BY JACK DINI – What do you think of when you hear someone mention the play/movie “Arsenic and Old Lace?”

For most folks this evokes the thought of arsenic and poison. Well, in spite of the title of the entertainment, arsenic was the least effective agent two seemingly harmless sisters used to dispatch lonely gentleman callers.

Arsenicals are relatively weak poisons and the sisters being aware of this used two poisons, strychnine and cyanide, which dwarf arsenicals in their effectiveness.

(1)  Even though arsenic wasn’t the agent of death ‘arsenic and old lace’ has a much nicer artistic ring to it then ‘strychnine and old lace’ or ‘cyanide and old lace.’ Regardless, arsenic is a much feared material, resulting in what Ralph Zangaro calls arsenophobia.

(2) No debate arsenic is a poison, but it has been used medicinally for more than 3,000 years to treat human illnesses, including infectious diseases and malignancies. In recent times, Chinese researchers reported that arsenic trioxide induced remissions in patients with promyelocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood, including those who had relapsed after other prior therapy.

(3) In another report concerning a long-term study in China, doctors may appear to have safely and successfully treated patients with cancer of the blood and bone marrow with a combination of arsenic and vitamin A. The regiment was prescribed for 85 patients and they were monitored for an average of 70 months.

Of these, 80 patients went into complete remission and their hearts and lungs appeared to be free of any associated long-term problems. There was no development of secondary cancers. According to the study: “Two years after their treatment the patients had arsenic blood and urine levels well below safety limits, and only slightly higher than controls. The treatment was effective…and worked better than either drug given alone.” (4)

In the US, The Food and Drug Administration approved arsenic for treatment in certain blood and bone marrow cancers in the year 2000. It is now regularly used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia. (4)

No question too much arsenic can cause trouble, but so can too much vitamin A which can cause liver damage. Too much vitamin D can damage the kidneys. Too much water can result in hyponatremia, a dilution of the blood’s salt content, which disrupts the brain, heart, and muscle function. (5)

Poison surrounds us.  However, more and more research studies are revealing that a little bit of some poisons can be quite helpful to human health. Arsenic isn’t the only toxic material that can offer benefits at low doses. Others include botulinum, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and epibatidine, the toxic that native Indians use to make poison darts. (6)



  1. Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace, (New York, Random House, 1941), 26
  2. Ralph A. Zingaro, “Arsenic- A Classic Example of Chemophobia,” Environment International, 19, 167, 1993
  3. X.-W. Zhang et al., “Arsenic Trioxide Controls the Fate of the PML-RAR Alpha Oncoprotein by Directly Binding PML,” Science, 328, 240, April 2010
  4. M. Dee Dubroff, “Arsenic: Is This Ancient Poison a Modern Remedy?”, accessed June 24, 2010
  5. Cathy Newman, “12 Toxic Tales,” National Geographic, 207, 2, May 2005
  6. Jack W. Dini, “Poison or Medicine: Toxin or Drug?”