Can you get drunk through your toes?

Can you get drunk by dunking your feet in alcohol?  A strange question you might think, but an interesting one.  I recently wrote a post responding to some rather outlandish claims made on the Jeremy Vine radio show, and one of them was that we absorb 14 kg of toxins annually through our skin into our bloodstream.  This one was so questionable that I started a quest to Ask for Evidence (a campaign run by the charity Sense About Science) on the subject.  It’s thrown up a up a number of interesting bits and pieces, and there will be more to come on this topic.

Feet being submergedBut in the meantime, absorption of chemicals through skin was on my mind as I was listening to the Ask the Naked Scientists podcast.  A question about methylated spirits came up.  In his answer, Dr Chris Smith referred to a rather brilliant piece of work by some Danish scientists.

It was published in the British Medical Journal, and here’s the title: Testing the validity of the Danish urban myth that alcohol can be absorbed through feet: open labelled self experimental study

Now if that doesn’t make you want to read on, I don’t know what will.  It would appear that along with stories of suicidal architects and families being duped on holiday, there is a popular Danish urban legend that you’ll become drunk if you submerge your feet in alcoholic drink.

So late in 2010 three researchers – you can listen to an interview with one of them here – decided to test this theory, using themselves as subjects (three isn’t a very robust sample size, but perhaps they didn’t have the resources to recruit more volunteers – vodka is expensive after all).

They abstained from alcohol for 24 hours before the test to ensure that there was none in their blood, and carefully exfoliated their feet with loofas to remove dry skin.  Their blood was monitored through a venous line and a ‘before’ blood alcohol level was recorded.

And then they submerged their feet in washing up bowls filled with the contents of three 700 mL bottles of 37.5% alcohol vodka, for three hours.

What happened?  Sadly, very little.  Their blood alcohol levels stayed below the detection limit for the whole three hours.  They didn’t get drunk, their self-confidence didn’t suddenly improve, they didn’t become noticeably more chatty and no one had the urge to spontaneously hug anyone else (all these things were monitored).

It seems fairly conclusive that you can’t get drunk through your skin.  Now, the alcohol is vodka is ethanol, C2H5OH.  It’s quite a small molecule, and if it can’t get into your bloodstream when you submerge your feet right in it, then I think that really does call into question the likelihood that 14 kg of ‘toxins’ are sneaking past our skin’s defences every year.

The researchers, by the way, published their work in December 2010, and called it the: Percutaneous Ethanol Absorption Could Evoke Ongoing Nationwide Euphoria And Random Tender Hugs study.  Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humour?

Are you (still) a chemist and you didn’t know it?

I recently wrote a post listing five bits of chemistry you (probably) do every day.  It was surprisingly popular and so, just like the big movie companies, here’s the sequel!

Picture 0151.  Make fresh coffee (or at least drink one someone else made)
Espresso (the basis of most coffee drinks) is made by forcing a small amount of very-nearly boiling water through ground coffee beans.  This handily extracts a number of chemicals including all the ones that produce the lovely coffee flavours and aromas but also, crucially, our friend caffeine, without which many of us simply wouldn’t function on a daily basis.  What you (or your favourite barista) have done here is a form of chemical extraction.  Extraction techniques are extremely important in chemistry, because nature has an annoying habit of stirring up the stuff we want with lots of other things.  Chemists, especially the organic ones (produced with all-natural fertilisers) spend most of their lives carefully and painstakingly extracting things from other things. Some of them probably earn less than baristas, too.

2.  Make toast
You know when you make the perfect slice, and it goes that lovely brown colour, just before black?  That’s the Maillard reaction in action.  It’s the same thing that happens when you brown meat, chips, onions or, well, anything else that goes brown when you cook it.  It’s a reaction between amino acids (the stuff proteins are made of) and sugars.  It’s also responsible for those lovely toasted-biscuity smells and favours.  The surface of the food has to be in contact with dry heat for this reaction to happen, which is why boiled and microwaved food doesn’t brown.  And alkaline conditions help it along, which is the main reason lye is traditionally used on the surface of pretzels and other German breads (that’s always made me a bit nervous).

Haemoglobin3.  Breathe
I mentioned respiration in my previous post but as any 13 year-old pupil will tell you, and most adults have long since forgotten, respiration is not the same as breathing.  Here I’m actually thinking of oxygen exchange (which is also not, technically, the breathing bit but bear with me).  You’re probably aware that you blood has iron in it: in fact that iron is tied up in rather beautifully complicated haemoglobin molecules.  Oxygen molecules bond to four iron atoms in the haemoglobin with something called coordinate, or dative covalent, bonds.  If it weren’t for this nifty bit of chemical bonding, there’s no way our blood could carry enough oxygen around our bodies, delivering it safely to our cells, to keep us going from one minute to the next.

