What is Water? The Element that Became a Compound

November 2018 marks the 235th anniversary of the day when Antoine Lavoisier proved water to be a compound, rather than an element.

I’m a few days late at the time of writing, but November 12th 2018 was the 235th anniversary of an important discovery. It was the day, in 1783, that Antoine Lavoisier formally declared water to be a compound, not an element.

235 years seems like an awfully long time, probably so long ago that no one knew anything very much. Practically still eye of newt, tongue of bat and leeches for everyone, right? Well, not quite. In fact, there was some nifty science and engineering going on at the time. It was the year that Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent made the first untethered hot air balloon flight, for example. And chemistry was moving on swiftly: lots of elements had been isolated, including oxygen (1771, by Carl Wilhelm Scheele) and hydrogen (officially by Henry Cavendish in 1766, although others had observed it before he did).

Cavendish had reported that hydrogen produced water when it reacted with oxygen (known then as inflammable air and dephlogisticated air, respectively), and others had carried out similar experiments. However, at the time most chemists favoured phlogiston theory (hence the names) and tried to interpret and explain their results accordingly. Phlogiston theory was the idea that anything which burned contained a fire-like element called phlogiston, which was then “lost” when the substance burned and became “dephlogisticated”.

Cavendish, in particular, explained the fact that inflammable air (hydrogen) left droplets of “dew” behind when it burned in “common air” (the stuff in the room) in terms of phlogiston, by suggesting that water was present in each of the two airs before ignition.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier proved that water was a compound. (Line engraving by Louis Jean Desire Delaistre, after a design by Julien Leopold Boilly.)

Lavoisier was very much against phlogiston theory. He carried out experiments in closed vessels with enormous precision, going to great lengths to prove that many substances actually became heavier when they burned and not, as phlogiston theory would have it, lighter. In fact, it’s Lavoisier we have to thank for the names “hydrogen” and “oxygen”. Hydrogen is Greek for “water-former”, whilst oxygen means “acid former”.

When, in June 1783, Lavoisier found out about Cavendish’s experiment he immediately reacted oxygen with hydrogen to produce “water in a very pure state” and prove that the mass of the water which formed was equal to the combined masses of the hydrogen and oxygen he started with.

He then went on to decompose water into oxygen and hydrogen by heating a mixture of water and iron filings. The oxygen that formed combined with the iron to form iron oxide, and he collected the hydrogen gas over mercury. Thanks to his careful measurements, Lavoisier was able to demonstrate that the increased mass of the iron filings plus the mass of the collected gas was, again, equal to the mass of the water he had started with.

Water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, with the formula H2O.

There were still arguments, of course (there always are), but phlogiston theory was essentially doomed. Water was a compound, made of two elements, and the process of combustion was nothing more mysterious than elements combining in different ways.

As an aside, Scottish chemist Elizabeth Fulhame deserves a mention at this point. Just a few years after Lavoisier she went on to demonstrate through experiment that many oxidation reactions occur only in the presence of water, but the water is regenerated at the end of the reaction. She is credited today as the chemist who invented the concept of catalysis. (Which is a pretty important concept in chemistry, and yet her name never seems to come up…)

Anyway, proving water’s composition becomes a lot simpler when you have a ready supply of electricity. The first scientist to formally demonstrate this was William Nicholson, in 1800. He discovered that when leads from a battery are placed in water, the water breaks up to form hydrogen and oxygen bubbles, which can be collected separately at the submerged ends of the wires. This is the process we now know as electrolysis.

You can easily carry out the electrolysis of water at home.

In fact, this is a really easy (and safe, I promise!) experiment to do yourself, at home. I did it myself, using an empty TicTac box, two drawing pins, a 9V battery and a bit of baking soda (sodium hydrogencarbonate) dissolved in water – you need this because water on its own is a poor conductor.

The drawing pins are pushed through the bottom of the plastic box, the box is filled with the solution, and then it’s balanced on the terminals of the battery. I’ve used some small test tubes here to collect the gases, but you’ll be able to see the bubbles without them.

Bubbles start to appear immediately. I left mine for about an hour and a half, at which point the test tube on the negative terminal (the cathode) was completely full of gas, which produced a very satisfying squeaky pop when I placed it over a flame.

The positive electrode (the anode) ended up completely covered in what I’m pretty sure is a precipitate of iron hydroxide (the drawing pins presumably being plated steel), which meant that very little oxygen was produced after the first couple of minutes. This is why in proper electrolysis experiments inert graphite or, even better, platinum, electrodes are used. If you do that, you’ll get a 1:2 ratio by volume of oxygen to hydrogen, thus proving water’s formula (H2O) as well.

So there we have it: water is a compound, and not an element. And if you’d like to amuse everyone around the Christmas dinner table, you can prove it with a 9V battery and some drawing pins. Just don’t nick the battery out of your little brother’s favourite toy, okay? (Or, if you do, don’t tell him it was my idea.)


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Marvellous Mushroom Science

Glistening ink caps produce a dark, inky substance.

Yesterday I had the fantastic experience of a “fungi forage” with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild, organised by Incredible Edible Oxford. There are few nicer things than wandering around beautiful Oxfordshire park- and woodland on a sunny October day, but Dave is also an incredibly knowledgeable guide. I’ve always thought mushrooms and fungi were interesting – living organisms that are neither plants nor animals and which we rely on for everything from antibiotics to soy sauce – but I had lots to learn.

Did you know, for example, that fungi form some of the largest living organisms on our planet? And that without them most of our green plants wouldn’t have evolved and probably wouldn’t be here today?

And from a practical point of view, what about the fact that people once used certain fungi to light fires? I’ve always imagined fungi as being quite wet things with a high water content (unless they’re deliberately dried, of course), but some are naturally very dry. Ötzi, the mummified man thought to have lived between 3400and 3100 BCE, was found with two types of fungus on him: birch fungus, which has antiparasitic properties, and a type of tinder fungus which can be ignited with a single spark and will smolder for days.

Coprine causes unpleasant symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, when consumed with alcohol.

