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If you were painted gold, as in the movie “Goldfinger,” would you die?

Dear Cecil:

Remember the rumors that circulated when Goldfinger first came out? Well, we do, and we'd like to know if they have in any basis in fact: if your skin is covered with gold paint (or any other color paint, for that matter), will you die as a direct or indirect result? Why?

Columbia, Jackson Park, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

As I recall, the consensus at the time the movie appeared was that you would die of asphyxiation somehow. There was a notion abroad in those days that you breathed through your skin. Well, science–or at least the popular understanding of it–has made mighty strides since those early years, and it is now known that you do not breathe through your skin. You breathe through your mouth and nose. So much for the asphyxiation theory.

Nonetheless it’s true that if someone gilded you, you would very likely die. However, death would result from what amounts to an extreme case of heatstroke. Paint would clog the pores, thus preventing perspiration and ruining the body’s principal means of heat regulation. You’d develop a high fever, and after a few days of unbearable suffering you would expire. Lead or other toxic substances in the paint might contribute to your demise.

I might mention that anyone contemplating a death of this type should take care to coat the subject as completely as possible, since partial coverage will result only in an increased rate of perspiration across the unoccluded surfaces. Particular attention should be paid to the palms, armpits, and the soles of the feet, which contain a great number of sweat glands. Call me Mr. Unimaginative, but I think it’d be easier just to hit the guy over the head with a rock.

Cecil Adams

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