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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Hydrogen peroxide: another deadly alternative?

I’m sure most people have heard of hydrogen peroxide. It’s used as a disinfectant and, even if you’ve never used it for that, you probably at least know that it’s used to bleach hair. It’s where the phrase “peroxide blonde” comes from, after all. Hydrogen peroxide, and its formula, is so famous that there’s an old chemistry joke about it:

(I have no idea who to credit for the original drawing – if it’s you, leave me a message.)

To save you squinting at the text, it goes like this:
Two men walk into a bar. The first man says, “I’ll have some H2O.”
The second man says, “I’ll have some H2O, too.”
The barman brings the drinks. The second man dies horribly.

Now I think about it, it’s not a terribly funny joke.

Hydrogen peroxide has an extra oxygen atom in the middle.

Never mind. You get the idea. H2O2 (“H2O, too”) is the formula for hydrogen peroxide. Very similar to water’s formula, except with an extra oxygen atom in the middle. In fact, naturopaths – purveyors of alternative therapies – often refer to hydrogen peroxide as “water with extra oxygen”. But this is really misleading because, to torture a metaphor, that extra oxygen makes hydrogen peroxide the piranha to water’s goldfish.

Water, as we know, is pretty innocuous. You should try not to inhale it obviously, or drink more than about six litres in one go, but otherwise, its pretty harmless. Hydrogen peroxide, on the other hand, not so much. The molecule breaks apart easily, releasing oxygen. That makes it a strong oxidising agent. It works as a disinfectant because it basically blasts cells to pieces. It bleaches hair because it breaks down pigments in the hair shaft. And, as medical students will tell you, it’s also really good at cleaning up blood stains – because it oxidises the iron in haemoglobin to Fe3+, which is a pale yellow colour*.

Dilute hydrogen peroxide is readily available.

In its dilute form, hydrogen peroxide is a mild antiseptic. Three percent and even slightly more concentrated solutions are still readily available in high-street pharmacies. However, even these very dilute solutions can cause skin and eye irritation, and prolonged skin contact is not recommended. The trouble is, while it does destroy microbes, it also destroys healthy cells. There’s been a move away from using hydrogen peroxide for this reason, although it is still a popular “home” remedy.

More concentrated** solutions are potentially very dangerous, causing severe skin burns. Hydrogen peroxide is also well-known for its tendency to react violently with other chemicals, meaning that it must be stored, and handled, very carefully.

All of which makes the idea of injecting into someone’s veins particularly horrific.

But this is exactly what some naturopaths are recommending, and even doing. The idea seems to have arisen because hydrogen peroxide is known to damage cancer cells. But so will a lot of other dangerous substances – it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to inject them. Hydrogen peroxide is produced by certain immune cells in the body, but only in a very controlled and contained way. This is definitely a case where more isn’t necessarily better.

The use of intravenous hydrogen peroxide appears to have begun in America, but it may be spreading to the UK. The website yestolife.org.uk, which claims to empower people with cancer to “make informed decisions”, states “The most common form of hydrogen peroxide therapy used by doctors calls for small amounts of 30% reagent grade hydrogen peroxide added to purified water and administered as an intravenous drip.”

30% hydrogen peroxide is really hazardous stuff. It’s terrifying that this is being recommended to vulnerable patients.

Other sites recommend inhaling or swallowing hydrogen peroxide solutions, both of which are also potentially extremely dangerous.

If anyone ever suggests a hydrogen peroxide IV, run very fast in the other direction.

In 2004 a woman called Katherine Bibeau died after receiving intravenous hydrogen peroxide treatment from James Shortt, a man from South Carolina who called himself a “longevity physician”. According to the autopsy report she died from systemic shock and DIC – the formation of blood clots in blood vessels throughout the body. When her body arrived at the morgue, she was covered in purple-black bruises.

Do I need to state the obvious? If anyone suggests injecting this stuff, run. Run very fast, in the other direction. Likewise if they suggest drinking it. It’s a really stupid idea, one that could quite literally kill you.


* As anyone who’s ever studied chemistry anywhere in my vicinity will tell you, “iron three is yellow, like wee.”


** The concentration of hydrogen peroxide is usually described in one of two ways: percentage and “vol”. Percentage works as you might expect, but vol is a little different. It came about for practical, historical reasons. As Prof. Poliakoff comments in this video, hydrogen peroxide is prone to going “flat” – leave it in the bottle for long enough and it gradually decomposes until what you actually have is a bottle of ordinary water. Particularly in the days before refrigeration (keeping it cold slows down the decomposition) a bottle might be labelled 20%, but actually contain considerably less hydrogen peroxide.

What to do? The answer was quite simple: take, say, 1 ml of hydrogen peroxide, add something which causes it to decompose really, really fast (lots of things will do this: potassium permanganate, potassium iodide, yeast, even liver) and measure the volume of oxygen given off. If your 1 ml of hydrogen peroxide produces 10 ml of oxygen, it’s 10 vol. If it produces 20, it’s 20 vol. And so on. Simple. 3% hydrogen peroxide, for the record, is about 10 vol***. Do not mix up these numbers.


*** Naturally, there are mole calculations to go with this. Of course there are. For A-level Chemists, here’s the maths (everyone else can tune out; I’m adding this little footnote because I found this information strangely hard to find):

Hydrogen peroxide decomposes as shown in this equation:
2H2O2 –> 2H2O + O2

Let’s imagine we decompose 1 ml of hydrogen peroxide and obtain 10 mls of oxygen.

Assuming the oxygen gas occupies 24 dm3 (litres), or 24000 mls, at standard temperature and pressure, 10 mls of oxygen is 10 / 24000 = 0.0004167 moles. But, according to the equation, we need two molecules of hydrogen peroxide to make one molecule of oxygen, so we need to multiply this number by two, giving us 0.0008333 moles.

To get the concentration of the hydrogen peroxide in the more familar (to chemists, anyway) mol dm-3, just divide that number of moles by the volume of hydrogen peroxide. In other words:

0.0008333 mols / 0.001 dm3 = 0.833 mol dm-3

If you really want to convert this into a percentage by mass (you can see why people stick with “vol” now, right?), then:

0.833 mol (in the litre of water) x 34 g mol-1 (the molecular mass of H2O2)
= 28.32 g (in 1000 g of water)

Finally, (28.32 / 1000) x 100 = 2.8% or, rounding up, 3%

In summary (phew):
10 vol hydrogen peroxide = 0.83 mol dm-3 = 3%


Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. All content is © Kat Day 2017. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do.


All comments are moderated. Abusive comments will be deleted, as will any comments referring to posts on this site which have had comments disabled.