Then, of course, there’s all the interesting chemistry. Early on in the day, we came across some glistening ink caps.The gills of these disintegrate to produce a black, inky liquid which contains a form of melanin and can be used as ink. And there’s more to this story: as I’ve already mentioned, fungi are not plants and they can’t photosynthesise, but it seems that some fungi do use melanin to harness gamma rays as energy for growth. Extra mushrooms for the Hulk’s breakfast, then?

Moving away from pigments for a moment, a related species to the glistening ink cap, the common ink cap, contains a chemical called coprine. This causes lots of unpleasant symptoms if it’s consumed with alcohol, similar to Disulfiram, the drug used to treat alcoholism. For this reason one of this mushroom’s other names is tippler’s bane. The coprine in the mushrooms effectively causes an instant hangover by accelerating the formation of acetaldehyde (also known as ethanal) from alcohol. Definitely don’t pair that mushroom omelette with a nice bottle of red and, worse, you’ll need to stay off the booze for a while: apparently the effects can linger for a full three days.

Yellow stainer mushrooms look like field mushrooms, but are poisonous.

We also came across some yellow stainer mushrooms. These look a lot like field mushrooms, but be careful – they aren’t edible. They cause nasty gastric sympoms and are reportedly responsible for most cases of mushroom poisoning in this country, although some people seem to be able to eat them without ill effect. They had a slightly chemically scent that reminded me “new trainer” smell – sort of rubbery and plasticky. It’s often described as phenolic, but I have to say I didn’t detect that myself – although yellow stainers have been shown to contain phenol and this could account for their poisonous nature. Anyway, it was an aroma that wouldn’t be entirely unpleasant if I were opening a new shoebox, but it wasn’t something I’d really want to eat. Apparently the smell gets stronger as you cook them, so don’t ignore what your nose is telling you if you think you have a nice pan of field mushrooms.

4,4′-Dimethoxyazobenzene is an azo dye.

The real giveaway with yellow stainers, though, is their tendency to turn yellow when bruised or scratched, hence the name. This, it seems, is due to 4,4′-dimethoxyazobenzene. The name might not be familiar, but A-level Chemistry students will recognise the structure: it’s an azo-dye. Quite apart from being a very useful word in Scrabble, azo compounds are well-known for their characteristic orange/yellow colours. It’s not really clear whether it forms in the mushroom due to some sort of oxidation reaction, or whether it’s in the cells anyway but only becomes visible when the cells are damaged. Either way, it’s something to look out for if you spot a patch of what look like field mushrooms.

The blushing wood mushroom.

We also came across several species which are safe to eat. One I might look out for in future is the blushing wood mushroom. As is often the way with fungi, the name is literal rather than merely poetic. These mushrooms have a light brown cap, beige gills, and a pale stem, but they turn bright red when cut or scratched due to the formation of an ortho-quinone. It’s quite a dramatic colour-change, and makes them pretty easy to identify. Apparently they’re normally uncommon here, but we found quite a lot of them, which might be something to do with this year’s unusally hot and dry summer.

Red ortho-quinone causes blushing wood mushrooms to literally blush.

I tried to find out the reasons for these colour-changes. In the plant and animal kingdoms pigments are usually there for good reason: camouflage, signalling and communication or, as with chlorophyll, as a way of making other substances. Fruits, for example, often turn bright red as they ripen because it makes them stand out from the green foilage and encourages animals to eat them so that the seeds can be spread. Likewise, they’re green when they’re unripe because it makes them less obvious and less appealing. But what’s the advantage for the mushroom to change colour once it’s already damaged? Perhaps there isn’t one, and it’s just an accident of their biology, but if so it seems strange that it’s a feature of several species. I couldn’t find the answer; if any mycologists are reading this and know, get in touch!

Velvet shank mushrooms.

Other edible species we met were fairy ring champignons, field blewits and jelly ear fungus – which literally looks like a sort of transparent ear. I’ll definitely be looking out for all of these in the future, but it’s important to watch out for dangerous lookalikes. Funeral bell mushrooms, for example, look like the velvet shank mushrooms we found but, once again, the name is quite literal – funeral bells contain amatoxins and eating them can cause kidney and liver failure. As Dave was keen to remind us: never eat anything you can’t confidently name!


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A tale of chemistry, biochemistry, physics and astronomy – and shiny, silver balls

A new school term has started here, and for me this year that’s meant more chemistry experiments – hurrah!

Okay, actually round-bottomed flasks

The other day it was time for the famous Tollens’ reaction. For those that don’t know, this involves a mixture of silver nitrate, sodium hydroxide and ammonia (which has to be freshly made every time as it doesn’t keep). Combine this concoction with an aldehyde in a glass container and warm it up a bit and it forms a beautiful silver layer on the glass. Check out my lovely silver balls!

This reaction is handy for chemists because the silver mirror only appears with aldehydes and not with other, similar molecules (such as ketones). It works because aldehydes are readily oxidised or, looking at it the other way round, the silver ions (Ag+) are readily reduced by the aldehyde to form silver metal (Ag) – check out this Compound Interest graphic for a bit more detail.

But this is not just the story of an interesting little experiment for chemists. No, this is a story of chemistry, biochemistry, physics, astronomy, and artisan glass bauble producers. Ready? Let’s get started!

Bernhard Tollens (click for link to image source)

The reaction is named after Bernhard Tollens, a German chemist who was born in the mid-19th century. It’s one of those odd situations where everyone – well, everyone who’s studied A level Chemistry anyway – knows the name, but hardly anyone seems to have any idea who the person was.

Tollens went to school in Hamburg, Germany, and his science teacher was Karl Möbius. No, not the Möbius strip inventor (that was August Möbius): Karl Möbius was a zoologist and a pioneer in the field of ecology. He must have inspired the young Tollens to pursue a scientific career, because after he graduated Tollens first completed an apprenticeship at a pharmacy before going on to study chemistry at Friedrich Wöhler’s laboratory in Göttingen. If Wöhler’s name seems familiar it’s because he was the co-discoverer of  beryllium and silicon – without which the electronics I’m using to write this article probably wouldn’t exist.

After he obtained his PhD Tollens worked at a bronze factory, but it wasn’t long before he left to begin working with none other than Emil Erlenmeyer – yes, he of the Erlenmeyer flask, otherwise known as… the conical flask. (I’ve finally managed to get around to mentioning the piece of glassware from which this blog takes its name!)