251840969_6404.  Neutralised some excess acid
Taken an indigestion tablet recently?  Did you realise you were doing a chemistry experiment in your very own stomach?  Well you were!  Indigestion tablets contain a variety of substances, but some of the most common ingredients are magnesium hydroxide (also known, when suspended in water, as ‘milk of magnesia’), calcium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and magnesium carbonate.  These are all bases: they react with acids to form a salt and water and, in the case of the carbonates, carbon dioxide as well.  The acid in your stomach is hydrochloric acid, so for example:

sodium bicarbonate + hydrochloric acid –> sodium chloride + water + carbon dioxide

Now, is that Rennie advert that claims to “turn acid into water and other natural substances” starting to make sense?  They don’t want to use the word salt for some reason…

5.  Used drain cleaner
This is one of my favouritist little bits of chemistry.  Really.  It’s lovely.  Well apart from the horribly caustic chemicals involved obviously.  Drain cleaner is dangerous concoction nasty stuff but it’s main ingredient is often a strong alkali, like sodium hydroxide (there are also acidic drain cleaners; it’s quite important that you don’t mix them).  The stuff that blocks up your plughole is, largely, protein (hair, skin cells, yuck) and and oily dirt.  The strong alkali reacts with these things in a reaction called hydrolysis.  Now this is clever, because soap is made by (virtually) the exact same reaction.  Soap is produced by saponification, where fats are mixed with a strong alkali.  So what are you doing when you put drain cleaner in your stuffed-up plug hole?  You’re not only breaking down the gunk, you’re also effectively making soap in situ, which helps to wash away the remaining dirt.  How brilliant is that?

With thanks to Andrew (@_byronmiller) for his suggestions.

Homeopathy: a drop in the ocean?

HomeopathicCartoonAs a skeptical chemist I have, until now, avoided the topic of homeopathy.  It felt a bit obvious, rather like shooting fish in a barrel.  Hasn’t everyone and his sister written an article about it at some point?  There’s the brilliant 10:23 campaign on the subject, and the comedians Mitchell and Webb even wrote a fabulously funny sketch on the topic (do watch it if you haven’t, I particularly love the idea of homeopathic lager).  How much more mainstream can you get?  Surely everyone knows it’s a load of old nonsense by now?

And yet, and yet… I still meet people that don’t know what it is, or who are a bit confused about it.  Many don’t know the difference between herbal remedies and homeopathy.  Many think they know someone who’s used it and it’s worked, or have used it themselves and felt that it helped them.

Worse, the NHS, despite admitting outright that, “homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos, and that the principles on which homeopathy is based are ‘scientifically implausible” still spends money on it, going on to say on the very same web page that “there are several NHS homeopathic hospitals and some GP practices also offer homeopathic treatment.”  There are widely divergent figures on exactly how much the NHS spends on this treatment which they fully admit does not work, but there’s general agreement that it’s in the millions.  A article written in 2010 concluded that it was £12 million from 2005-8, which didn’t include the £20 million spent refurbishing the Royal London homeopathic hospital from 2002 to 2005.  More recently a Daily Mail article (yes, yes, I know) claimed it was £4 million a year.

In a way, does it matter?  It may be a tiny proportion of the NHS’s total £108.9 billion budget, but it’s still millions of pounds of public money.  For something that doesn’t work.

Ok, but what is it?  Well firstly let’s briefly talk about ‘mainstream’ medicine.  Also called conventional medicine, allopathic medicine, orthodox medicine or Western medicine, it’s the system by which trained professionals (doctors, nurses, pharmacists etc) treat diseases and their symptoms using tested drugs.  And make no mistake, mainstream drugs are tested.  Different countries have different regulations, but in the UK clinical trials involve at least three phases and take ten to fifteen years or even more.

Homeopathic treatments don’t have to go through this testing.  And unlike conventional doctors, who have to complete five years of study followed by further years of foundation training and yet more studying, there is no regulation of homeopathic practitioners in the UK.  Now, that ought to give anyone pause for thought.

