Sunshine, skin chemistry, and vitamin D

The UK is on the same latitude as Northern Canada (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

As I write this it’s the last day of September in the U.K., which means we’re well into meteorological autumn and summer is, at least here, a distant memory. The weather is cooler and the days are getting shorter. Soon, the clocks will go back an hour, and we’ll shift from BST (British Summer Time) to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

Seasons in the U.K. are particularly marked because of our northerly latitude. British weather tends to be fairly mild (thanks, Gulf Stream), and it’s easy to forget just how far north we are – but a quick look at a globe makes it clear: London is actually further north than most of the major Canadian cities, while the Polar Bear Provincial Park in Ontario is roughly on the same latitude as Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.

Yes, I hear you say, but what on Earth (hoho) does this have to do with chemistry?

Well, a clever little piece of chemistry happens in human skin, and, if you live in the U.K., it’s about to stop. At least, until next spring.

Some clever chemistry happens in human skin.

There’s a substance in your skin called 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC). It is, as the name suggests, something to do with cholesterol (which, despite its bad press, is an essential component of animal cell membranes). In fact, 7-DHC is converted to cholesterol in the body, but it’s also converted to something else.

You will have heard of vitamin D. It helps us to absorb calcium and other minerals, and if children, in particular, don’t get enough it can lead to rickets – which leads to weak bones, bowed legs and stunted growth. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to lots of other health problems, including increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, arthritis and even type one diabetes.

More recently, vitamin D has been linked to COVID-19. It’s estimated that around 80-85% of people who contract COVID-19 experience mild or no symptoms, while the rest develop severe symptoms and, even if they recover, may suffer life-altering after-effects for many months. Early data suggest that patients with low vitamin D levels are much more likely to experience those severe symptoms. There’s a plausible mechanism for this: vitamin D helps to regulate the immune system and, in particular, helps to reduce the production of cytokines.

It’s possible that having inadequate levels of vitamin D may increase your chances of a severe response to COVID-19.

Cytokines are small proteins which are important in cell signalling, but if the body starts to produce too many in response to a virus it can cause something called a cytokine storm, which can lead to organ failure and death.

It’s proposed that having the right levels of vitamin D might help to prevent such cytokine storms, and therefore help to prevent a severe COVID-19 response. This is all early stages, because everyone is still learning about COVID-19, and it may turn out to be correlation without causation, but so far it looks promising.

One thing you many not know is that vitamin D is, technically, misnamed. Vitamins are, by definition, substances which are required in small quantities in the diet, because they can’t be synthesised in the body.

But vitamin D, which is actually a group of fat soluble molecules rather than a single substance, can be synthesised in the body, in our skin. The most important two in the group are ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3), sometimes known collectively as calciferol.

Shiitake mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D2.

Vitamin D2 is found in fungi, but it’s cleared more quickly from the body than D3, so needs to be consumed in some form daily. Mushrooms are a good source (especially if they’ve been exposed to UV light), so if you like mushrooms, that’s one way to go. Vitamin D3 is hard to obtain from diet – the only really good source is oily fish, although other foods are fortified – but that’s okay because, most of the time, we don’t need to eat it.

Which brings us back to 7-DHC. It’s found in large quantities in the skin, although exactly how it gets there has been the subject of some debate. It used to be thought it was formed from cholesterol via an enzymatic reaction in the intestine wall and then transported to the skin via the bloodstream. But the trouble with this idea is that the blood would pass through the liver, and 7-DHC would be reconverted to cholesterol, never having a chance to build up in skin. A more robust theory is it’s actually synthesised in the skin in the first place, particularly since higher levels are found in a layer closer to the surface (the stratum spinosum) than in the deeper dermis.

We make vitamin D in our skin when we’re exposed to UVB light from the sun.

Anyway, the important thing is that 7-DHC absorbs UV light, particularly wavelengths between 290 and 320 nm, that is, in the UVB range, sometimes called “intermediate” UV (in contrast with “soft” UVA, and “hard” UVC). When exposed to UVB light, one of the rings in the 7-DHC molecule breaks apart, forming something known pre-D3, that then converts (isomerises) to vitamin D3 in a heat-sensitive process.

In short, we make vitamin D3 in our skin when we’re in the sunshine. Obviously we need to avoid skin damage from UV light, but the process doesn’t take long: 10-15 minutes of midday sunlight three times a week, in the U.K. in the summer, is enough to keep our levels up.

Sun exposure is by far the quickest, and certainly the cheapest, way to get your vitamin D. If you live somewhere where that’s possible.

Here’s the thing, though, if you live in the U.K., for a chunk of the year, it’s just not. I’ve pinched the graph here from my husband, whose work involves solar panels, because it makes a nice visual point.

The amount of sunlight we’re exposed to in the U.K. drops sharply in autumn and winter.

From April – September, there’s plenty of energy available from sunlight. But look at what happens from October – March. The numbers drop drastically. And here’s the thing: it turns out that vitamin D production in human skin only occurs when UV radiation exceeds a certain level. Below this threshold? Well, no photocoversion takes place.

In short: if you live in the U.K. you can’t make vitamin D in your skin for a few months of the year. And those few months are starting… round about now.

The NILU has a web page where you can calculate how much vitamin D you can synthesise in your skin on a given day.

If you want to experiment, there’s a website here, published by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), where you can enter various parameters – month, longitude, cloudiness etc – and it will tell you how many hours during a given a day it’s possible to synthesise vitamin D in your skin.

Have a play and you’ll see that, for London, vitamin D synthesis drops off to zero somewhere around the end of November, and doesn’t restart until sometime after the 20th of January. In Edinburgh, the difference is even more marked, running from the first week or so of November to the first week of February.

It’s important to realise that it tails off, too, so during the days either side of these periods there’s only a brief period during midday when you can synthesise vitamin D. And all this assumes a cloudless sky which in this country… is unlikely.

The skin pigment, melanin, absorbs UVB. (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

The situation is worse still if you have darker skin because the skin pigment, melanin, absorbs UVB. On the one hand, this is a good thing, since it protects skin cells from sun-related damage. But it also reduces the ability to synthesise vitamin D. In short, wimpy autumn and winter sunshine just isn’t going to cut it.