It seems though that Tollens had itchy feet, as he didn’t stay with Erlenmeyer for long, either. He worked in Paris and Portugal before eventually returning to Göttingen in 1872 to work on carbohydrates, going on to discover the structures of several sugars.

Table sugar is sucrose, which doesn’t produce a silver mirror with Tollens’ reagent

As readers of this blog will know, the term “sugar” often gets horribly misused by, well, almost everyone. It’s a broad term which very generally refers to carbon-based molecules containing groups of O-H and C=O atoms. Most significant to this story are the sugars called monosaccharides and disaccharides. The two most famous monosaccharides are fructose, or “fruit sugar”, and glucose. On the other hand sucrose, or “table sugar”, is a disaccharide.

All of the monosaccharides will produce a positive result with Tollens’ reagent (even when their structures don’t appear to contain an aldehyde group – this gets a bit complicated but check out this link if you’re interested). However, sucrose does not. Which means that Tollens’ reagent is quick and easy test that can be used to distinguish between glucose and sucrose.

Laboratory Dewar flask with silver mirror surface

And it’s not just useful for identifying sugars. Tollens’ reagent, or a variant of it, can also be used to create a high-quality mirror surface. Until the 1900s, if you wanted to make a mirror you had to apply a thin foil of an alloy – called “tain” – to the back of a piece of glass. It’s difficult to get a really good finish with this method, especially if you’re trying to create a mirror on anything other than a perfectly flat surface. If you wanted a mirrored flask, say to reduce heat radiation, this was tricky. Plus it required quite a lot of silver, which was expensive and made the finished item quite heavy.

Which was why the German chemist Justus von Liebig (yep, the one behind the Liebig condenser) developed a process for depositing a thin layer of pure silver on glass in 1835. After some tweaking and refining this was perfected into a method which bears a lot of resemblance to the Tollens’ reaction: a diamminesilver(I) solution is mixed with glucose and sprayed onto the surface of the glass, where the silver ions are reduced to elemental silver. This process ticked a lot of boxes: not only did it produce a high-quality finish, but it also used such a tiny quantity of silver that it was really cheap.

And it turned out to be useful for more than just laboratory glassware. The German astronomer Carl August von Steinheil and French doctor Leon Foucault soon began to use it to make telescope mirrors: for the first time astronomers had cheap, lightweight mirrors that reflected far more light than their old mirrors had ever done.

People also noticed how pretty the effect was: German artisans began to make Christmas tree decorations by pouring silver nitrate into glass spheres, followed by ammonia and finally a glucose solution – producing beautiful silver baubles which were exported all over the world, including to Britain.

These days, silvering is done by vacuum deposition, which produces an even more perfect surface, but you just can’t beat the magic of watching the inside of a test tube or a flask turning into a beautiful, shiny mirror.

Speaking of which, according to @MaChemGuy on Twitter, this is the perfect, foolproof, silver mirror method:
° Place 5 cm³ 0.1 mol dm⁻³ AgNO₃(aq) in a test tube.
° Add concentrated NH₃ dropwise untill the precipitate dissolves. (About 3 drops.)
° Add a spatula of glucose and dissolve.
° Plunge test-tube into freshly boiled water.

Silver nitrate stains the skin – wear gloves!

One word of warning: be careful with the silver nitrate and wear gloves. Else, like me, you might end up with brown stains on your hands that are still there three days later…


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Carbon dioxide: the good, the bad, and the future

Carbon dioxide is a small molecule with the structure O=C=O

Carbon dioxide has been in and out of the news this summer for one reason or another, but why? Is this stuff helpful, or heinous?

It’s certainly a significant part of our history. Let’s take that history to its literal limits and start at the very beginning. To quote the great Terry Pratchett: “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.”

(Probably.) This happened around 13.8 billion years ago. Afterwards, stuff flew around for a while (forgive me, cosmologists). Then, about 4.5 billion years ago, the Earth formed out of debris that had collected around our Sun. Temperatures on this early Earth were extremely hot, there was a lot of volcanic activity, and there might have been some liquid water. The atmosphere was mostly hydrogen and helium.

The early Earth was bashed about by other space stuff, and one big collision almost certainly resulted in the formation of the Moon. A lot of other debris vaporised on impact releasing gases, and substances trapped within the Earth started to escape from its crust. The result was Earth’s so-called second atmosphere.

ttps://nai.nasa.gov/articles/2018/6/5/habitability-of-the-young-earth-could-boost-the-chances-of-life-elsewhere/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> An artist’s concept of the early Earth. Image credit: NASA. (Click image for more.)

[/caption]This is where carbon dioxide enters stage left… er… stage under? Anyway, it was there, right at this early point, along with water vapor, nitrogen, and smaller amounts of other gases. (Note, no oxygen, that is, O2. Significant amounts of that didn’t turn up for another 1.7 billion years, or 2.8 billion years ago.) In fact, carbon dioxide wasn’t just there, it made up most of Earth’s atmosphere, probably not so different from Mars’s atmosphere today.

The point being that carbon dioxide is not a new phenomenon. It is, in fact, the very definition of an old phenomenon. It’s been around, well, pretty much forever. And so has the greenhouse effect. The early Earth was hot. Really hot. Possibly 200 oC or so, because these atmospheric gases trapped the Sun’s heat. Over time, lots and lots of time, the carbon dioxide levels reduced as it became trapped in carbonate rocks, dissolved in the oceans and was utilised by lifeforms for photosynthesis.

Fast-forward a few billion years to the beginning of the twentieth century and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were about 300 ppm (0.03%), tiny compared to oxygen (about 20%) and nitrogen (about 78%).

Chemists and carbon dioxide

Jan Baptist van Helmontge-2795″ src=”https://thechronicleflask.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/jan_baptista_van_helmont.jpg?w=300″ alt=”” width=”200″ height=”181″ /> Flemish chemist discovered that if he burned charcoal in a closed vessel, the mass of the resulting ash was much less than that of the original charcoal.

Let’s[/caption]Let’s pause there for a moment and have a little look at some human endeavours. In about 1640 Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont discovered that if he burned charcoal in a closed vessel, the mass of the resulting ash was much less than that of the original charcoal. He had no way of knowing, then, that he had formed and collected carbon dioxide gas, but he speculated that some of the charcoal had been transmuted into spiritus sylvestris, or “wild spirit”.