Secondly, all drugs that actually work have side effects; effects that are secondary to the intended ones.  All of them.  There’s no avoiding it; there’s ‘no effect without side effects’.  You may not experience them personally, but someone somewhere almost certainly will.  Much of medicine is about balancing side effects against positive effects, and a lot of the time it comes down to how severe and life-threatening the disease being treated is.  If you have a bit of a cold, you’re probably happy to take some paracetamol which, when taken at the proper dose, has ‘as rash’ listed as its only side-effect.

But since the odds are very good that you’re going to recover from your cold whether you treat it or not you wouldn’t, on the other hand, want to take something that might have serious side effects like the anti-viral Tamiflu (headaches, nausea, cough, vomiting, sleeping problems, indigestion, pain, tiredness, vertigo… and that’s just some of them).  However, if you genuinely have flu (real flu, not “I’ve got a nasty cold but I’m calling it flu so that I sound like less of a skiver”) then Tamiflu might be appropriate, because real flu can be genuinely life-threatening.

HomeopathyWhy is this relevant to a discussion about homeopathy?  Because homeopathic treatments don’t have side-effects (at least, not any directly related to the pills and potions themselves).  Homeopaths are generally quite keen to tell you this.  But it means that the treatments are ineffective. There’s no getting around this I’m afraid.  You can’t have your cake and eat it, even if you dilute it by a factor of 1060.

Speaking of dilutions…  Now, I’m not about to go into a huge amount of detail about the history and reasoning behind homeopathy because, firstly, other people have already done an excellent job of that, secondly I always worry that it starts to sound alarmingly plausible if you’re not very careful and thirdly, a summary ought to be much more potent than a full description (this little witticism will make sense in a minute).

Certain substances, poisons generally, cause nasty symptoms.  Homeopaths believe that if you take very, very tiny amounts of those substances they’ll do the opposite and cure those symptoms when they’ve been caused by an illness.  For example, arsenic causes headaches, nausea and diarrhoea.  So logically (for a given value of ‘logic’) at homeopathic doses it’s used to treat digestive disorders and food poisoning.  These tiny amounts are achieved by successive dilutions: you add one drop of a substance to ninety-nine drops of water, and then you take one drop of that mixture and add it to ninety-nine more drops of water, and then you take one drop of that and….

…You keep going until you’ve done it at least six times.  Remember each dilution is a factor of one hundred.  The first time it’s done you get a solution of 0.01%.  By the time the procedure’s been followed six times, it’s 0.000 000 000 1%.  This is called 6C.  Homeopaths believe that more dilute solutions are more potent, that is they’ll be even better at treating the illness than something more concentrated.

0004908_nelsons-bryonia-30c-homeopathic-remedy_300In fact, quite a lot of remedies are sold as 30C.  That’s 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1%

Let’s attempt to put that in context.  Every year Cambridge University’s Chemistry department holds the Cambridge Chemistry Challenge (try saying that six times fast) and in 2012 there were some rather lovely questions involving homeopathy in the paper.  Here are a few choice morsels:

One question asked entrants to calculate the mass of arsenic oxide in 100 ml (a small amount, but still about four times greater than the volumes that are usually sold) of a 30C homeopathic remedy.  The answer was 2.06 x 10-30 grams.  That’s a thousand times less than the mass of a single proton.  A drop in the ocean isn’t the half of it.  Not only is there not even one molecule of the original substance in there, the dilutions have wiped out even the possibility of a sub-atomic particle.

6a00d83451df0c69e200e54f9413f98833-800wiThen they were asked to work out the amount of the remedy someone would need to take to experience a fatal dose, and express the answer as a fraction of the volume of the Earth.  The answer?  4500 times the volume of the Earth.  Probably no need for those “in case of accidental overdose contact a healthcare practitioner” warnings, then.

Finally, how many bottles of the solution would you need to buy to stand a chance of obtaining one atom of arsenic?  The answer: 285 million bottles.

So let’s be clear, homeopathic remedies have no active ingredient.  Nil.  Nothing,  Nada.

“Ah,” say the homeopaths, “we accept that.  That’s not the point.  The water ‘remembers’ the original chemical; the water molecules retain a ‘memory’ of that substance and it’s that memory that has the effect”.

At this point people who actually know some science start tearing their hair out (by the way, apparently fluoric acid, i.e. HF, is a recommended homeopathic treatment for hair loss – good job it is diluted else it might eat through the glass bottle).

