All the samples contain massive doses of arsenic, ranging from 15 to 100 parts per million (ppm), it reported today. On an average, human hair contains only 0.8 ppm of arsenic, and the maximum limit considered safe is three ppm. “There was no poisoning,” the magazine declares.
Ivan Ricordel, head of the toxicology laboratory at the Paris police headquarters, who led the team that carried out the latest tests, is adamant. “If arsenic caused Napoleon’s death, he would have died three times over,” he says.
The conclusion is drawn after an exhaustive 18-month battery of 1,000 tests on the 19 samples, chief of which was synchrotron radiation, which uses a laser beam in the X-ray part of the energy spectrum to detect traces of individual chemicals.
Because of the way hair grows and the way it absorbs arsenic, the poison is spread across the strand, which make it impossible to say exactly when the chemical was absorbed.
So where did the arsenic come from'
Science et Vie sees several possibilities. It could have come from arsenic in the wallpaper at Longwood House where Napoleon lived. Green pigment detected in the wallpaper was found to have contained arsenic, in which case the emperor would still have been killed by the British — but by British wallpapermakers and unwittingly at that.
Many of the other people who were with Napoleon on St Helena had become ill and complained of the ‘bad air’, and his butler did actually die.The wood used to heat the rooms in the house could have been a source, as might have been gun cartridges, which had arsenic at the time and which Napoleon would have handled.
However, “the most plausible source”, the magazine says, is the most banal: hair restorer, a product that in the early 19th century typically contained lots of arsenic.
What killed the emperor then'
In 1982, a US specialist, Dr Robert Greenblatt, came up with an answer. He suggested that, far from being a sick man, Napoleon was becoming a sick woman because he was suffering from a glandular disease.
Greenblatt said the disease explained why one of the doctors who examined the emperor’s body after his death had observed: “His type of plumpness was not masculine; he had beautiful arms, rounded breasts, white soft skin (and) no hair.”
The French may not like it, but the arsenic in the hair is no surprise.