Likewise, to state the obvious, anyone who covers their skin (with clothing or sunblock), also won’t be able to synthesise vitamin D in their skin.

Fortunately, there’s a simple answer: supplements. The evidence is fairly solid that vitamin D supplements increase blood serum levels as well as, if not better than, sunshine – which, for the reasons mentioned above, can be difficult to obtain consistently.

Now, as I’ve said many times before, I’m not a medical doctor. However, I’m on fairly safe ground here, because Public Health England do actually recommend everyone take a vitamin D supplement from October to May. That is, from now. Yes, now.

I do need to stress one point here: DO NOT OVERDO IT. There always seems to be someone whose reasoning goes along the lines of, “if one tablet is good, then ten will be even better!” and, no. No. Excessive doses of vitamin D can cause vomiting and digestive problems, and can lead to hypercalcemia which results in weakness, joint pain confusion and other unpleasant symptoms.

If you live in the U.K. you should be taking a vitamin D supplement from October-May.

Public Health England recommend everyone in the U.K. take 10 micrograms per day in autumn and winter. Babies under one year should also be given 8.5–10 micrograms of vitamin D in the form of vitamin drops, unless they’re drinking more than 500 ml of infant formula a day (because that’s already fortified).

Amounts can get a little confusing, because there are different ways to measure vitamin D doses, and in particular you may see IU, or “international units“. However, if you buy a simple D3 supplement, like this one that I picked up at the supermarket, and follow the dose instructions on the label, you won’t go far wrong.

So, should you (and everyone else in your family) be taking a simple vitamin D supplement right around now? If you live in the U.K., or somewhere else very northerly, then yes. Well, unless you’re really keen to eat mushrooms pretty much every day. At worst, it won’t make much difference, and at best, well, there’s a chance it might help you to avoid a really unpleasant time with COVID-19, and that’s got to be a good thing.

But, look, it’s not toilet roll. Don’t go and bulk buy vitamin D, for goodness sake.

Until next time, take care, and stay safe.


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Chemical connections: dexamethasone, hydroxychloroquine and rheumatoid arthritis

The chemical structure of dexamethasone (image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been widely reported today that a “cheap and widely-available” steroid treatment has been shown to be effective in patients suffering the most severe COVID-19 symptoms, significantly reducing the risk of death for both patients on ventilators and those on oxygen treatment.

Most of the reports have understandably focused on the medical aspects, but this is a chemistry blog (mostly) so *cracks chemistry knuckles* what is dexamethasone, exactly?

Its story starts a little over 60 years ago when, in 1958, a paper was published on “clinical observations with 16a-methyl corticosteroid compounds”. Bear with me, I shall explain. Firstly, corticosteroids are hormones which are naturally produced in our bodies. They do all sorts of nifty, useful things like regulate our immune response, reduce inflammation and help us to get energy from carbohydrates. Two of the most familiar names are probably cortisol and cortisone—both of which are released in response to stress.

The discovery of corticosteroids was an important one. So important, in fact, that a few years earlier, in 1950, Tadeusz ReichsteinEdward Calvin Kendall and Philip Showalter Hench had been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for “discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex”.

The adrenal glands are two small glands found above the kidneys. The outermost part of these glands is called the adrenal cortex (“cortex” from the Latin for (tree) bark and meaning, literally, an outer layer). In the mid-1930s Kendall and Reichstein managed to isolate several hormones produced by these glands. They then made preparations which, with input from Hench, were used in the 1940s to treat a number of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis.

This was hugely significant at the time, because until this point the treatments for this painful, debilitating condition were pretty limited. Aspirin was known, of course, but wasn’t particularly effective and long-term use had potentially dangerous side effects. Injectable gold compounds (literally chemical compounds containing Au atoms/ions) had also been tried, but those treatments were slow to work, if they worked at all, and were expensive. The anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine (which has also been in the news quite a lot), had been tried as a “remittive agent”—meaning it could occasionally produce remission—but it wasn’t guaranteed.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes warm, swollen, and painful joints (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Corticosteroids were a game-changer. When Hench and Kendall treated patients with what they called, at the time, “compound E” (cortisone) there was a rapid reduction in joint inflammation. It still caused side effects, and it didn’t prevent joint damage, but it did consistently provide relief from painful symptoms.

Fast-forward to the 1958 paper I mentioned earlier, and scientists had discovered that a little bit of fiddling with the molecular structure of steroid molecules caused them to have different effects in the body. The particular chemical path we’re following here started with prednisolone, which had turned out to be a useful treatment for a number of inflammatory conditions. However, placing a methyl group (—CH3) on the 16th carbon—which is, if you have a look at the diagram below, the one on the pentagon-shaped ring, roughly in the middle—changed things.

The steroid “nucleus”: each number represents a carbon atom (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1957, four different molecules with methyl groups on that 16th carbon were made available for clinical trial. One of them was 16a-methyl 9a-fluoroprednisolone, more handily known as dexamethasone.

(Quick aside to explain that on the diagram of dexamethasone at the start of this post, the methyl group on the 16th carbon is represented by a dashed wedge-shape. It’s a 2D diagram of a 3D molecule, and the dashed wedge tells us that the methyl group is pointing away from us, through the paper, or rather, screen. This matters because molecules like this have mirror image forms which usually have very different effects in the body—so it’s important to get the right one.)

Dexamethasone is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines

It turned out that dexamethasone had a much stronger anti-inflammatory action than plain prednisolone, and it was also more effective the other molecules being tested. It caused a bigger reduction in symptoms, at lower doses. A win all round. It did still have side effects—weight gain, skin problems and digestive issues—but these were no worse than other steroids, and better than some. In fact, salt and water retention were less with dexamethasone, which meant less bloating. It also seemed to have less of an effect on carbohydrate metabolism, making it potentially safer for patients with diabetes.

Skipping forward to 2020, and dexamethasone is routinely used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, as well as skin diseases, asthma, COPD and various other conditions. It is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines—a list of drugs thought to be the most important for taking care of the health needs of the population, based on their effectiveness, safety and relative cost.