Just think about it for a few seconds.  If it were true that water retains a memory of the substances that have been dissolved in it, and that memory was so powerful that it could have a real, physiological, effect on the body, then we would be constantly bombarded with ‘treatments’ every single time we drank a glass of water.  You know that water that comes out of your tap?  Well, sorry to be blunt about this, but it went through a few other people before it got to your tap, picking up all sorts of substances on the way.  Your local water company purified it, and in the process almost certainly added coagulants to precipitate out impurities.  These are then removed of course (that’s the point) but if what the homeopaths suggest is right (which it’s not) your water would ‘remember’ them.  Lead pipes would be the least of your worries.

From here the theories get increasingly outlandish.  Next stop, ‘transference’.  This is the idea that remedies can affect living organisms from a distance.  Yup.  Basically a practitioner can call someone on the phone and proceed to diagnose, and treat, them from miles away, without them having to actually swallow a thing.  Oh yes, and also water placed next to a homeopathic remedy (which is also just water, in case I need to say it again) can take on characteristics of the remedy.

Photo 13-06-2013 09 06 54 PMNow, if this were true the world simply wouldn’t work the way we know it does.  You’d be exposed every time you walked past the Alternative Remedy section in a shop.  Humans have really quite a lot of water in them; if anything like this actually happened, you could ‘catch’ antibiotics from your friend who happened to be taking them, just by standing too close.  You wouldn’t need to clean your toilet, just leave the bleach bottle next to it and it ought to work by transference (many students have tried this, it really doesn’t work).

The homeopaths will cry that I’m wilfully misunderstanding their methods, because I’ve forgotten to mention ‘potentization’.  Oh yes, allow me to explain: when you prepare a homeopathic remedy you have to shake or tap the preparation at each stage – sometimes with a particular object (a magic wand, perhaps) – otherwise it doesn’t work.  It’s not just the dilution, it’s the special tapping that does the trick, because it somehow allows the water molecules to remember the energy signature of the molecules of ‘active’ ingredient.

Next time someone claims homeopathy works, ask them if they believe in magic.  There really is very little difference.

At this point though homeopaths resort to a few final bits of misdirection and sleight of hand.  They claim that everyone who casts doubt over homeopathy is in the thrall of ‘Big Pharma‘.  They say that the big pharmaceutical companies – whom they imply control the world, possibly from a giant hollowed-out volcano somewhere – deliberately discredit homeopathy because they have a lot to lose if people use it instead of conventional (they tend to use the term ‘allopathic’) medicine.

This neatly sidesteps the fact that homeopaths have an awful lot to lose if people stop buying their pills and potions, and especially in the UK if the NHS stop funding it.  In fact, I suspect they have a lot more to lose since pharmaceutical companies, for all their faults, are required by law to prove that their drugs actually do something.

And finally homeopaths will tell you that allopathic medicines have killed millions of people, whereas homeopathy has never killed anyone.  Hm.  It’s true that people die from negative drug reactions.  It’s also true that sick people sometimes die.  Occasionally it’s difficult to say whether a person would have died sooner with or without drug intervention.  But for most people conventional drugs are far more likely to keep them safe and well than kill them.

sopHomeopathy on the other hand… well it’s true the remedies themselves won’t kill you.  A little bit of sugar and water never killed anyone.  But, sadly, there are people who don’t seek conventional treatment because they believe what a homeopath tells them.  Sometimes those people leave it too late, and sometimes they die when their life might have been saved.  Even worse, sometimes those people are parents, and they end up making bad decisions about their child’s treatment.  If you doubt me, there’s a whole list of tragic stories on the whatstheharm website.

Sometimes homeopathy does appear to work, but that’s been shown time and time again to be a placebo effect.  Now, I think that the placebo effect is cool.  I mean, it’s really awesome.  Basically, if you believe you’ll feel better, you do – at least sometimes.  People have even debated whether this can work in animals (probably not, although owners and vets might think it’s working).  Personally, I think lots of research should be going on in the area of placebo, because it’s utterly fascinating.  But.  Here’s the thing: I used the words “feel better” back there very deliberately.  The placebo effect is great for things that have a level of subjectivity, such as pain management.  When people carry out objective measures, such as lung function for an asthmatic for example, there’s usually little improvement.  The placebo effect is highly unlikely to effectively treat diseases such as asthma, or diabetes, or cancer.

And that means homeopathy cannot treat those things either.  And people absolutely shouldn’t be allowed to tell ill, vulnerable people that it can.

I know there are some people who don’t trust the government, and who think it’s all run by nine foot tall lizards, but regardless I’m going to return to the Science and Technology Committee’s report:

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 22.53.02“the evidence base shows that homeopathy is not efficacious (that is, it does not work beyond the placebo effect) and that explanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible.”