In 1754 Scottish chemist Joseph Black noticed that heating calcium carbonate, aka limestone, produced a gas which was heavier than air and which could “not sustain fire or animal life”. He called it “fixed air”, and he’s often credited with carbon dioxide’s discovery, although arguably van Helmont got there first. Black was also the first person to come up with the “limewater test“, where carbon dioxide is bubbled through a solution of calcium hydroxide. He used the test to demonstrate that carbon dioxide was produced by respiration, an experiment still carried out in schools more than 250 years later to show that the air we breathe out contains more carbon dioxide than the air we breathe in.

In 1772 that most famous of English chemists, Joseph Priestley, experimented with dripping sulfuric acid (or vitriolic acid, as he knew it) on chalk to produce a gas which could be dissolved in water. Priestley is often credited with the invention of soda water as a result (more on this in a bit), although physician Dr William Brownrigg probably discovered carbonated water earlier – but he never published his work.

In the late 1700s carbon dioxide became more widely known as “carbonic acid gas”, as seen in this article dated 1853. In 1823 Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday manged to produce liquified carbon dioxide at high pressures. Adrien-Jean-Pierre Thilorier was the first to describe solid carbon dioxide, in 1835. The name carbon dioxide was first used around 1869, when the term “dioxide” came into use.

com/P/Priestley_Joseph/PriestleyJoseph-MakingCarbonatedWater1772.htm” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> A diagram from Priestly’s letter: “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air”. Printed for J. Johnson, No. 72, in St. Pauls Church-Yard, 1772. (Click image for paper)

Back to Priestle

[/caption]Back to Priestley for a moment. In the late 1800s, a glass of volcanic spring water was a common treatment for digestive problems and general ailments. But what if you didn’t happen to live near a volcanic spring? Joseph Black, you’ll remember, had established that CO2 was produced by living organisms, so it occurred to Priestly that perhaps he could hang a vessel of water over a fermentation vat at a brewery and collect the gas that way.

But it wasn’t very efficient. As Priestly himself said, “the surface of the fixed air is exposed to the common air, and is considerably mixed with it, [and] water will not imbibe so much of it by the process above described.”

It was then that he tried his experiment with vitriolic acid, which allowed for much greater control over the carbonation process. Priestly proposed that the resulting “water impregnated with fixed air” might have a number of medical applications. In particular, perhaps because the water had an acidic taste in a similar way that lemon-infused water does, he thought it might be an effective treatment for scurvy. Legend has it that he gave the method to Captain Cook for his second voyage to the Pacific for this reason. It wouldn’t have helped of course, but it does mean that Cook and his crew were some of the first people to produce carbonated water for the express purpose of drinking a fizzy drink.

Refreshing fizz

You will have noticed that, despite all his work, there is no fizzy drink brand named Priestly (at least, not that I know of).

Joseph Priestley is credited with developing the first method for making carbonated water.

But there is one called Schweppes. That’s because a German watchmaker named Johann Jacob Schweppe spotted Priestley’s paper and worked out a simpler, more efficient process, using sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid. He went on to found the Schweppes Company in Geneva in 1783.

Today, carbonated drinks are made a little differently. You may have heard about carbon dioxide shortages this summer in the U.K. These arose because these days carbon dioxide is actually collected as a by-product of other processes. In fact, after several bits of quite simple chemistry that add up to a really elegant sequence.

From fertiliser to fizzy drinks

It all begins, or more accurately ends, with ammonia fertiliser. As any GCSE science student who’s been even half paying attention can tell you, ammonia is made by reacting hydrogen with nitrogen during the Haber process. Nitrogen is easy to get hold of – as I’ve already said it makes up nearly 80% of our atmosphere – but hydrogen has to be made from hydrocarbons. Usually natural gas, or methane.

This involves another well-known process, called steam reforming, in which steam is reacted with methane at high temperatures in the presence of a nickel catalyst. This produces carbon monoxide, a highly toxic gas. But no problem! React that carbon monoxide with more water in the presence of a slightly different catalyst and you get even more hydrogen. And some carbon dioxide.

Fear not, nothing is wasted here! The CO2 is captured and liquified for all sorts of food-related and industrial uses, not least of which is fizzy drinks. This works well for all concerned because steam reforming produces large amounts of pure carbon dioxide. If you’re going to add it to food and drinks after all, you wouldn’t want a product contaminated with other gases.

Carbon dioxide is a by-product of fertiliser manufacture.

We ended up with a problem this summer in the U.K. because ammonia production plants operate on a schedule which is linked to the planting season. Farmers don’t usually apply fertiliser in the summer – when they’re either harvesting or about to harvest crops – so many ammonia plants shut down for maintenance in April, May, and June. This naturally leads to reduction in the amount of available carbon dioxide, but it’s not normally a problem because the downtime is relatively short and enough is produced the rest of year to keep manufacturers supplied.

This year, though, natural-gas prices were higher, while the price of ammonia stayed roughly the same. This meant that ammonia plants were in no great hurry to reopen, and that meant many didn’t start supplying carbon dioxide in July, just when a huge heatwave hit the UK, coinciding with the World Cup football (which tends to generate a big demand for fizzy pop, for some reason).

Which brings us back to our atmosphere…

Carbon dioxide calamity?

Isn’t there, you may be thinking, too much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere? In fact, that heatwave you just mentioned, wasn’t that a global warming thing?  Can’t we just… extract carbon dioxide from our air and solve everyone’s problems? Well, yes and no. Remember earlier when I said that at the beginning of the twentieth century and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were about 300 ppm (0.03%)?

Over the last hundred years atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased from 0.03% to 0.04%

Today, a little over 100 years later, levels are about 0.04%. This is a significant increase in a relatively short period of time, but it’s still only a tiny fraction of our atmosphere (an important tiny fraction nonetheless – we’ll get to that in a minute).

It is possible to distill gases from our air by cooling air down until it liquefies and then separating the different components by their boiling points. For example Nitrogen, N2, boils at a chilly -196 oC whereas oxygen, O2, boils at a mere 183 oC.

