Science Questions

Is ink poisonous?

Sun, 3rd Oct 2010

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Question

Carol King via facebook asked:

Madame Bovary drank ink to kill herself. What is it in ink that's poisonous, and is it still in ink today?

Answer

Chris - Ancient inks were made from crown galls.  On oak trees, you'll find "oak apples" - these are galls which are on the wood of the oak tree.  They look like little spheres and are made by a parasitic insect or an infection that puts some chemicals into the side of the oak tree.  They end up being very rich in tannin so people would harvest them, grind them up and then mix them with iron sulphate, iron 2 sulphate which would then extract the tannins and it meant that the ink was very, very dark, very black when it was first written.  It’s beautiful.  

The problem is that it’s also very acidic, so it would rot holes in the ancient manuscripts.  This is why when you see ancient manuscripts’ photographed, they always have where the decenders are, the Gs and the Ys where the person paused their pen and then reversed over themselves, there’s a bit more ink there and that means there’s a bit more acid there, and the acid goes into the paper and hydrolyses the cellulose in the paper and makes a hole.  And that's why all these ancient manuscripts have got those holes there.  So I’d say, maybe she just died of iron 2 sulphate poisoning because I think if you did have a very intense intake of that, it could be toxic.  I've not come across anyone mentioned to poison themselves that way, but I think theoretically, it could be done.  Does anyone know?  Tell us if you have an experience of iron poisoning.

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