Effective elements: some great periodic tables

My all-time favourite scarf (made by Rooby Lane on Etsy from a periodic table by Science Notes)

I’m a chemist (no, really? I hear you cry) and like all chemists, I love the periodic table. Why do we love this weird grid of boxes and letters and numbers? Because it’s awesome, that’s why.

No, really, it is. Can physics or biology summarise pretty much everything important about their subject with one, single page of information? (Hint: nope.) But chemists have been able to do just that for the best part of 150 years.

The person we have to thank (mostly) for this brilliant bit of insight is one Dmitri Mendeleev. He was born in Siberia in February 1834 (there’s a bit of an issue with the exact date due to the Russian switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1918 but most sources seem to have settled on the 8th). He was the youngest of more than 10 children, but the really incredible bit about his story is that when he was just 15 years old his mother took him to Moscow, a journey of best part of 1000 miles. There were, at this time, some freshly-built stretches of railway, but make no mistake, it would’ve been a long and difficult trip.

Mendeleev’s mother wanted her youngest son to attend the University of Moscow. But when they got there, the University refused to accept him. So they moved on to the Main Pedagogical Institute in Saint Petersburg, which fortunately had more sense.

Mendeleev’s life is actually pretty colourful and makes for a great story (why is there no film??), but I won’t go into any more detail here, except to say that he gave a formal presentation on his periodic table of the elements in 1869. (Oh, and he also helped to found the first oil refinery in Russia, and did a lot of work on the technique of industrial fractional distillation, which literally no one ever seems to mention.)

So the periodic table is amazing, and if anything its creator was even more so. But what I actually want to do in this post is list some of my most favourite periodic table sites. There are few out there, and they contain a host of useful information above and beyond the standard atomic weight, atomic mass type-stuff. So, without further ado…

  • Sir Martyn Poliakoff recording for Periodic Videos

    Periodic Videos – produced by Nottingham University, this has a video for each element in the periodic table, including the newest ones. The videos all feature the gloriously-haired Sir Martyn Poliakoff and are great fun to watch.

  • Science Notes periodic tables – if you ever need a high-resolution periodic table, fancy making your laptop background into a periodic table (surprisingly handy, actually), or just want to refer to their simple-but-effective interactive version, this is a great place to start (my scarf, pictured above, was made from a print of Science Notes’ 118 Element Periodic Table Poster with Hubble Stars and Nebula). 
  • The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Periodic Table – particularly useful for students, as you can mouseover each element and key information such as electronic configuration appears in a little box on the same page – no clicking required. It’s really fast and easy to use. And if you do click on an element, a host of extra information appears above and beyond the usual history and uses, such as links to podcasts, videos and information about supply risk.
  • MPSE: Merck’s Periodic Table of the Elements – if you want a periodic table app for your mobile device, this is a great one. It’s quick to load to beautiful to look at. Available for Apple and Android devices.
  • Nature Chemistry: In Your Element – a periodic table of interesting and insightful essays (and I’m not just saying this because I wrote one of them) about the different elements.The most recent piece is on vanadium.
  • The Periodic Table of Tech – this one is particularly focused on what the elements are used for. You might learn, for example, that californium isotopes are used to detect landmines, or that zirconium isn’t just good for making cubic zirconia gems; it’s also used in nuclear fuel rods. What I particularly like about this is that it has all the information on one page, so it’s particularly easy to browse.

There will be many others which I haven’t mentioned. If you have a different favourite, do comment below!


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It’s June 8th: please go and vote

Dear non-British readers: apologies, this may not be very relevant to you. But it’s important, so I’m writing it anyway. I’m sure you will forgive me just this once. I promise normal service will resume once all the fun and games are over.

Right, who’s still with me? Brilliant. Here we go.

Thirteen years ago, the late Sir Terry Pratchett wrote in his novel, Going Postal:

“What kind of man would put a known criminal in charge of a major branch of government? Apart from, say, the average voter.”

Like much of his writing, it’s hilarious with an aftertaste of tragic. Because, well, you don’t need me to tell you because. But everyone should read Going Postal, and then its sequel, Making Money (published in 2007 and therefore written before the stock markets crashed) if for no other reason than to marvel at Pratchett’s apparent prescience.

Anyway, why am I bringing this up? I’m bringing this up because it’s election day in the U.K. today – June 8th 2017.

Unlike Pratchett’s fictional Ankh Morpork (where there is famously a “one man, one vote” democracy – Lord Vetinari is the man, and he has the vote) in the U.K. everyone has a vote. Well, more or less. Everyone over the age of 18, who’s previously registered to vote and… (etc). Nearly everyone, anyway. Probably everyone reading this.

But weirdly, a lot of people don’t use that privilege. In 2015 just two thirds of people who were eligible to vote actually went and did it. If all, or even most, of those people voted for one particular party, it actually could change the outcome of an election.

Turnout amongst 18-24 year-olds was particularly low. In 2015 it was 43%, whereas turnout for people over 65 was 78% – approaching double.

And this, if you’ll excuse the phrase, is really arse-backwards, isn’t it? Because it’s those younger people who are going to have to live with the consequences of whatever decision is made for the longest amount of time. They absolutely SHOULD have their say.

So, this is my point: please, GO AND VOTE. I don’t care what you have to say, I just want you to have a say.