In the wake of more and more evidence that COVID-19 disease was leading to autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases, scientists have been looking at anti-inflammatory drugs to see if any of them might help. The Recovery Trial at the University of Oxford was set up to investigate a few different drugs, including hydroxychloroquine (there it is again) and dexamethasone.

It’s not a miracle cure but, in the most severe cases, dexamethasone—a cheap, 60+ year old drug—might just make all the difference.

And that brings us back to today’s news: in the trial, 2104 patients were given dexamethasone once per day for ten days and compared to 4321 patients who were given standard care. The study, led by Professor Peter Horby and Professor Martin Landray, showed that dexamethasone reduced the risk of dying by one-third in ventilated patients and by one fifth in other patients receiving only oxygen.

It’s not a miracle cure by any means: it doesn’t help patients who don’t (yet) need respiratory support, and it doesn’t work for everyone, but, if you find yourself on a ventilator, there’s a chance this 60+ year-old molecule that was first developed to cure rheumatoid arthritis might, just, save your life. And that’s pretty good news.

EDIT 17th June 2020: Chemistry World published an article pointing out that “the trial results have yet to be released leading some to urge caution when interpreting them” and quoting Ayfer Ali, a specialist in drug repurposing, as saying “we have to wait for the full results to be peer reviewed and remember that it is not a cure for all, just one more tool.


If you’re studying from home, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2020. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, and especially if you’re using information you’ve found here to write a piece for which you will be paid, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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Want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial.

Cleaning chemistry – the awesome power of soap

Well, times are interesting at the moment, aren’t they? I’m not going to talk (much) about The Virus (there’s gonna be a movie, mark my words), because everyone else is, and I’m not an epidemiologist, virologist or an immunologist or, in fact, in any way remotely qualified. I am personally of the opinion that it’s not even especially helpful to talk about possibly-relevant drugs at the moment, given that we don’t know enough about possible negative interactions, and we don’t have reliable data about the older medicines being touted.

In short, I think it’s best I shut up and leave the medical side to the experts. But! I DO know about something relevant. What’s that, I hear you ask? Well, it’s… soap! But wait, before you start yawning, soap is amazing. It is fascinating. It both literally and figuratively links loads of bits of cool chemistry with loads of other bits of cool chemistry. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.

First up, some history (also not a historian, but that crowd is cool, they’ll forgive me) soap is old. Really, really, old. Archaeological evidence suggests ancient Babylonians were making soap around 4800 years ago – probably not for personal hygiene, but rather, mainly, to clean cooking pots. It was originally made from fats boiled with ashes, and the theory generally goes that the discovery was a happy accident: ashes left from cooking fires made it much easier to clean pots and, some experimenting later, we arrived at something we might cautiously recognise today as soap.

Soap was first used to clean pots.

The reason this works is that ashes are alkaline. In fact, the very word “alkali” is derived from the Arabic al qalīy, meaning calcined ashes. This is because plants, and especially wood, aren’t just made up of carbon and hydrogen. Potassium and calcium play important roles in tree and plant metabolism, and as a result both are found in moderately significant quantities in wood. When that wood is burnt at high temperatures, alkaline compounds of potassium and calcium form. If the temperature gets high enough, calcium oxide (lime) forms, which is even more alkaline.

You may, in fact, have heard the term potash. This usually refers to salts that contain potassium in a water-soluble form. Potash was first made by taking plant ashes and soaking them in water in a pot, hence, “pot ash”. And, guess where we get the word potassium from? Yep. The pure element, being very reactive, wasn’t discovered until 1870, thousands of years after people first discovered how useful its compounds could be. And, AND, why does the element potassium have the symbol K? It comes from kali, the root of the word alkali.

See what I mean about connections?

butyl ethanoate butyl ethanoate

Why is the fact that the ashes are alkaline relevant? Well, to answer that we need to think about fats. Chemically, fats are esters. Esters are chains of hydrogen and carbon that have, somewhere within them, a cheeky pair of oxygen atoms. Like this (oxygen atoms are shown red):

Now, this is a picture of butyl ethanoate (aka butyl acetate – smells of apples, by the way) and is a short-ish example of an ester. Fats generally contain much longer chains, and there are three of those chains, and the oxygen bit is stuck to a glycerol backbone.

Thus, the thick, oily, greasy stuff that you think of as fat is a triglyceride: an ester made up of three fatty acid molecules and glycerol (aka glycerine, yup, same stuff in baking). But it’s the ester bit we want to focus on for now, because esters react with alkalis (and acids, for that matter) in a process called hydrolysis.

Fats are esters. Three fatty acid chains are attached to a glycerol “backbone”.

The clue here is in the name – “hydro” suggesting water – because what happens is that the ester splits where those (red) oxygens are. On one side of that split, the COO group of atoms gains a metal ion (or a hydrogen, if the reaction was carried out under acidic conditions), while the other chunk of the molecule ends up with an OH on the end. We now have a carboxylate salt (or a carboxylic acid) and an alcohol. Effectively, we’ve split the molecule into two pieces and tidied up the ends with atoms from water.

Still with me? This is where it gets clever. Having mixed our fat with alkali and split our fat molecules up, we have two things: fatty acid salts (hydrocarbon chains with, e.g. COONa+ on the end) and glycerol. Glycerol is extremely useful stuff (and, funnily enough, antiviral) but we’ll put that aside for the moment, because it’s the other part that’s really interesting.

What we’ve done here is produce a molecule that has a polar end (the charged bit, e.g. COONa+) and a non-polar end (the long chain of Cs and Hs). Here’s the thing: polar substances tend to only mix with other polar substances, while non-polar substances only mix with other non-polar substances.

You may be thinking this is getting technical, but honestly, it’s not. I guarantee you’ve experienced this: think, for example, what happens if you make a salad dressing with oil and vinegar (which is mostly water). The non-polar oil floats on top of the polar water and the two won’t stay mixed. Even if you give them a really good shake, they separate out after a few minutes.

The dark blue oily layer in this makeup remover doesn’t mix with the watery colourless layer.

There are even toiletries based around this principle. This is an eye and lip makeup remover designed to remove water-resistant mascara and long-stay lipstick. It has an oily layer and a water-based layer. To use it, you give the container a good shake and use it immediately. The oil in the mixture removes any oil-based makeup, while the water part removes anything water-based. If you leave the bottle for a minute or two, it settles back into two layers.