But there’s a problem: CO2 doesn’t have a liquid state at standard pressures. It forms a solid, which sublimes directly into a gas. For this reason carbon dioxide is usually removed from cryogenic distillation mixtures, because it would freeze solid and plug up the equipment. There are other ways to extract carbon dioxide from air but although they have important applications (keep reading) they’re not practical ways to produce large volumes of the gas for the food and drink industries.

Back to the environment for a moment: why is that teeny 0.04% causing us such headaches? How can a mere 400 CO2 molecules bouncing around with a million other molecules cause such huge problems?

For that, I need to take a little diversion to talk about infrared radiation, or IR.

Infrared radiation was first discovered by the astronomer William Herschel in 1800. He was trying to observe sun spots when he noticed that his red filter seemed to get particularly hot. In what I’ve always thought was a rather amazing intuitive leap, he then passed sunlight through a prism to split it, held a thermometer just beyond the red light that he could see with his eyes, and discovered that the thermometer showed a higher temperature than when placed in the visible spectrum.

He concluded that there must be an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum, and indeed there is: infrared light. It turns out that slightly more than half of the total energy from the Sun arrives on Earth in the form of infrared radiation.

What has this got to do with carbon dioxide? It turns out that carbon dioxide, or rather the double bonds O=C=O, absorb a lot of infrared radiation. By contrast, oxygen and nitrogen, which make up well over 90% of Earth’s atmosphere, don’t absorb infrared.

CO2 molecules also re-emit IR but, having bounced around a bit, not necessarily in the same direction and – and this is the reason that tiny amounts of carbon dioxide cause not so tiny problems – they transfer energy to other molecules in the atmosphere in the process. Think of each CO2 molecule as a drunkard stumbling through a pub, knocking over people’s pints and causing a huge bar brawl. A single disruptive individual can, indirectly, cause a lot of others to find themselves bruised and bleeding and wondering what the hell just happened.

Like carbon dioxide, water vapour also absorbs infrared, but it has a relatively short lifetime in our atmosphere.

Water vapor becomes important here too, because while O2 and N2 don’t absorb infrared, water vapour does. Water vapour has a relatively short lifetime in our atmosphere (about ten days compared to a decade for carbon dioxide) so its overall warming effect is less. Except that once carbon dioxide is thrown into the mix it transfers extra heat to the water, keeping it vapour (rather than, say, precipitating as rain) for longer and pushing up the temperature of the system even more.

Basically, carbon dioxide molecules trap heat near the planet’s surface. This is why carbon dioxide is described as a greenhouse gas and increasing levels are causing global warming. There are people who are still arguing this isn’t the case, but truly, they’ve got the wrong end of the (hockey) stick.

It’s not even a new concept. Over 100 years ago, in 1912, a short piece was published in the Rodney and Otamatea Times which said: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about  7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature.”

This summer has seen record high temperatures and some scientists have been warning of a “Hothouse Earth” scenario.

This 1912 piece suggested we might start to see effects in “centuries”. In fact, we’re seeing the results now. As I mentioned earlier, this summer has seen record high temperatures and some scientists have been warning of “Hothouse Earth” scenario, where rising temperatures cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. The authors stressed it’s not inevitable, but preventing it will require a collective effort. They even published a companion document which included several possible solutions which, oddly enough, garnered rather fewer column inches than the “we’re all going to die” angle.

Don’t despair, DO something…

But I’m going to mention it, because it brings us back to CO2. There’s too much of it in our atmosphere. How can we deal with that? It’s simple really: first, stop adding more, i.e. stop burning fossil fuels. We have other technologies for producing energy. The reason we’re still stuck on fossil fuels at this stage is politics and money, and even the most obese of the fat cats are starting to realise that money isn’t much use if you don’t have a habitable planet. Well, most of them. (There’s probably no hope for some people, but we can at least hope that their damage-doing days are limited.)

There are some other, perhaps less obvious, sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that might also be reduced, such as livestock, cement for building materials and general waste.

Forrests trap carbon dioxide in land carbon sinks. More biodiverse systems generally store more carbon.

And then, we’re back to taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere. How? Halting deforestation would allow more CO2 to be trapped in so-called land carbon sinks. Likewise, good agricultural soil management helps to trap carbon underground. More biodiverse systems generally store more carbon, so if we could try to stop wiping out land and coastal systems, that would be groovy too. Finally, there’s the technological solution: carbon capture and storage, or CSS.

This, in essence, involves removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in geological formations. The same thing the Earth has done for millenia, but more quickly. It can also be linked to bio-energy production in a process known as BECCS. It sounds like the perfect solution, but right now it’s energy intensive and expensive, and there are concerns that BECCS projects could end up competing with agriculture and damaging conservation efforts.

A new answer from an ancient substance?

Forming magnesite, or magnesium carbonate, may be one way to trap carbon dioxide.

Some brand new research might offer yet another solution. It’s another carbon-capture technology which involves magnesium carbonate, or magnesite (MgCO3). Magnesite forms slowly on the Earth’s surface, over hundreds of thousands of years, trapping carbon dioxide in its structure as it does.

It can easily be made quickly at high temperatures, but of course if you have to heat things up, you need energy, which might end up putting as much CO2 back in as you’re managing to take out. Recently a team of researchers at Trent University in Canada have found a way to form magnesite quickly at room temperature using polystyrene microspheres.

This isn’t something which would make much difference if, say, you covered the roof of everyone’s house with the microspheres, but it could be used in fuel-burning power generators (which could be burning renewables or even waste materials) to effectively scrub the carbon dioxide from their emissions. That technology on its own would make a huge difference.

And so here we are. Carbon dioxide is one of the oldest substances there is, as “natural” as they come. From breathing to fizzy drinks to our climate, it’s entwined in every aspect of our everyday existence. It is both friend and foe. Will we work out ways to save ourselves from too much of it in our atmosphere? Personally, I’m optimistic, so long as we support scientists and engineers rather than fight them…


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No need for slime panic: it’s not going to poison anyone

This is one of my favourite photos, so I’m using it again.

The school summer holidays are fast approaching and, for some reason, this always seems to get people talking about slime. Whether it’s because it’s a fun end-of-term activity, or it’s an easy bit of science for kids to do at home, or a bit of both, the summer months seem to love slimy stories. In fact, I wrote a piece about it myself in August 2017.