“The product labelling for homeopathic products under all current licensing schemes fails to inform the public that homeopathic products are sugar pills containing no active ingredients.”

Finally, ask yourself this: at a time when disabled people are facing cuts to their much-needed benefits, with many tragic stories of people being designated ‘fit for work’ when they really aren’t, is it right that millions of pounds are available for a ‘treatment’ which, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, does not work?

And for the record, I have absolutely no affiliation whatsoever with any pharmaceutical company.  I am, however, more than happy to admit supporting campaigns such as 10:23, because there really is ‘nothing in it’.


Late addendum: I have just been reminded (thank you @Sci_McInnes) that of course our Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (the one made famous by James Naughtie’s delightful slip of the tongue) is a supporter of homeopathy.  Yes, the person that is effectively in charge of the NHS believes that tapping water in a special way turns it into an effective medicine, despite the evidence of the Science and Technology Committee.  If you weren’t cross about it before, you really, really should be now.

Gold! Bright and yellow, hard and cold

200px-Gold-49956Let’s talk about element number 79.  It’s one of the oldest known elements, used for quite literally thousands of years.  It’s constantly at the heart of conflicts and politics.  Poets have waxed lyrical about it, authors have written about it, economists and prospectors have hinged their livelihoods on it.  And, of course, chemists have studied it.

As an element it’s unusual.  It’s a metal, but instead of the boring silvery-grey of most metals it glows a warm yellow.  It’s also one of the most unreactive elements, and yet has found use a catalyst – speeding up chemical reactions that otherwise would be too slow to be useful.  It’s rare, making up only about 0.004 parts per million of the Earth’s crust, and yet its annual production is surprisingly high: 2700 tonnes in 2012.  Its density makes it heavy – weighing over nineteen times more than the same volume of water – but it’s also relatively soft, so soft that it’s possible to scratch a pure piece with your fingernail (in theory, and if you have fairly robust fingernails).

Yes, gold.  Chemical symbol Au, from its latin name aurum meaning ‘shining dawn’ or ‘glow of sunrise’ (how lovely is that?)

The history of gold is fascinating.  You could easily write a whole book about it.  In fact, someone has.  I won’t attempt anything so ambitious, but it does have some very interesting chemical stories associated with it.

Because of its unreactivity, gold is one of the relatively few elements that’s found uncombined in nature.  In other words, you can pick up a piece of pure gold from the ground or, more likely, out of a river bed.  Thanks to this property it’s very probably the first metal that humans as a species interacted with.  It’s too soft to be much use as a tool, so its earliest uses were almost certainly ornamental.  Decorations and jewellery had value and could be traded for other things, and ultimately (skipping over a chunk of history and early economics) this led to currency.

And so it was that early alchemists, some two thousand years ago, became obsessed with the idea of a quick buck.  Could other metals be turned into gold?  They searched long and hard for the mythical philosopher’s stone (like in Harry Potter, only not exactly) which could turn base metals into gold or silver.  Of course they never found it, because it doesn’t exist.  It’s not possible to change one element into another during a chemical reaction.  This is because what defines an element is the number of protons in its nucleus, and chemistry is all about the electrons. Chemical processes don’t touch protons, which are hidden away in the nuclei of atoms.

But where there’s a will there’s almost always a way.  Two millennia after alchemists were hunting for a magical stone, the chemist Glenn Seaborg managed to transmute a minute quantity of lead, via bismuth, into gold by bombarding it with high-energy particles.  Apparently, these days particle accelerators ‘routinely’ transmute elements, albeit only a few atoms at a time.

The trouble is, this method costs a fortune – way, way more than the value of any gold produced.  Gold, after all, is ‘only’ worth about a thousand pounds for a troy ounce (31 grams).  Particle accelerators cost billions of pounds to build, and yet more in running costs.  If you really want gold so desperately, these days there may be more mileage in harvesting it from defunct bits of electronic equipment.

Or just ask people to send you their old jewellery through the post in exchange for cash.  Even Tesco have got into that game now.  Through the post!  Honestly, people fear putting a tenner in a birthday card but gold jewellery in a paper bag?  No problem.

But anyway, back to gold’s reactivity, or rather lack of it.  Gold isn’t the most unreactive element (depending on how you’re defining reactivity, that honour probably goes to iridium) but it’s up there.  Or perhaps I should say down there.  It keeps its shiny good looks even when it’s regularly in contact with warm, damp, salty, slightly acidic skin, which is quite handy from the jewellery and money point of view.