But when we broke up our fat molecules, we formed a molecule which can combine with both types of substance. One end will mix with oily substances, and the other end mixes with water. Imagine it as a sort of bridge, joining two things that otherwise would never be connected (see, literal connections!)

There are a few different names for this type of molecule. When we’re talking about food, we usually use “emulsifier” – a term you’ll have seen on food ingredients lists. The best-known example is probably lecithin, which is found in egg yolks. Lecithin is the reason mayonnaise is the way it is – it allows oil and water to combine to give a nice, creamy product that stays mixed, even if it’s left on a shelf for months.

When we’re talking about soaps and detergents, we call these joiny-up molecules “surfactants“. You’re less likely to have seen that exact term on cosmetic ingredients lists, but you will (if you’ve looked) almost certainly have seen one of the most common examples, which is sodium laureth sulfate (or sodium lauryl sulfate), because it turns up everywhere: in liquid soap, bubble bath, shampoo and even toothpaste.

I won’t get into the chemical makeup of sodium laureth sulfate, as it’s a bit different. I’m going to stick to good old soap bars. A common surfactant molecule that you’ll find in those is sodium stearate, which is just like the examples I was talking about earlier: a long hydrocarbon chain with COONa+ stuck on the end. The hydrocarbon end, or “tail”, is hydrophobic (“water-hating”), and only mixes with oily substances. The COONa+ end, or “head”, is hydrophilic (“water loving”) and only mixes with watery substances.

Bars of soap contain sodium stearate.

This is perfect because dirt is usually oily, or is trapped in oil. Soap allows that oil to mix with the water you’re using to wash, so that both the oil, and anything else it might be harbouring, can be washed away.

Which brings us back to the wretched virus. Sars-CoV-2 has a lipid bilayer, that is, a membrane made of two layers of lipid (fatty) molecules. Virus particles stick to our skin and, because of that membrane, water alone does a really bad job of removing them. However, the water-hating tail ends of surfacant molecules are attracted to the virus’s outer fatty surface, while the water-loving head ends are attracted to the water that’s, say, falling out of your tap. Basically, soap causes the virus’s membrane to dissolve, and it falls apart and is destroyed. Victory is ours – hurrah!

Hand sanitisers also destroy viruses. Check out this excellent Compound Interest graphic (click the image for more).

Who knew a nearly-5000 year-old weapon would be effective against such a modern scourge? (Well, yes, virologists, obviously.) The more modern alcohol hand gels do much the same thing, but not quite as effectively – if you have access to soap and water, use them!

Of course, all this only works if you wash your hands thoroughly. I highly recommend watching this video, which uses black ink to demonstrate what needs to happen with the soap. I thought I was washing my hands properly until I watched it, and now I’m actually washing my hands properly.

You may be thinking at this point (if you’ve made it this far), “hang on, if the ancient Babylonians were making soap nearly 5000 years ago, it must be quite easy to make… ooh, could I make soap?!” And yes, yes it is and yes you can. Believe me, if the apocolypse comes I shall be doing just that. People rarely think about soap in disaster movies, which is a problem, because without a bit of basic hygine it won’t be long before the hero is either puking his guts up or dying from a minor wound infection.

Here’s the thing though, it’s potentially dangerous to make soap, because most of the recipes you’ll find (I won’t link to any, but a quick YouTube search will turn up several – try looking for “saponification“) involve lye. Lye is actually a broad term that covers a couple of different chemicals, but most of the time when people say lye these days, they mean pure sodium hydroxide.

Pure sodium hydroxide is usually supplied as pellets.

Pure sodium hydroxide comes in the form of pellets. It’s dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, precisely because it’s so good at breaking down fats and proteins, i.e. the stuff that humans are made of, it’s really, really corrosive and will give you an extremely nasty burn. Remember that scene in the movie Fight Club? Yes, that scene? Well, that. (Follow that link with extreme caution.)

And secondly, when sodium hydroxide pellets are mixed with water, the solution gets really, really hot.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realise that a really hot, highly corrosive, solution is potentially a huge disaster waiting to happen. So, and I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT attempt to make your own soap unless you have done a lot of research AND you have ALL the appropriate safety equipment, especially good eye protection.

And there we are. Soap is ancient and awesome, and full of interesting chemistry. Make sure you appreciate it every time you wash your hands, which ought to be frequently!

Stay safe, everyone. Take care, and look after yourselves.


Want something non-sciency to distract you? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial. There are loads of short stories, and even (recently) a poem. Enjoy!

If you’re studying from home, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2020. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2019

Happy New Year, everyone! Usually, I write this post in December but somehow things have got away from me this year, and I find myself in January. Oops. It’s still early enough in the month to get away with a 2019 round-up, isn’t it? I’m sure it is.

It was a fun year, actually. I wrote several posts with International Year of the Periodic table themes, managed to highlight the tragically-overlooked Elizabeth Fulhame, squeezed in something light-hearted about the U.K.’s weird use of metric and imperial units and discovered the recipe for synthetic poo. Enjoy!

Newland’s early table of the elements

January started with a reminder that 2019 had been officially declared The Year of the Periodic Table, marking 150 years since Dmitri Mendeleev discovered the “Periodic System”. The post included a quick summary of his work, and of course mentioned the last four elements to be officially named: nihonium (113), moscovium (115), tennessine (117) and oganesson (118). Yes, despite what oh-so-many periodic tables still in widespread use suggest (sort it out in 2020, exam boards, please), period 7 is complete, all the elements have been confirmed, and they all have ‘proper’ names.

February featured a post about ruthenium. Its atomic number being not at all significant (there might be a post about rhodium in 2020 😉). Ruthenium and its compounds have lots of uses, including cancer treatments, catalysis, and exposing latent fingerprints in forensic investigations.

March‘s entry was all about a little-known female chemist called Elisabeth Fulhame. She only discovered catalysis. Hardly a significant contribution to the subject. You can’t really blame all those (cough, largely male, cough) chemists for entirely ignoring her work and giving the credit to Berzelius. Ridiculous to even suggest it.