Which (hoho) brings me to the consumer group Which? because, on 17th July this year, they posted an article with the headline: “Children’s toy slime on sale with up to four times EU safety limit of potentially unsafe chemical” and the sub-heading: “Eight out of 11 popular children’s slimes we tested failed safety testing.”

The article is illustrated with lots of pots of colourful commercial slime pots with equally colourful names like Jupiter Juice. It says that, “exposure to excessive levels of boron could cause irritation, diarrhoea, vomiting and cramps in the short term,” and goes on to talk about possible risks of birth defects and developmental delays. Yikes. Apparently the retailer Amazon has removed several slime toys from sale since Which? got on the case.

The piece was, as you might expect, picked up by practically every news outlet there is, and within hours the internet was full of headlines warning of the dire consequences of handling multicoloured gloopy stuff.

Before I go any further, here’s a quick reminder: most slime is made by taking polyvinyl alcohol (PVA – the white glue stuff) and adding a borax solution, aka sodium tetraborate, which contains the element boron. The sodium tetraborate forms cross-links between the PVA polymer chains, and as a result you get viscous, slimy slime in place of runny, gluey stuff. Check out this lovely graphic created by @compoundchem for c&en’s Periodic Graphics:

The Chemistry of Slime from cen.acs.org (click image for link), created by Andy Brunning of @compoundchem

And so, back to the Which? article. Is the alarm justified? Should you ban your child from ever going near slime ever again?

Nah. Followers will remember that back in August last year, after I posted my own slime piece, I had a chat with boron-specialist David Schubert. He said at the time: “Borax has been repeated[ly] shown to be safe for skin contact. Absorption through intact skin is lower than the B consumed in a healthy diet” (B is the chemical symbol for the element boron). And then he directed me to a research paper backing up his comments.

Borax is a fine white powder, Mixed with water it can be used to make slime.

This, by the way, is all referring to the chemical borax – which you might use if you’re making slime. In pre-made slime the borax has chemically bonded with the PVA, and that very probably makes it even safer – because it’s then even more difficult for any boron to be absorbed through skin.

Of course, and this really falls under the category of “things no one should have to say,” don’t eat slime. Don’t let your kids eat slime. Although even if they did, the risks are really small. As David said when we asked this time: “Borates have low acute toxicity. Consumption of the amount of borax present in a handful of slime would make one sick to their stomach and possibly cause vomiting, but no other harm would result. The only way [they] could harm themselves is by eating that amount daily.”

It is true that borax comes with a “reproductive hazard” warning label. Which? pointed out in their article that there is EU guidance on safe boron levels, and the permitted level in children’s’ toys has been set at 300 mg/kg for liquids and sticky substances (Edited 18th July, see * in Notes section below).

EU safety limits are always very cautious – an additional factor of at least 100 is usually incorporated. In other words, for example, if 1 g/kg exposure of a substance is considered safe, the EU limit is likely to be set at 0.01 g/kg – so as to make sure that even someone who’s really going to town with a thing would be unlikely to suffer negative consequences as a result.

The boron limit is particularly cautious and is based on animal studies (and it has been challenged). The chemists I spoke to told me it’s not representative of the actual hazards. Boron chemist Beth Bosley pointed out that while it is true that boric acid exposure has been shown to cause fetal abnormalities when it’s fed to pregnant rats, this finding hasn’t been reproduced in humans. Workers handling large quantities of borate in China and Turkey have been studied and no reproductive effects have been seen.

Rat studies, she said, aren’t wholly comparable because rats are unable to vomit, which is significant because it means a rat can be fed a large quantity of a boron-containing substance and it’ll stay in their system. Whereas a human who accidentally ingested a similar dose would almost certainly throw up. Plus, again, this is all based on consuming substances such as borax, not slime where the boron is tied up in polymer chains. There really is no way anyone could conceivably eat enough slime to absorb these sorts of amounts.

These arguments aside, we all let our children handle things that might be harmful if they ate them. Swallowing a whole tube of toothpaste would probably give your child an upset stomach, and it could even be dangerous if they did it on a regular basis, but we haven’t banned toothpaste “just in case”. We keep it out of reach when they’re not supposed to be brushing their teeth, and we teach them not to do silly things like eating an entire tube of Oral-B. Same basic principle applies to slime, even if it does turn out to contain more boron than the EU guidelines permit.

In conclusion: pots of pre-made slime are safe, certainly from a borax/boron point of view, so long as you don’t eat them. The tiny amounts of boron that might be absorbed through skin are smaller than the amounts you’d get from eating nuts and pulses, and not at all hazardous.

Making slime at home can also be safe, if you follow some sensible guidelines like, say, these ones:

Stay safe with slime by following this guidance

Slime on, my chemistry-loving friends!


Notes:
* When I looked for boron safety limits the first time, the only number I could find was the rather higher 1200 mg/kg. So I asked Twitter if anyone could direct me to the value Which? were using. I was sent a couple of links, one of which contained a lot of technical documentation, but I think the most useful is probably a “guide to international toy safety” pamphlet which includes a “Soluble Element Migration Requirements” table. In the row for boron, under “Category II: Liquid or sticky materials”, the value is indeed given as 300 mg/kg.

BUT, there is also ” Category I: Dry, brittle, powder like or pliable materials” and the value there is the much higher 1,200 mg/kg. Which begs the question: does slime count as “pliable” or “sticky”? It suggests to me that, say, a modelling clay product (pliable) would have the 4x higher limit. But surely the risk of exposure would be essentially the same? If 1,200 mg/kg is okay for modelling clay, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be for slime. In the Which? testing, only the Jupiter Juice product exceeded the Category I limit, and then not by that much (1,400 mg/kg).

Also (the notes are going to end up being longer than the post if I’m not careful), these values are migration limits, not limits on the amount allowed in the substance in total. Can anyone show that more than 300 mg/kg is able to migrate from the slime to the person handling it? Very unlikey. But again, don’t eat slime.

This is not an invitation to try and prove me wrong.

I suppose it’s possible that someone could sell slime that’s contaminated with some other toxic thing. But that could happen with anything. The general advice to “wash your/their hands and don’t eat it” will take you a long way.


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Spectacular Strawberry Science!

