Interesting Story - Arsenic

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"Arsenic May Have Civil War Source"

James Hohmann, L.A. Times, 5-19-2008


Washington - The discovery of dangerously high levels of arsenic that prompted the closure of a popular park in Washington, D.C. last week came as a shock to families who enjoy the green space for soccer games and picnics.

One possible source of the poison is especially disturbing; it might stem from embalming practices during the Civil War.

During the conflict, Fort Reno Park was a military outpost for soldiers protecting the capital. Because arsenic was a common ingredient in embalming fluid, one theory is that the arsenic still in the ground seeped out during the preparation of soldiers' remains for burial elsewhere.

"It was common for the Civil War, especially on the Union side, for the dead to be embalmed with arsenic, but whether the arsenic that is being detected now goes back that far, I cannot say," said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line.

While tourists flock to Washington for its monuments and museums, the city rests on ruins from a bygone era. Fort Reno was part of a circle of defensive positions that included at least a dozen forts that protected Washington during the war.

Tests indicate that arsenic levels in some places are as much as 25 times the level deemed safe by government standards.

"If morticians were there, that would make perfect sense," said George Wunderlich, the executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, which has a permanent exhibit on embalming.

Arsenic was inexpensive, easy to come by and the most effective product to prevent a corpse from stinking. "It basically petrifies you," Wunderlich said.

Formaldehyde replaced arsenic at the beginning of the 20th century after groundwater near cemeteries became poisoned.

The 33-acre park, in a suburban northwest corner of the city, is next to a reservoir and two schools.

The Environmental Protection Agency took about two dozen soil samples Thursday at the park. Results are expected back early this week. Only a few spots may have abnormal levels.

A variety of other sources, like fertilizers, pesticides and treated lumber, could be to blame for arsenic problem, experts said.
 

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