An atom of Mendeleevium, atomic number 101

April summarised the results of the Element Tales Twitter game started by Mark Lorch, in which chemists all over Twitter tried to connect all the elements in one, long chain. It was great fun, and threw up some fascinating element facts and stories. One of my favourites was Mark telling us that when he cleared out his Grandpa’s flat he discovered half a kilogram of sodium metal as well as potassium cyanide and concentrated hydrochloric acid. Fortunately, he managed to stop his family throwing it all down the sink (phew).

May‘s post was written with the help of the lovely Kit Chapman, and was a little trot through the discoveries of five elements: carbon, zinc, helium, francium and tennessine, making the point that elements are never truly discovered by a single person, no matter what the internet (and indeed, books) might tell you.

In June I wrote about something that had been bothering me a while: the concept of describing processes as “chemical” and “physical” changes. It still bothers me. The arguments continue…

In July I came across a linden tree in a local park, and it smelled absolutely delightful. So I wrote about it. Turns out, the flowers contain one of my all-time favourite chemicals (at least in terms of smell): benzaldehyde. As always, natural substances are stuffed full of chemicals, and anyone suggesting otherwise is at best misinformed, at worst outright lying.

Britain loves inches.

In August I wrote about the UK’s unlikely system of units, explaining (for a given value of “explaining”) our weird mishmash of metric and imperial units. As I said to a confused American just the other day, the UK is not on the metric system. The UK occasionally brushes fingers with the metric system, and then immediately denies that it wants anything to do with that sort of thing, thank you very much. This was my favourite post of the year and was in no way inspired by my obsession with the TV adaptation of Good Omens (it was).

In September I returned to one of my favourite targets: quackery. This time it was amber teething necklaces. These are supposed to work (hmm) by releasing succinic acid from the amber beads into the baby’s skin where it… soothes the baby by… some unexplained mechanism. They don’t work and they’re a genuine choking hazard. Don’t waste your money.

October featured a post explaining why refilling plastic bottles might not be quite as simple as you thought. Sure, we all need to cut down on plastic use, but there are good reasons why shops have rules about what you can, and can’t, refill and they’re not to do with selling more bottles.

November continued the environmental theme with a post was all about some new research into super-slippery coatings that might be applied to all sorts of surfaces, not least ceramic toilet bowls, with the goal of saving some of the water that’s currently used to rinse and clean such surfaces. The best bit about this was that I discovered that synthetic poo is a thing, and that the recipe includes miso. Yummy.

Which brings us to… December, in which I described some simple, minimal-equipment electrolysis experiments that Louise Herbert from STEM Learning had tested out during some teaching training exercises. Got a tic tac box, some drawing pins and a 9V battery? Give it a go!

Well, there we have it. That’s 2019 done and dusted. It’s been fun! I wonder what sort of health scares will turn up for “guilty January”? Won’t be long now…


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How are amber teething necklaces supposed to work?

Do amber beads have medicinal properties?

Amber, as anyone that was paying attention during Jurassic Park will tell you, is fossilised resin from trees that lived at least twenty million years ago (although some scientists have speculated it could be older). It takes the form of clear yellow through to dark brown stones, seemingly warm to the touch, smooth and surprisingly hard. It is certainly beautiful. But does it also have medicinal properties? And if it does, are they risk-free?

In 2016 a one year-old boy was found dead at his daycare centre in Florida. The cause of death was a necklace, which had become tangled and tightened to the point that he was unable to breathe.

Why was he wearing a necklace? Surely everyone knows that babies shouldn’t wear jewellery around their necks where it could so easily cause a terrible tragedy like this? No one needs a necklace, after all – it’s purely a decorative thing. Isn’t it?

Yes. Yes, it is. However, this particular type of jewellery was specifically sold for use by babies. Sold as a product that parents should give their children to wear, despite all the advice from medical professionals. Why? Because this jewellery was made from amber, and that’s supposed to help with teething pains.

Teething is a literal pain.

Anyone whose ever had children will tell you that teeth are basically a non-stop, literal pain from about 4 months onward. Even once your child appears to have a full set, you’re not done. The first lot start falling out somewhere around age five, resulting in teeth that can be wobbly for weeks. And then there are larger molars that come through at the back somewhere around age seven. Teenagers often find themselves suffering through braces and, even when all that’s done, there’s the joy of wisdom teeth still to come.

It’s particularly difficult with babies, who can’t tell you what hurts and who probably have inconsistent sleep habits at the best of times. Twenty sharp teeth poking through swollen gums at different times has to be unpleasant. Who could blame any parent for trying, well, pretty much anything to soothe the discomfort?

Enter amber teething necklaces. They’re sold as a “natural” way to soothe teething pain. They look nice, too, which I’m sure is part of their appeal. A chewed plastic teething ring isn’t the sort of thing to keep in baby’s keepsake box, but a pretty necklace, well, I’m sure many parents have imagined getting that out, running their fingers over the beads and having a sentimental moment years in the future.

Amber is fossilised tree resin.

So-called amber teething necklaces are made from “Baltic amber,” that is, amber from the Baltic region: the largest known deposit of amber. It is found in other geographical locations, but it seems that the conditions – and tree species – were just right in the Baltic region to produce large deposits.

Chemically, it’s also known as succinite, and its structure is complicated. It’s what chemists would call a supramolecule: a complex of two or more (often large) molecules that aren’t covalently bonded. There are cross-links within its structure, which make it much denser than you might imagine something that started as tree resin to be. Baltic amber, in particular, also contains something else: between 3-8% succinic acid.

Succinic acid is a dicarboxylic acid.

Succinic acid is a much simpler molecule with the IUPAC name of butanedioic acid. It contains two carboxylic acid groups, a group of atoms we’re all familiar with whether we realise it or not – because we’ve all met vinegar, which contains the carboxylic acid also known as ethanoic acid. If you imagine chopping succinic acid right down the middle (and adding a few extra hydrogen atoms), you’d end up with two ethanoic acid molecules.