Garden strawberries

Yay! It’s June! Do you know what that means, Chronicle Flask readers? Football? What do you mean, football? Who cares about that? (I jest – check out this excellent post from Compound Interest).

No, I mean it’s strawberry season in the U.K.! That means there will be much strawberry eating, because the supermarkets are full of very reasonably-priced punnets. There will also be strawberry picking, as we tramp along rows selecting the very juiciest fruits (and eating… well, just a few – it’s part of the fun, right?).

Is there any nicer fruit than these little bundles of red deliciousness? Surely not. (Although I do also appreciate a ripe blackberry.)

And as if their lovely taste weren’t enough, there’s loads of brilliant strawberry science, too!

This is mainly (well, sort of, mostly, some of the time) a chemistry blog, but the botany and history aspects of strawberries are really interesting too. The woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was the first to be cultivated in the early 17th century, although strawberries have of course been around a lot longer than that. The word strawberry is thought to come from ‘streabariye’ – a term used by the Benedictine monk Aelfric in CE 995.

Woodland strawberries

Woodland strawberries, though, are small and round: very different from the large, tapering, fruits we tend to see in shops today (their botanical name is Fragaria × ananassa – the ‘ananassa’ bit meaning pineapple, referring to their sweet scent and flavour.

The strawberries we’re most familiar with were actually bred from two other varieties. That means that modern strawberries are, technically, a genetically modified organism. But no need to worry: practically every plant we eat today is.

Of course, almost everyone’s heard that strawberries are not, strictly, a berry. It’s true; technically strawberries are what’s known as an “aggregate accessory” fruit, which means that they’re formed from the receptacle (the thick bit of the stem where flowers emerge) that holds the ovaries, rather than from the ovaries themselves. But it gets weirder. Those things on the outside that look like seeds? Not seeds. No, each one is actually an ovary, with a seed inside it. Basically strawberries are plant genitalia. There’s something to share with Grandma over a nice cup of tea and a scone.

Anyway, that’s enough botany. Bring on the chemistry! Let’s start with the bright red colour. As with most fruits, that colour comes from anthocyanins – water-soluble molecules which are odourless, moderately astringent, and brightly-coloured. They’re formed from the reaction of, similar-sounding, molecules called anthocyanidins with sugars. The main anthocyanin in strawberries is callistephin, otherwise known as pelargonidin-3-O-glucoside. It’s also found in the skin of certain grapes.

Anthocyanins are fun for chemists because they change colour with pH. It’s these molecules which are behind the famous red-cabbage indicator. Which means, yes, you can make strawberry indicator! I had a go myself, the results are below…

Strawberry juice acts as an indicator: pinky-purplish in an alkaline solution, bright orange in an acid.

As you can see, the strawberry juice is pinky-purplish in the alkaline solution (sodium hydrogen carbonate, aka baking soda, about pH 9), and bright orange in the acid (vinegar, aka acetic acid, about pH 3). Next time you find a couple of mushy strawberries that don’t look so tasty, don’t throw them away – try some kitchen chemistry instead!

Peonidin-3-O-glucoside is the anthocyanin which gives strawberries their red colour. This is the form found at acidic pHs

The reason we see this colour-changing behaviour is that the anthocyanin pigment gains an -OH group at alkaline pHs, and loses it at acidic pHs (as in the diagram here).

This small change is enough to alter the wavelengths of light absorbed by the compound, so we see different colours. The more green light that’s absorbed, the more pink/purple the solution appears. The more blue light that’s absorbed, the more orange/yellow we see.

Interestingly, anthocyanins behave slightly differently to most other pH indicators, which usually acquire a proton (H+) at low pH, and lose one at high pH.

Moving on from colour, what about the famous strawberry smell and flavour? That comes from furaneol, which is sometimes called strawberry furanone or, less romantically, DMHF. It’s the same compound which gives pineapples their scent (hence that whole Latin ananassa thing I mentioned earlier). The concentration of furaneol increases as the strawberry ripens, which is why they smell stronger.

Along with menthol and vanillin, furaneol is one of the most widely-used compounds in the flavour industry. Pure furaneol is added to strawberry-scented beauty products to give them their scent, but only in small amounts – at high concentrations it has a strong caramel-like odour which, I’m told, can actually smell quite unpleasant.

As strawberries ripen their sugar content increases, they get redder, and they produce more scent

As strawberries ripen their sugar content (a mixture of fructose, glucose and sucrose) also changes, increasing from about 5% to 9% by weight. This change is driven by auxin hormones such as indole-3-acetic acid. At the same time, acidity – largely from citric acid – decreases.

Those who’ve been paying attention might be putting a few things together at this point: as the strawberry ripens, it becomes less acidic, which helps to shift its colour from more green-yellow-orange towards those delicious-looking purpleish-reds. It’s also producing more furaneol, making it smell yummy, and its sugar content is increasing, making it lovely and sweet. Why is all this happening? Because the strawberry wants (as much as a plant can want) to be eaten, but only once it’s ripe – because that’s how its seeds get dispersed. Ripening is all about making the fruit more appealing – redder, sweeter, and nicer-smelling – to things that will eat it. Nature’s clever, eh?

There we have it: some spectacular strawberry science! As a final note, as soon as I started writing this I (naturally) found lots of other blogs about strawberries and summer berries in general. They’re all fascinating. If you want to read more, check out…


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Toxins and tanks: could your fishtank really be deadly?

Could a deadly poison be lurking in your fish tank?

A few days ago I came across a news story: “Fish owner tells how cleaning out tank released deadly palytoxin that poisoned family and led to closure of entire street“. Now you have to admit, as titles go that’s pretty compelling.

To begin with, for some reason, I had it in my head that this happened in Australia (in my defence, that is where most of the really deadly stuff happens, right?). But no, this happened in the U.K. Not only that, but it was even in Oxfordshire, which is my neck of the woods.

The fish tank owner, a man named Chris Matthews, was actually an experienced aquarist. He knew about palytoxin – a poisonous substance which can be released by corals – and he was aware that it can be deadly if ingested. He also knew that it can cause serious skin irritation.

What he didn’t realise was that taking his pulsing xenia coral out of the tank could cause it to release the toxin into the air.

