Arsenic-Free Beer, 1901
I came across this advert for Dundee Beer in an old newspaper – it grabbed my attention by its proud declaration that it had been found to be free of arsenic. Hooray! Hang on, though, isn’t that pretty much the least you can expect from a pint; for it to be, by and large, arsenic-free? Either this is the most desperate advertising campaign in history, or there was a bigger story behind it.
I looked further and found out a story I’d never been aware of – an spate of poisonings in Manchester, Salford, Liverpool and other places in the North-West in 1900, apparently caused by drinking beer which contained arsenic. At first, the true nature of the illness wasn’t apparent, as the victims were assumed to be suffering from some kind of alcohol poisoning caused by the sheer volume of alcohol drunk. However, the symptoms weren’t quite the same and many moderate drinkers were also affected, and eventually a doctor came up with the implausible idea that the beer they had drunk had poisoned them, not by alcohol, but by arsenic.
Testing confirmed that the glucose and sugars which had been supplied by Liverpool company Bostock, and used as a cheaper substitute for malted barley in the brewing process, had become contaminated with arsenious acid. The sugars had been made using sulphuric acid to strip the sugar from the cane, but instead of being made from pure sulphur, it had been made from pyrites or iron sulphide for cost reasons. The pyrites were, it turned out, the source of the arsenic, and this sub-par sulphuric acid had been sold to Bostock by their supplier Nicholson.
A Royal Commission was set up in 1901 to investigate and thousands of gallons of beer were thrown away, into the sewers – 267,000 gallons of them in Liverpool. In the end it was concluded that around 6000 people had been affected by the poison, 115 of which had died from it. Although due to the initial confusion as to the cause of the outbreak, it was hard to determine actual figures.
A very thorough and interesting account of the epidemic can be found on this Brewery History site.
There was a worry that jams and syrups also produced by Bostock were contaminated with the poisoned sugars.
“The Coroner remarked it was for the police to take action if they could prove that anyone was to blame.”
Bostock took Nicholson to court for damages of £300,000 for not supplying them with what they thought was pure sulphuric acid made from brimstone, which had been their previous arrangement. Nicholson had changed to the cheaper pyrite version, without Bostock’s knowledge. They said that Bostock had not told them what they used the acid for, and could have supplied the pure version had they known it was for consumption. Nicholson claimed the difference in colour in the pyrite acid should have alerted Bostock to the change. The judgement was made against Nicholson, but with the recognition that Bostock was also negligent. Nicholson was ordered to recompense the actual costs of the acid and sugar, but no damages on top.
It was later claimed that malt and hops could also be a source of arsenic themselves, although in smaller quantities. “While it may be possible to produce beers absolutely “arsenic free”, the majority, when brewed mainly or entirely from malt and hops, will contain minute traces, which will, however, be below the amount likely to produce any harmful effects.”
An order was produced by the Treasury prohibiting the use of glucose or sugar containing arsenic in the production of beer.
It took a while for the problem to finally go away. Arsenic was detected in beer in Wolverhampton in 1914.
Even in 1950, a claim was made by a consumer that they had been the victim of arsenic poisoning in their beer. Although whether this was true or not is another matter. The report sounds very sceptical, and put it in the same bracket as another customer who complained of buying “a loaf containing a seagull”. Must have been a big loaf.
Another worry about the consumption of arsenic in 1952, with the inclusion of potassium bromate in flour, which has an arsenic content. Inclusion of potassium bromate in food is now banned in many countries, although not the USA.
A revised report for the recommended arsenic limits in food was made in 1955. “…Evidence led to the view that water and milk should not normally contain arsenic but in any case should not contain more than .1 parts per million.”
Having never worried about my accidental arsenic consumption up until now, I decided to look into the situation today. It turns out that rice absorbs arsenic pretty well during the growing process and the Food Standards Agency is working on recommended limits right now. Apparently cooking rice in a coffee percolator is the answer – according to this anyway.
Also – brussels sprouts are pretty good at absorbing natural arsenic from the soil, so that’s a good enough reason for to me avoid the blighters.
Oh, and it’s still in beer, by the way – beers and wines are made clearer through filtering using diatomaceous earth, which contains arsenic. Unfiltered beers and wines are the way to go….