Succinic acid (the name comes from the Latin, succinum, meaning amber) is produced naturally in the body where it is (or, rather, succinate ions are) an important intermediate in lots of chemical reactions. Exposure-wise it’s generally considered pretty safe at low levels and it’s a permitted food additive, used as an acidity regulator. In European countries, you might see it on labels listed as E363. It also turns up in a number of pharmaceutical products, where it’s used as an excipient – something that helps to stabilise or enhance the action of the main active ingredient. Often, again, it’s there to regulate acidity.

Basically, it’s mostly harmless. And therefore, an ideal candidate for the alternative medicine crowd, who make a number of claims about its properties. I found one site claiming that it could “improve cellular respiration” which… well, if you’ve got problem with cellular respiration, you’re less in need of succinic acid and more in need of a coffin. Supposedly it also relives stress and prevents colds, because doesn’t everything? And, of course, it allegedly relieves teething pains in babies, either thanks to its general soothing effect or because it’s supposed to reduce inflammation, or both.

Purporters claim succinic acid is absorbed through the skin.

The reasoning is usually presented like this: succinic acid is released from the amber when the baby wears the necklace or bracelet and is absorbed through the baby’s skin into their body, where it works its magical, soothing effects.

Now. Hold on, one minute. Whether this is true or not – and getting substances to absorb through skin is far less simple than many people imagine, after all, skin evolved as a barrier – do you really, really, want your baby’s skin exposed to a random quantity of an acidic compound? Succinic acid may be pretty harmless but, as always, the dose makes the poison. Concentrated exposure causes skin and eye irritation. Okay, you might say, it’s unlikely that an amber necklace is going to produce anywhere near the quantities to cause that sort of effect, but if that’s your logic, then how can it also produce enough to pass through skin and have any sort of biological effect on the body?

The answer, perhaps predictably, is that it doesn’t. In a paper published in 2019, a group of scientists actually went to the trouble of powdering Baltic amber beads and dissolving the powder in sulfuric acid to measure how much succinic acid they actually contained. They then compared those results with what happened when undamaged beads from the same batches were submerged in solvents, with the aim of working out how much succinic acid beads might conceivably release into human skin. The answer? They couldn’t measure any. No succinic acid was released into the solvents, at all. None.

Scientists submerged Baltic amber beads in solvents to see how much succinic acid they released.

They concluded that there was “no evidence to suggest that the purported active ingredient succinic acid could be released from the beads into human skin” and also added that they found no evidence to suggest that succinic acid even had anti-inflammatory properties in the first place.

So amber necklaces don’t work to relieve teething pains. They can’t. Of course, there could be a sort of placebo effect – teething pain is very much one of those comes-and-goes things. It’s very easy to make connections that just aren’t there in this kind of situation, and imagine that the baby is more settled because of the necklace, when in fact they might have calmed down over the next few hours anyway. Or maybe they’re just distracted by the pretty beads.

And, fine. If wearing the jewellery was really risk-free, then why not? But as the story at the start of this post proves, it is not. Any kind of string around a baby’s neck can become twisted, interfering with their breathing. Most necklaces claim to have some sort of “emergency release” mechanism so that they come apart when pulled, but this doesn’t always work.

Don’t fall for the marketing.

Ah, goes the argument. But it’s okay, because we only sell bracelets and anklets for babies. They don’t go around the baby’s neck. It’s completely safe!

No. Because I don’t care how carefully you make it: the string or cord could still break (especially if it’s been chewed), leaving loose beads to pose a serious choking hazard. Not to mention get jammed in ears or nostrils. Even if you’re with the baby, watching them, these sorts of accidents can happen frighteningly quickly. Letting a baby sleep with such an item is nothing short of asking for disaster, and no matter how good anyone’s intentions, babies do have a habit of dozing off at odd times. Will you really wake the child up to take off their bracelet? Every time?

In summary, don’t fall for the marketing. Amber necklaces may be pretty, but they’re not suitable for babies. The claims about succinic acid are completely baseless, and the risks are very real.


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A natural remedy that’s full of chemicals?

Blossoms

The summer holidays are here! A time when parents of small children find themselves exploring every park in their local vicinity, quite probably several times (whilst hoping against hope that it doesn’t rain). On just such a quest myself, I recently visited one particular park that was filled with a gorgeous smell.

What was it? A bit of sniffing around quickly identified this tree. Now, I am not a botanist (or even much of a gardener), so I immediately resorted to the rather wonderful Seek app by iNaturalist, which uses some very clever image recognition software to identify plants and animals (disclaimer: accuracy is not guaranteed — don’t eat anything based on this app!)

Seek told me that this was a lime tree, or a linden (genus Tilia). A bit of cross-referencing (thanks Dad!) suggested that it had identified the tree correctly. It’s not an uncommon plant: you’ll probably come across it yourself if you go looking (or smelling).

The name ‘linden’ was more familiar to me. The wood is soft and easily worked, and is used to make musical instruments because it has good acoustic properties. It’s also used to make wooden blinds and other pieces of furniture because it’s lightweight, stable, and holds stains and finishes well.

Linden blossoms can be used to make tea.

But let’s go back to the flowers and their delicious scent. The tree blooms during July and August in the Northern hemisphere. The flowers are sometimes described as mucilaginous — which is a fabulous word meaning, basically, thick and sticky. More specifically: “containing a polysaccharide substance that is extracted as a viscous or gelatinous solution and used in medicines and adhesives.”

Linden flowers are a ‘natural remedy’ with a list of applications in herbal medicine as long as your arm. They contain lots of different substances. One that comes up a lot is farnesol, which is actually a type of alcohol. Of course, it’s nothing like the alcohol we’re familiar with from drinks, which is the much simpler ethanol — but it’s important to remember that ‘alcohol’ actually refers to a class of compounds (which, in simple terms, contain an -OH group like the one in the image here) and not a single substance.

The chemical structure of farnesol

Farnesol turns up in lots of essential oils, such as citronella, rose and lemon grass. It’s used in perfumes to enhance floral scents. But plants don’t make substances just to please humans (well, it’s complicated…). It acts as a pheromone for several insects. Sometimes this doesn’t work out so well for the insects, as it confuses their mating behaviour and effectively acts as a natural pesticide. On the other hand, it actively encourages others: bumblebees release farnesol when they return to the hive to spur other bees into action. It’s the bee equivalent of shouting, ‘oi! Move it you lot, pollen this way!’