But there is one thing gold reacts with: aqua regia.  Aqua regia is a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid and ancient alchemists gave it its name – which literally means ‘royal water’ – because it dissolves the ‘royal’ metal, gold.  It’s pretty cool stuff, in a slightly scary way.  Freshly-prepared it’s colourless, but quickly turns into a fuming, reddish solution.  It doesn’t keep – the hydrochloric and nitric acids effectively attack each other in a series of chemical reactions which ultimately result in the production of nitrogen dioxide, accounting for the orange colour and nasty fumes. Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 00.20.27The fire diamond (remember those?) for aqua regia has a 3 in the blue box, putting it on a nastiness par with pure chlorine, ammonia and, funnily enough, oxalic acid (the stuff in rhubarb).  It also has ‘ox’ in the white box, telling us it’s a powerful oxidising agent, which means it’s effectively an electron thief.

All atoms contain electrons but they can, and frequently do, lose or gain them during the course of chemical reactions.  Acids in general are often quite good at pinching electrons from metals, but aqua regia is particularly good at it, and especially with gold.  Much, much better than either nitric acid or hydrochloric acid on their own because, in fact, the two work together, as a sort of two-man gang of acid muggers.  When metal atoms lose electrons they become ions, and ions dissolve very nicely in water.  Hence, aqua regia’s fantastic property of being able to dissolve gold.

Which leads me to a really great story.  During World War II it was illegal to take gold out of Germany, but two Nobel laureates – Max von Laue, who strongly opposed the National Socialists, and James Franck, who was Jewish – discretely sent their 23-karat, solid gold Nobel prize medals to Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen for protection.  All well and good, until the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940.  Now, unfortunately, the evidence of von Laue and Franck’s crime was sitting on a shelf in a lab, just waiting to be found.  This was serious: if the Gestapo found the gold medals they would persecute von Laue and Franck, and probably take the opportunity to make things very unpleasant for Bohr as well, particularly since his institute had protected and supported Jewish scientists for years.

Nobel_PrizeWhat to do?  At the time a Hungarian chemist called George de Hevesy was working at the institute, and it was he that had the bright idea of dissolving the medals in aqua regia.

It would have taken ages, because although aqua regia dissolves gold, it doesn’t do it quickly, and these were chunky objects.  He must have been anxiously looking over his shoulder the whole time.  But he managed it, and eventually ended up with a flask of orange liquid that he stashed on a high shelf.  The Nazis searched the building but didn’t realise what the flask was, so they left it.  Iit stayed there undisturbed for years, in fact until after the war was over.  At which time, de Hevesy precipitated the gold back out and sent the metal back to the Swedish Academy, who recast the prizes  and re-presented them to Franck and von Laue.

So there we have it, you can’t turn lead into gold (at least, not without a particle accelerator) but, if you know what you’re doing, you might just be able to turn a flask of orange liquid into two solid gold Nobel prize medals!


The title of this post comes from a poem by the British poet, Thomas Hood, 1799-1845. Here it is in full:

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Bright and yellow, hard and cold
Molten, graven, hammered and rolled,
Heavy to get and light to hold,
Hoarded, bartered, bought and sold,
Stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled,
Spurned by young, but hung by old
To the verge of a church yard mold;
Price of many a crime untold.
Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Good or bad a thousand fold!
How widely it agencies vary,
To save – to ruin – to curse – to bless –
As even its minted coins express :
Now stamped with the image of Queen Bess,
And now of a bloody Mary.

Yesterday’s 18 minutes of infuriating nonsense

Oooh my blood fairly boiled yesterday, it really did.  Well ok, not really.  At least not in the sense that my blood reached 100 degrees Celsius, more in the sense that I was shouting pointlessly at the radio.  Why?  Because the Jeremy Vine radio show on BBC Radio 2 had a piece about the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ (RCOG) paper that suggested that pregnant women should avoid exposure to certain everyday chemicals.  Now, I will get to that issue in a minute, but first let’s talk about the item on the radio programme.

