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Arsenic-contaminated books

Dealing with potentially arsenic-contaminated library collections

Libraries are confronted with a serious issue: arsenic compounds were sometimes used in the production of 19th century books and journals. We have to assume that Bielefeld University Library may also be affected.

Arsenic is toxic and carcinogenic and can be found in green dyes. Therefore, books from the period with green bindings, book cuts, title labels are generally considered suspect without examination. Leather bindings are not affected.

The first scientific findings have recently become available. However, there are as yet no legal regulations or recommendations for dealing with this threat. We are in dialogue with other libraries.

A possible hazard may arise if the volumes are handled and fingers are moistened with the tongue to turn the pages, if the dust possibly contains arsenic and is inhaled or if arsenic gets into the eyes by touching the volumes. As long as the books are on the shelf, they are considered harmless.

Bielefeld University takes this issue very seriously and has therefore reacted immediately. We ask for your understanding that it will take time to remove books of this size from the collection, store them and check for actual contamination with arsenic-containing colours, as well as to develop balanced regulations for the future use and preservation of such works.

These immediate measures were taken

  • All 60,000 books/magazines from the publication period 1800-1900 - regardless of colour - were initially blocked for lending. They are marked in the library catalog with the note "Zurzeit für die Benutzung gesperrt".
  • Staff, people who borrowed books and magazines from the 19th century were informed immediately and the books were recalled.
  • The Stabsstelle Arbeits-, Gesundheits- u. Umweltschutz (AGUS) has prepared a risk assessment and drawn up guidelines for handling books that may be contaminated with arsenic.

What happens next

  • The books in the open stacks are successively removed, initially stored and then checked for actual contamination at a later date. Uncontaminated books are then returned to the open stacks.
  • Regulations for the use of books that may be contaminated with arsenic are to be developed, taking health protection into account, in order to keep these works accessible for research, teaching and study as far as possible.

Regulations and recommendations on health protection

Important: We do not know how many of the 60,000 volumes are actually affected, probably less than 10 per cent. Please take care not to remove old books from the shelves. First check the catalogue to see if the book is blocked.

It is safe to spend time in the library and no protective measures are required.

Books from the publication period 1800-1900 that may be contaminated with arsenic should not be used. However, if handling these books is unavoidable, e.g. because currently borrowed books have to be returned, these protective measures must be observed:

  • Before using the books, wear an FFP2 mask and disposable gloves.
  • After using the books, clean the work surface with disposable wipes.
  • Then dispose of the mask, gloves and wipes in the residual waste.
  • When using books outside the library reading rooms: ventilate the room well.

Young people, pregnant women and nursing mothers must not handle books potentially contaminated with arsenic.

Employees of Bielefeld University who have had intensive contact with potentially affected books are recommended to consult the company doctor. Preventive care can be taken advantage of in order to obtain clarity about possible exposure and, if necessary, to minimise damage through early detection. This option is also available to students at Bielefeld University. Library users without university affiliation should contact their family doctor if necessary.


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