Farnesol acts as a pheromone for bumblebees.

Linden flowers also contain one of my all-time favourite chemicals, benzaldehyde. That’s the one that smells of almonds and isn’t a deadly cyanide salt. Its delicious almondy-ness is the reason it’s used as a flavouring and scent, but it’s also a starting material for loads of different chemicals, for example the dye malachite green, which is used to give a green colour to leather, fabric and paper. A form of this dye called ‘brilliant green‘ is mixed with a second, violet, dye to make ‘Bonney’s blue,’ a disinfectant dye used to mark skin for surgeries. Benzaldehyde is also used to make styrene, which is of course used to make the well-known packing material, polystyrene.

And these are just a couple of the substances found in those yummy-smelling flowers. They also contain arabinogalactans, uronic acid, tannins, rutin, hyperoside, quercitrin, isoquercitrin, astragalin and others. In short, a veritable cocktail of different chemicals.

So next time you smell the scent of a lovely flower, just think about all the amazing chemical substances the plant is making. All natural, of course!


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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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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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Where did our love of dairy come from?

The popularity of the soya latte seems to be on the rise.

A little while ago botanist James Wong tweeted about the myriad types of plant ‘milk’ that are increasingly being offered in coffee shops, none of which are truly milk (in the biological sense).

This generated a huge response, probably rather larger than he was expecting from an off-hand tweet. Now, I’m not going to get into the ethics of milk production because it’s beyond the scope of this blog (and let’s keep it out of the comments? — kthxbye) but I do want to consider one fairly long thread of responses which ran the gamut from ‘humans are the only species to drink the milk of another animal’ (actually, no) to ‘there’s no benefit to dairy’ (bear with me) and ending with, in essence, ‘dairy is slowly killing us‘ (complicated, but essentially there’s very little evidence of any harm).

Humans have been consuming dairy products for thousands of years.

But wait. If dairy is so terrible for humans, and if there are no advantages to it, why do we consume it at all? Dairy is not a new thing. Humans have been consuming foods made from one type of animal milk or another for 10,000 years, give or take. That’s really quite a long time. More to the point (I don’t want to be accused of appealing to antiquity, after all), keeping animals and milking them is quite resource intensive. You have to feed them, look after them and ensure they don’t wander off or get eaten by predators, not to mention actually milk them on a daily basis. All that takes time, energy and probably currency of some sort. Why would anyone bother, if dairy were truly detrimental to our well-being?

In fact, some cultures don’t bother. The ability to digest lactose (the main sugar in milk) beyond infancy is quite low in some parts of the world, specifically Asia and most of Africa. In those areas dairy is, or at least has been historically, not a significant part of people’s diet.

But it is in European diets. Particularly northern European diets. Northern Europeans are, generally, extremely tolerant of lactose into adulthood and beyond.

Which is interesting because it suggests, if you weren’t suspicious already, that there IS some advantage to consuming dairy. The ability to digest lactose seems to be a genetic trait. And it seems it’s something to do, really quite specifically, with your geographic location.

Which brings us to vitamin D. This vitamin, which is more accurately described as a hormone, is a crucial nutrient for humans. It increases absorption of calcium, magnesium and phosphate, which are all necessary for healthy bones (not to mention lots of other processes in the body). It’s well-known that a lack of vitamin D leads to weakened bones, and specifically causes rickets in children. More recently we’ve come to understand that vitamin D also supports our immune system; deficiency has been meaningfully linked to increased risk of certain viral infections.

What’s the connection between vitamin D and geographic location? Well, humans can make vitamin D in their skin, but we need a bit of help. In particular, and this is where the chemistry comes in, we need ultraviolet light. Specifically, UVB – light with wavelengths between 280 nm to 315 nm. When our skin is exposed to UVB, a substance called 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC to its friends) is converted into previtamin D3, which is then changed by our body heat to vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol – which is the really good stuff. (There’s another form, vitamin D2, but this is slightly less biologically active.) At this point the liver and kidneys take over and activate the chloecalciferol via the magic of enzymes.

We make vitamin D in our skin when we’re exposed to UVB light.

How much UVB you’re exposed to depends on where you live. If you live anywhere near the equator, no problem. You get UVB all year round. Possibly too much, in fact – it’s also linked with skin cancers. But if you live in northerly latitudes (or very southerly), you might have a problem. In the summer months, a few minutes in the sun without sunscreen (literally a few minutes, not hours!) will produce more than enough vitamin D. But people living in UK, for example, get no UVB exposure for 6 months of the year. Icelanders go without for 7, and inhabitants of Tromsø, in Norway, have to get by for a full 8 months. Since we can only store vitamin D in our bodies for something like 2-4 months (I’ve struggled to find a consistent number for this, but everyone seems to agree it’s in this ballpark), that potentially means several months with no vitamin D at all, which could lead to deficiency.

In the winter northern Europeans don’t receive enough UVB light from the sun to produce vitamin D in their skin.

In the winter, northern Europeans simply can’t make vitamin D3 in their skin (and for anyone thinking about sunbeds, that’s a bad idea for several reasons). In 2018, this is easily fixed – you just take a supplement. For example, Public Health England recommends that Brits take a daily dose of 10 mcg (400 IU) of vitamin D in autumn and winter, i.e. between about October and March. It’s worth pointing out at this point that a lot of supplements you can buy contain much more than this, and more isn’t necessarily better. Vitamin D is fat-soluble and so it will build up in the body, potentially reaching toxic levels if you really overdo things. Check your labels.

Oily fish is an excellent source of vitamin D.

But what about a few thousand years ago, before you just could pop to the supermarket and buy a bottle of small tablets? What did northern Europeans do then? The answer is simple: they had to get vitamin D from their food. Even if it’s not particularly well-absorbed, it’s better than nothing.

Of couse it helps if you have access to lots of foods which are sources of vitamin D. Which would be…  fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, etc) – suddenly that northern European love of herring makes so much more sense – red meat, certain types of liver, egg yolks and, yep, dairy products. Dairy products, in truth, contain relatively low levels of vitamin D (cheese and butter are better than plain milk), but every little helps. Plus, they’re also a good source of calcium, which works alongside vitamin D and is, of course, really important for good bone health.