But before I talk about palytoxin, let’s just look at the word “toxin” for a moment. It has a specific meaning, and it’s often misused. As in many, many adverts. Here’s a recent one, but these easy to find – just put “toxin free” into the search engine of your choice.

In a way, this is quite funny. You see, “toxin” specifically refers to “a poison of plant or animal origin“. In other words, a naturally occurring poison*. There are lots and lots of naturally occurring poisons. Plants make them all the time, generally to ward off pests. Most essential oils can, at a high enough dose, be toxic. The hand cream in that picture contains peppermint oil. Peppermint is, of course, pretty safe – we’ve all eaten mints after all – but guess what? Take huge dose of it and it becomes a real problem. Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that hand cream is dangerous or harmful, but technically, it’s not “toxin free”.

Beauty products which contain only synthetic ingredients are, by definition, toxin-free.

Yes, the irony or this sort of marketing is that beauty products made out of entirely synthetic ingredients definitely will be toxin-free. Nothing natural = no toxins. Whereas anything made out of naturally occurring substances almost certainly isn’t, regardless of its spurious labelling.

Anyway, back to the palytoxin. It’s naturally occurring. And incredibly dangerous. More proof, as if we needed it, that natural doesn’t mean safe. Very often, in fact, quite the opposite. The human race has spent millenia working out how to protect itself from nature and all her associated nastiness (bacteria, viruses, extreme temperatures, poor food supply, predators…. the list is long and unpleasant) and yet for some reason it’s become fashionable to forget all that and imagine a utopia where mother nature knows best. Honestly, she doesn’t. Well, maybe she does – but being kind to human beings isn’t on her agenda.

Palytoxin is especially unpleasant. Indeed, it’s thought to be the second most poisonous non-protein substance known (there are some very impressive protein-based ones, though – botulinum toxin for one). The only thing which is more toxic is maitoxin – a poison which can be found in striated surgeonfish thanks to the algae they eat.

Palytoxin is a large molecule.

Palytoxin is a big molecule, technically categorised as a fatty alcohol. It has eight carbon-carbon double bonds, 40 hydroxy groups (phew) and is positively covered in chiral centres (don’t worry students: your teacher isn’t going to expect you to draw this one. Probably). Bits of it are water-soluble whilst other parts are fat soluble, meaning it can dissolve in both types of substance. Because it’s not a protein, heat doesn’t denature it, so you can’t get rid of this toxin with boiling water or by heating it. However, it does decompose and become non-toxic in acidic or alkaline solutions. Household bleach will destroy it.

It’s mostly found in the tropics, where it’s made by certain types of coral and plankton, or possibly by bacteria living on and in these organisms. It also turns up in fish, crabs and other marine organisms that feed on these things.

In fact, story time! There is a Hawaiian legend which tells that Maui villagers once caught a Shark God with a hunger for human flesh whom they believed had been killing their fishermen. They killed the Shark God and burned him, throwing the ashes into a tide pool. The ashes caused ugly brown anemones to grow. Later, the villagers discovered that blades smeared with these “limu” would cause certain death. So the anemones came to be known as “Limu Make O Hana” or Seaweed of Death from Hana. We now know that those brown ‘anemones’ are zoanthid corals, and the ‘certain death’ was due to palytoxin poisoning.

Zoanthids are a source of palytoxin.

People don’t suffer palytoxin poisoning very often. Most cases have been in people who’ve eaten seafood and, as here, aquarium hobbyists. In a few cases people have been exposed to algae blooms.

It’s really nasty though. Palytoxin can affect every type of cell in the body (yikes) and as a result the symptoms are different according to the route of exposure. Eat it and you’re likely to experience a bitter taste in your mouth, muscle spasms and abdominal cramps, nausea, lethargy, tingling and loss of sensation, slow heart rate, kidney failure and respiratory distress. It can damage your heart muscle; in the worst case scenario, it causes death by cardiac arrest.

On the other hand, if you inhale it, the symptoms are more likely to revolve around the respiratory system, such as constriction of the airways which causes wheezing and difficulty breathing. It can also cause fever and eye-infection type symptoms. Over time, though, the result is the same: muscle weakness and eventually, death from heart failure.

The respiratory symptoms from palytoxin are easily misdiagnosed: it looks like a viral or bacterial infection. In fact, our fish tank owner initially thought he had flu. It was only when everyone in the family got ill, even the dogs, that he realised that it must be poisoning. Fortunately, the emergency services took it seriously and sent both ambulance and fire crews to his house, as well as police. They closed the street and ensured that the poison was safely removed.

There is no antidote, but the symptoms can be eased by, for example, treatment with vasodilators. If the source of exposure is removed the victim is likely to recover over time. You’ll be pleased to hear that Chris Matthews, his family, and the firefighters who attended the scene, were checked over at hospital and appear to be okay.

If you’re an aquarium owner, how to you avoid getting into this kind of predicament? As Chris Matthews said, the coral he had, pulsing xenia, was “not expensive and a lot of people have it.”

Click the image to read safety guidelines from the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association.

According to the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, the most important piece of safety advice is to only handle your marine creatures underwater and fully submerged. Don’t take them out of the tank unnecessarily, and if you do need to move them, use submerged plastic bags or a bucket, so that they stay underwater at all times. You should also wear strong rubber gloves, ideally gloves specifically designed for aquarium use (such as these). If you need to dispose of a rock which contains soft coral species, soak it in a bleach solution – one part household bleach to nine parts water – for several days before you intend to dispose of it. Leaving an untreated rock outside to dry will not make it safe – it could still be highly toxic. Finally, whilst activated charcoal can help to keep palytoxin out of the water, it may not be able to cope with large quantities, and it needs to be changed frequently.

Fish tank owner Chris also said: “The information is not readily available online in a way people can easily understand” and “I want to use this experience to educate people about the risks and the measures people need to take.” Hopefully this blog post (and all the associated news coverage) will help with that. Be careful with your corals!


* Note that while ‘toxin’ specifically refers to poisonous substances from plants and animals, this restriction doesn’t extend to the word “toxic”. The definition of that is “containing or being poisonous material” (regardless of whether it’s a naturally-occurring substance or not). So “non-toxic” labels are fine, if a little bit meaningless – no matter what the woo-pushing sites say, your hand cream really isn’t poisonous.


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