It started with lots of talk of avoiding ‘chemicals’, and Jeremy asking if listeners made a habit of avoiding them.  Now as I discussed in a previous post, chemicals are all around us.  Because everything is a chemical.  Water is a chemical, so is oxygen, so is baking soda, so is vitamin C.  Frankly, anyone who thinks they avoid chemicals doesn’t understand what they are.  Now, this was BBC Radio 2.  If someone had mixed up the words less and fewer there would be hell to pay, but apparently no such rigour applies to use of scientific terms.

hazelThe next irritation was the choice of guests. Hazel Courteney was pitched against Adam Hart-Davis.  Courteney is a journalist specialising in alternative health (alternative treatments being, by definition, the ones which have not been proven effective using scientific methods; the ones which have been proven effective are, you know, medicine).  She was described on the show as a ‘health journalist’ but as far as I can tell, she has no scientific or medical qualifications.  article_adamhartdavisw2Hart-Davis, on the other hand, has a PhD in organometallic chemistry.  Is this balanced?  Just because two people appear to have opposing viewpoints, should they necessarily be given equal weight?  It happens all too often with scientific and medical issues, presumably because it’s perceived as being more entertaining, but it’s worrisome because it gives the impression to the listener that the two people are equally qualified and knowledgeable.

So were they?  Let’s get on to some of the things Courteney said.  I have forced myself to listen again on iPlayer to make absolutely sure I’m not misquoting.  I hope everyone appreciates the sacrifice.  My blood pressure may never be the same again.

“The average person absorbs into their bloodstream alone about 14 kg of toxins annually through their skin.”

I can find no evidence for this claim, and have no idea where it comes from (update: I later went on to write a blog post for the Ask for Evidence campaign on this question).  Skin is actually pretty impermeable stuff.  If it weren’t we’d all be in a whole heap of trouble every time we had a bath.  Never mind chemicals, you’d turn into a water-filled balloon.  There are some chemicals that can be absorbed through skin, but not many in the grand scheme of things.  Nicotine is one, that’s how nicotine patches work, but that’s fairly easily avoided.  There are herbicides and pesticides that can be absorbed this way, but unless you’re spraying with them and utterly failing to follow health and safety protocols (there’s a reason people wear gloves and masks), you’re not going to come into contact with anything at all significant.  Even if you’re spraying without the proper safety gear, you’re not going to absorb 14 kg unless you take a bath in the stuff.  Stop press: pregnant women shouldn’t bathe in herbicide.

“[ammonia] is in toilet cleaners, window cleaners.  It’s also in hair dyes.”

One of her less outlandish claims, but I include it because first of all, not really.  Most bleaches sold in this country are based on hypochlorite, not ammonia.  And the majority of window cleaners on sale are little more than some detergent and vinegar.  Ammonia might once have been in hair dye, but a lot of them are marketed as ‘no ammonia’ these days, mainly because consumers hate the smell.  Ammonia really stinks.  Secondly, it’s pretty irrelevant.  Yes ammonia is toxic, but it’s also extremely volatile.  In a well-ventilated area it will quickly disperse and you’ll barely notice it.  The small quantities you might inhale aren’t harmful because the body actually has a mechanism to prevent ammonia build up (because it’s a by-product of breaking down protein, which we all do whether we know it or not).  Yes if you lock yourself in an enclosed space with a large quantity of ammonia gas, it will irritate your eyes and lungs.  But, you know, don’t do that.

“Oestrogen is a builder, and therefore the more hormone-disrupting toxins you have in your body, the more oestrogen-like compounds you will make, and they can migrate to fatty tissues such as your breasts, and that’s one of the major contributing factors to breast cancer today.”

Oestrogen is a builder?  What, like Bob?  I’m not even sure what she means by that.  Oestrogens promote the development of female secondary sexual characteristics, such as breasts, and there are legitimate concerns about certain substances in the environment causing fertility problems particularly for men, who under normal circumstances wouldn’t be exposed to oestrogen.  But a major contributing factor to breast cancer?  Well, according to the NHS choices website, the major contributing factors are age and family history.  Way down the list is: “Your risk of developing breast cancer may rise slightly with the amount of oestrogen your body is exposed to.”  Note the word ‘slightly’.  Not ‘significantly’.  And using combined contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy or just being a woman will expose you to a lot more oestrogen than you’ll ever seen from your environment.  In fact, being pregnant actually reduces your exposure to this hormone, because its production is disrupted during pregnancy.  So in this respect by being pregnant you’re doing yourself a big health favour.  That’s something comforting to remember when you’re throwing up and nursing your swollen ankles.

“Clingfilms (that) contain PCBs”

PCB stands for polychlorinated biphenyl.  They were once used as plasticisers, but mostly in paints and cements.  They’re definitely toxic and they’ve been linked to cancer.  But PCB production was banned by the United States Congress in 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.  If you have clingfilm that contains PCBs, I’m curious to know where you bought it.

“If you have a takeaway meal, and you microwave it in a plastic container, that releases large amounts of oestrogen-altering chemicals.”