A side note for vegans and vegetarians: most dietry sources of vitamin D come from animals. Certain mushrooms grown under UV can be a good source of vitamin D2, but unless you’re super-careful a plant-based diet won’t provide enough of this nutrient. So if you live in the north somewhere or you don’t, or can’t, expose your skin to the sun very often, you need a supplement (vegan supplements are available).

Fair skin likely emerged because it allows for better vitamin D production when UVB levels are lower.

One thing I haven’t mentioned of course is skin-colour. Northern Europeans are generally fair-skinned, and this is vitamin D-related, too. The paler your skin, the better UVB penetrates it. Fair-skinned people living in the north had an advantage over those with darker skin in the winter, spring and autumn months: they could produce more vitamin D. In fact, this was probably a significant factor in the evolution of fair skin (although, as Ed Yong explains in this excellent article, that’s complicated).

In summary, consuming dairy does have advantages, at least historically. There’s a good reason Europeans love their cheeses. But these days, if you want to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet for any reason (once again, let’s not get into those reasons in comments, kay?) you really should take a vitamin D supplement. In fact, Public Health England recommends that everyone in the UK take a vitamin D supplement in the autumn and winter, but only a small amount – check your dose.

By the way, if you spot any ‘diary’s let me know. I really had to battle to keep them from sneaking in…

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A Dash of Science, Social Media and VARD

Yesterday I recorded a podcast with Matthew Lee Loftus (from The Credible Hulk) and Christopher El Sergio for A Dash of Science, all about science communication and social media. It was a brilliant chat – I won’t go into lots of details of what we covered, but if you’d like to hear it (you know you do!) the direct link is: Communicating Science on Social Media. You can also pick it up on iTunes and/or Tune In.

After our conversation ended I remembered something I developed little while ago, after marking a particularly infuriating research homework where a quarter of the class wrote down that Mendeleev was awarded a Nobel prize for his work on the Periodic Table. For the record: he never received the honour. He was recommended for the prize but famously (at least, I thought it was famously!) the 1906 prize was given to Henri Moissan instead, probably due to a grudge held by Svante Arrhenius of Arrhenius Equation fame (it’s a good story, check it out).

Mendeleev was never awarded a Nobel prize.

Does it really matter if a few students believe that Mendeleev won a Nobel prize? That’s not really harming anyone, is it? Maybe not, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s part of a long and slippery slope greased with ‘alternative facts’ which is leading us to, well, shall we say, situations and decisions that may not be in our best interests as a society.

How to encourage students to do at least a little bit of fact-checking? Of course, you could produce a long list of Things That One Should Do to check information, but I reasoned that while students might read such a list, and even agree with the principles, they were unlikely to get into the habit of applying them and probably quite likely to immediately forget all about it.

Instead I tried to come up with something short, simple and memorable, and here it is (feel free to share this):

Fact-checking isn’t easy; it’s VARD

The four points I focused on spell out VARD, which stands for…

Verify

V is for verify, which means: can you find other sources saying the same thing? Now, chances are, you can always find something that agrees with a particular piece of information, if you look hard enough. There are plenty of sites out there that will tell you that lemons ‘alkalise’ the body, for example (they don’t), that it’s safe to eat apricot kernels (it’s not) and that black salve is an effective treatment for skin cancer (nope).

However, if you’re reasonably open-minded when you start, chances are good that you’ll find both sides of the ‘story’ and that will, at the very least, get you thinking about which version is more trustworthy.

Author

A is for author. I often hear swathes of content being disparaged purely based on its nature. You know the sort of thing: “that’s just a blog,” or “you can’t trust newspaper articles”. I think this is wrong-headed. What matters more is who wrote that piece and what are their qualifications? I’d argue that a blog post about medical issues written by a medical doctor (for example, virtually anything on the marvellous Science Based Medicine) is likely to be a pretty reliable source. Conversely, there’s been more than one thing that’s made it into the scientific literature which has later turned out to be flawed or even flat false (such as Wakefield’s famous 1998 paper). It’s also worth asking what someone’s background is: Stephanie Seneff, for example, is highly qualified in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science, but does that mean we should trust her controversial opinions in biology and medicine? Probably not.

You may not always be able to tell who the author is, or have time to dig into their motivations, but it’s nevertheless a good question to keep in the back of your mind.

Reasonableness

Be honest: is that story really likely? Or is it just shocking?

R is for reasonableness. Which is a pain to spell or even say, but it’s important so I’m sticking with it. It’s a sense-check. Human beings love a good story, and the best stories have unexpected twists and turns. That’s why medical scare-stories pop up in newspapers with such depressing regularity. No, ketchup isn’t giving you cancer. No, our children really aren’t being poisoned by plastics. But the truth doesn’t always make a good headline. In fact, when it comes to science, the more some ‘exciting finding’ is plastered over news sites, the less you should probably trust it – because the chances are that the exciting version being reported bears almost no resemblance to the researchers’ original conculsions.

Be honest and ask yourself: does this really seem likely? Or would I just like it to be true because it’s a great story?

Date

If a surprising story has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours – chances are if there are major issues with the information someone else will come forward.

D is for date. The obvious situation is when information is so old that it’s been superseded by something else. This is easy: just look for something more recent. However, the other side of this coin is probably more relevant in these days of rolling news and instant sharing of articles: something can blow up at short notice, especially something topical, and it later turns out that not all the facts were known. Take, for example, the famous green swimming pools in the 2016 Olympics, which more than one writer attributed to copper salts in the pool water before the full facts were revealed a few days later. Inevitably, the ‘corrected’ version is far less interesting than the earlier speculation, and so that’s what everyone remembers.

If something controversial and shocking has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours. If there’s something terribly wrong with it, chances are someone will pick up on it in that time.

It’s not easy; it’s VARD

And that’s it: Verify, Author, Reasonableness, Date. It doesn’t cover every eventuality, but if you keep these points in the back of your mind it will definitely help you to separate the ‘probably true’ from the ‘almost certainly bollocks’.

Good luck out there!

Now why not go and listen to that podcast 🙂


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