The use of arsenic in the preservation of biological specimens was common practice prior to 1970. Because the Naturalis Center for Biodiversity (Naturalis) has extensive collections from before 1950, it was suspected that it held many contaminated specimens. In 2013, Naturalis tested 220 objects for the presence of arsenic over a period of 2 days using a handheld x-ray fluorescence analyzer, which detects arsenic, lead, mercury, and some other metals on objects. This testing provides an estimate of the prevalence of contaminated specimens, as well as a way to determine whether arsenic had spread into noncollection areas. In addition to specimens, floors, desks, keyboards, gloves, elevators, and lab coats were tested for arsenic presence and quantity. The results indicate that mounted specimens do not spread large amounts of arsenic onto the surrounding areas. However, there was sufficient contamination to warrant concern such that the arsenic-handling policy was modified to include different categories of contamination. From this framework, policy and physical changes to the building were made to minimize exposure by collections staff and visitors.

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Author notes

Associate Editor.—Christine A. Johnson