Illustration of Charles Léandre for the book Madame Bovary by Flaubert, engraved by aqua fortis in color by Eugène Decisy. Illustration page 295 : Le pauvre diable

We can all recall Miss Bovary’s painful awareness, combined with the facing of great disillusionment, when she had to confront an idealistic vision transmitted through fictional books with the reality of the 19th century. One scene in particular seems to reveal the tragic incompatibility of her life with her hopes: her painful death following the intake of arsenic trioxide (As2O3), this white powder stored at the excluded pharmacist in order to produce rat poison. This product is also used as a raw material to manufacture arsenic derivatives, like for instance arsenic acid (H3AsO4). Flaubert, apart from the stylistic revolution he set off with this work in particular, was not the only one to incorporate arsenic derivatives in his novels. Mauriac in his novel “Thérèse Desqueyroux” also made use of arsenic, when the heroin empoisoned her husband with high doses of a Flower’s solution (KH2AsO4). This solution was originally used in order to treat various disorders, but was banned in the middle of the 19th century due to its carcinogenic side effects.

Despite these murky usages, a research conducted in 2008 by Wolfe-Simon showed that a specific bacteria was surviving in the Mono Lake (USA), at seasonal intervals, using arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA. Following this discovery, she published an article under the provocative title “Did nature choose arsenic?”. Thenceforth we may question the veritable difference between the impact of phosphorus and arsenic on biological life; and here may exist divergence opinions between literature and science. At this point it is important to recall that phosphorus is considered as an essential element for any form of life on earth, and even though inorganic arsenic shared with phosphorus some common chemical properties, among them the size and the electronegativity, arsenic remains a toxic element (classified D1A, D2A by the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System). A study form Dr. Sung-Woo Park enabled us to understand some differences between phosphate and arsenate, by interacting a water molecule, an alkaline metal cation with arsenic acid (H3AsO4) or with phosphoric acid (H3PO4). For further information, you can read the article by clicking on the following link. (See Sung Woo Park, et al. (2011). « Comparison of Arsenic Acid with Phosphoric Acid in the Interaction with a Water Molecule and an Alkali/Alkaline-Earth Metal Cation »(

In order to create phosphoric acid, Febex is using a so-called thermal process, in opposition to the wet process (phosphate rocks mixed with sulfuric acid). The first one enables Febex to produce high-purity phosphoric acid, way superior to the resulting product obtained by the second process. Despite this superior quality, the manufactured product will have to be treated in order to eliminate the traces of arsenic. Indeed, some applications require the elimination of this substance; like for instance phosphoric acid at a food grade. In conclusion, even though arsenic can be used by microorganisms in order to survive, this chemical element remains dangerous for more complex biological structures, and can so effectively be phased out by the purification installation of Febex.