranium that had been absorbed into the food held in/on the dishes. Now I don’t know what all that really means other than to say that it’s not something that you want to be happening. Beta particles can cause damage to the skin in the form of burns in large enough concentrations while Gamma rays can damage tissue and DNA. So just be careful with your antiquing and maybe don’t eat off of any red-orange antique plates even if you got them for a steal. 

One last quick story about another radioactive material used in paint, radium. It has been used because of its glow-in-the-dark properties and was especially popular during WWII to paint the small details on airplane gauges so cockpit lights did not need to be on. However, in order to get a super fine tip of the paintbrush, those who were painting would lick the brush and inadvertently ingest the radium. This then deposited in their bones, mainly in the jaw, and led to many of these workers developing cancer as a direct result. Since the 1970s radium has not been used in this manner.

School Bus Chrome

Look around any town on weekday mornings and afternoons and you’ll see a big yellow bus full of school kids. These vehicles are iconic in their color so that they are easy to see in an effort to make these buses highly visible to help ensure the safety of those on board. However, early in their history it was this safety feature that was actually the cause of some danger. Whoops. The early paint for the buses, a lead-based paint deemed School Bus Chrome, was pigmented with a yellow that included chromium. While the metal has been mixed with any number of elements to make bold pigments, it is inherently dangerous. The chemical makeup of this specific chromium used in the paint is “hungry for electrons” and so it would search from and steal electrons from any place it could, including living cells. Because of this property, the chromium in the pigment can damage DNA as it searches for electrons. Continued exposure to it can even lead to cellular mutations and cancer.  Those most affected would have been those who were producing the paint because it is most harmful when inhaled, however, any exposure would present a danger. Today the yellow color of the buses has stayed but the threat of children being poisoned by chromium in the paint has gone away with a change to the formula, thankfully. 

Scheele’s Green 

There are many things in our lives that can harm us. However, when you think about those things the wallpaper in your house is probably not at the top of your list of worries. As it turns out for many people in the past, including Napoleon Bonaparte, it maybe should have been. But we’ll get to that in a minute. While he ultimately succumbed to stomach cancer, later toxicology testing of his hair in the 20th century showed that this was not the only thing that was ailing the former French leader. High amounts of arsenic were found in his hair follicles. Signs of arsenic poisoning include skin irritation, light-headedness, stomach cramps, lung disease, heart failure, neurological dysfunction, and even death. 

Now to get back to Napoleon’s pesky wallpaper. Toward the end of his life he was exiled to Saint Helena, a tropical island with a humid climate. In the washroom of his home where he would take long, soaking baths, Napoleon had his walls covered in a wallpaper painted with Scheele’s Green pigment. This bright yellow-green color was thought to be one that Napoleon was partial to and spent a great deal of time in the room with this particular wallpaper. The issue with this wallpaper, however, is that when Scheele’s Green pigment is exposed to prolonged humidity a type of mold begins to grow and produces arsenic gas. So while his ultimate death may have come at the hands of a stomach cancer, he likely was having health issues related to arsenic poisoning. This green pigment, and others like it such as Emerald Green, have also been used to paint the covers of antique books, leading to more contact with arsenic. Luckily for us today, most of these harmful materials have been removed from the market so we don’t have to be worried about being poisoned by our wallpaper or books. If, by chance, you do come in contact with a book with an arsenic cover, the Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library has tips for what to do through their “Poison Book Project.”

Mummy Brown

Interior of a Kitchen, Martin Drolling, 1815

Our last stop is not necessarily dangerous. It’s just a bit gross. For thousands of years the Ancient Egyptians embalmed and mummified their departed. Over time, many of the tombs of the wealthy were discovered and ransacked by thieves. The mummies themselves were generally left alone for a while. This changed during the Middle Ages when Europeans believed in the medical benefits of these embalmed bodies that had been unearthed in Egypt. As a result there was the creation of a booming mummy trade between Western Europe and the Nile Valley. The bodies of the dead were unearthed and ground to a powder and shipped across the Mediterranean. As the supply of the mummy powder increased the uses of it increased as well and so, a new pigment was born. By the 1500s artists were using the Mummy Brown pigment and praising its transparency and was used for shading and making, perhaps not surprisingly, flesh tones for the subjects of paintings. Even though some artists raved about the benefits of using Mummy Brown, some were not so sold on its benefits and many people did not love the origins of the pigment and so it began to fall out of favor. We also see people begin to doubt that all of the pigment being sold as Mummy Brown was actually made from mummies. So it was probably best that artists began using other sources for brown pigments moving forward.


By Hanna Gish

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