Join Date: Jun 2006
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Thanks for your interest! Seven of the blades had much lower levels, ie less than 0.1mg/L (which was the smallest amount discernable on the test's reference colour scale, although all of the tests showed some colour change, ie greater than 0.0mg/L). Because the colour scale is logarithmic (0, 0.1, 0.5, 1.0 etc) it's hard to be precise about the exact quantity of arsenic in each solution when the colour of the test strip doesn't exactly correspond to a colour on the chart; it's safer to just say 'under 0.1mg/L'.
The process for preparing the sample was to collect a solid sample from the surface of the blade (under the microscope), usually from within the crevice between the gonjo and the blade or in the deeper parts of the ricikan, and allow this to soak in water for 30 mins-1 hr. In a couple of cases the surface was too uniform and so a small area would be swabbed with water and the swab allowed to soak. I also tested swabbing and solubilising with ethanol, in the cases where old coatings of oil may have interefered with the solubility of the sample in water. With such a small sample size, I'm not sure how valuable an average is, but I'd say it's about 0.1 mg/L.
While it's true that a much larger dose is required to be instantly fatal, there's a lot of grey area in between being well and being dead! Arsenic can affect health in the short term (nausea, diarrhea, skin problems) and long term (problems with skin, gastrointestinal tract, nervous system, mucous membranes, lungs, and liver). Long term exposure has been linked to cancer.
As I mentioned, it would have to be pretty unlikely for a person handling one of the two keris with the strong positive results to absorb enough arsenic to be a concern, however I think it's better that staff be aware of the potential hazard and perhaps just be that little bit more careful when handling them.
On one of the blades there was a powdery residue on the surface which was easily dislodged. If, for example, a conservator was to brush clean this (thinking it was dust) and breathed it in, it might be enough to make them crook. Most staff would be wearing gloves anyway when handling metal objects, and I don't think there'd be much licking going on, so this is the only way I can think of where it might be a concern.
I don't know if this is going to change your mind about the way you handle your own keris, and I don't know that it necessarily should; I do think though that staff working in public museums should be aware of potential risks, no matter how slight, when handling objects they perhaps have no prior knowledge of.
I hope this has answered all your questions!