Now, there is ongoing debate about a substance used in plastics called bisphenol A (BPA).  It does exhibit hormone-like properties, it might be released when certain plastics are heated, and the European Union, Canada, and the United States have consequently banned BPA use in baby bottles.  Baby bottles are a specific case though; you have to bear in mind that a lot of people sterilise them by heating to high temperatures for extended periods of time.  The Food Standard Agency’s position is that “current level of consumer exposure to BPA from food contact materials does not represent a food safety risk for consumers”, that the science shows that it only has “weak oestrogenic effects” and that “effects [are] generally seen at high doses”.  Genuine concern aside, I still take issue with Courteney’s use of the words “large amounts”.  The Plastic Materials and Articles in Contact with Food (England) Regulations 2009 (snappy title) permit the use of BPA provided that no more than 6 mg per kg migrates into food.  Let’s say we have a plastic container that weighs 100 g (that would be quite a large tub), that means that at the very top end we’re talking about 0.0006 g of BPA getting into your food.  And it’s highly likely to be far less than that in reality.  That’s not a ‘large amount’.  Still I will grudgingly admit that she may have a bit of a point here: if all this worries you, put your food into a glass container before you heat it.

“If your shampoo or body lotion has sodium laureth sulfate or sodium lauryl sulfate these are detergents and emulsifiers used in thousands of cosmetics, um, when you ingest them they can have a really negative effect” followed a little later by, “it’s heavily linked to cancers.  There’s plenty of research to show that it does accumulate.  SLS does accumulate in the eyes, the heart, the liver, the brain.  It can be come quite toxic to the liver.  And the more toxins you have in your liver the angrier you become.”

Mmm.  So, better not eat your shampoo or shower gel then.  Why is she talking about ‘ingesting’ substances which aren’t generally eaten?  Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are detergents, that bit’s true, but they’ve been used for an awfully long time and there really is no evidence either is horribly harmful.  Both have been tested extremely rigorously, and have been consistently shown have no causal link with cancer.  It’s just possible they might cause skin irritation in sensitive individuals, that’s about it.  Although you know, perhaps it is better to be safe than sorry.  Wouldn’t want to risk an angry liver.

“When you ingest chemicals, say in food, your saliva and stomach acid help break them down and you excrete them.  But when you’re absorbing all these toxins through your skin they’re absorbed straight into your bloodstream and therefore, you know, can have a very negative impact over time.”

Er, what?  Just, what?  This makes no sense.  She’s saying that it’s safer to eat these substances than put them on your skin?  But didn’t she just say that sodium laurel sulfate was particularly harmful if ingested?  Make your mind up.

All this nonsense in 18 minutes.  Impressive, no?  Poor Adam Hart-Davis did try and argue against some of it, but I fear he lost the battle.  I’m not sure he was expecting quite such an onslaught.  Poor man.

I should make brief mention of the thing that started all this in the first place.  The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) released a Scientific Impact Paper titled “Chemical Exposure During Pregnancy: Dealing with Potential, but Unproven, Risks to Child Health” (I have linked to the actual, original, paper, not a news report).  Now, the clue is in the title.  Unproven risks.  Essentially they are commenting on the, very small, possibility that a pregnant woman’s exposure to a variety of environmental toxins might combine to create a harmful effect to the baby.  They suggest using fresh food rather than processed (shock), as well as some less practical tactics such as reducing the use of foods/beverages in cans/plastic containers (perhaps women should carry their water supplies in a traditional oilskin bag?) and minimising the use of personal care products such as moisturisers and shower gels (presumably it would be much healthier to just stop washing).

In fairness, the original document does include statements that balance things a bit.  It comments that: “Under normal lifestyle and dietary conditions, the level of exposure of most women to individual environmental chemicals will probably pose minimal risk to the developing fetus/baby.”  And, “it is unlikely that any of these exposures are truly harmful for most babies”.

Unfortunately the media didn’t initially present that side of it.  We had multiple headlines such as: “Pregnant women warned over household product chemicals” and at the more alarmist end of the spectrum: “Pregnant women told to avoid painting the nursery, buying new furniture or going near non-stick FRYING PANS” (sic).  Fortunately lots of other, more sensible, people immediately started writing about the issue and now a search for this particular news item brings up lots of articles putting the other side, for example: “New advice to pregnant women is unhelpful and confusing, say critics“.  I don’t think there’s any need for me to say it all again.  But if you are pregnant right now, my advice (as someone who’s recently been through it) would be to try not to worry about it, put your feet up and have a biscuit.  Pregnancy is difficult enough as it is.