And finally, in case it’s helpful, here’s a really quick summary of the key scientific and technology-related policies of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, which I’ve condensed from this page at wired.co.uk (do go and read the whole thing). The party names at the start of each bulletin point link to their respective manifestos:

  • CONSERVATIVES – more spent on research and development, especially batteries and electric vehicles. New police infrastructure to deal with cybercrime. By 2020 every home and business will have high-speed broadband, with 5G rolling out by 2022. There will be new institutes of technology in every major city in England. The UK’s shale gas industry (i.e. fracking) will be developed and legislation created for plans to extract the gas. Emissions will be reduced by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050.
  • LABOUR – A “science innovation fund” will be created with a specific aim to protect the environment. Labour will “reintroduce effective judicial oversight” of surveillance powers” (i.e. the IP Act). Plans to roll out “universal superfast broadband” by 2022 and create “uninterrupted” 5G coverage. Fracking will be banned, renewable energy technologies will instead be favoured. Air pollution will be addressed by means of a “Clean Air Act”.
  • LIBERAL DEMOCRATS – Will fight to retain academic grants from the EU and protect science budgets. “Supported investment” for energy storage and other technologies. Surveillance powers to be rolled back. All properties in the UK will have 30 Mbps download speed by 2022 and an upload speed of 6 Mbps, with an unlimited usage cap. New centres for innovation will be created. Diesel cars and small vans will be banned from sale by 2025. Will oppose fracking. Greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 80% by 2040, net greenhouse gas emissions to be zero 10 years later.

GO AND VOTE (have I already said that?)

See you on the other side. Here’s a picture of a cat. Cats are nice.

Alkaline water: if you like it, why not make your own?

Me* reading the comments section on the Amazing Alkaline Lemons post (*not actually me)

Alkaline water seems to be a trend at the moment. Not quite so much in the UK, yet, but more so in the US where it appears you can buy nicely-packaged bottles with the numbers like 8 and 9.5 printed in large, blue letters on their sides.

It’s rather inexplicable, because drinking slightly alkaline water does literally NOTHING for your health. You have a stomach full of approximately 1 M hydrochloric acid (and some other stuff) which has an acidic pH of somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5. This is entirely natural and normal – it’s there to kill any bugs that might be present in your food.

Chugging expensive water with an alkaline pH of around 9 will neutralise a bit of that stomach acid (bringing the pH closer to a neutral value of 7), and that’s all it will do. A stronger effect could be achieved with an antacid tablet (why isn’t it antiacid? I’ve never understood that) costing around 5p. Either way, the effect is temporary: your stomach wall contains special cells which secrete hydrochloric acid. All you’re doing by drinking or eating alkaline substances is keeping them busy.

(By the way, I’m not recommending popping antacids like sweeties – it could make you ill with something called milk-alkali syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure.)

Recently, a video did the rounds of a woman testing various bottled waters, declaring the ones with slightly acidic pHs to be “trash” and expressing surprise that several brands, including Evian, were pH neutral. The horror. (For anyone unsure, we EXPECT water to have a neutral pH.)

Such tests are ridiculous for lots of reasons, not least because she had tiny amounts of water in little iddy-biddy cups. Who knows how long they’d been sitting around, but if it was any length of time they could well have absorbed some atmospheric carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is very soluble, and it forms carbonic acid when it dissolves in water which, yes, would lower the pH.

Anyway, there’s absolutely nothing harmful about drinking water containing traces of acid. It doesn’t mean the water is bad. In fact, if you use an ion exchange filter (as found in, say, Brita filter jugs) it actually replaces calcium ions in the water with hydrogen ions. For any non-chemists reading this: calcium ions are the little sods that cause your kettle to become covered in white scale (I’m simplifying a bit). Hydrogen ions make things acidic. In short, less calcium ions means less descaling, but the slight increase in hydrogen ions means a lower pH.

So, filtered water from such jugs tends to be slightly acidic. Brita don’t advertise this fact heavily, funnily enough, but it’s true. As it happens, I own such a filter, because I live in an area where the water is so hard you can practically use it to write on blackboards. After I bought my third kettle, second coffee machine and bazillionth bottle of descaler, I decided it would be cheaper to use filtered water.

I also have universal indicator strips, because the internet is awesome (when I was a kid you couldn’t, easily, get this stuff without buying a full chemistry set or, ahem, knowing someone who knew someone – now three clicks and it’s yours in under 48 hours).

The pH of water that’s been through a (modern) ion-exchange filter tends to be slightly acidic.

The water in the glass was filtered using my Brita water filter and tested immediately. You can see it has a pH of about 5. The water straight from the tap, for reference, has a pH of about 7 (see the image below, left-hand glass).

The woman in the YouTube video would be throwing her Brita in the trash right now and jumping up and down on it.

So, alkaline water is pretty pointless from a health point of view (and don’t even start on the whole alkaline diet thing) but, what if you LIKE it?

Stranger things have happened. People acquire tastes for things. I’m happy to accept that some people might actually like the taste of water with a slightly alkaline pH. And if that’s you, do you need to spend many pounds/dollars/insert-currency-of-choice-here on expensive bottled water with an alkaline pH?

Even more outlandishly, is it worth spending £1799.00 on an “AlkaViva Vesta H2 Water Ionizer” to produce water with a pH of 9.5? (This gizmo also claims to somehow put “molecular hydrogen” into your water, and I suppose it might, but only very temporarily: unlike carbon dioxide, hydrogen is very insoluble. Also, I’m a bit worried that machine might explode.)

Fear not, I am here to save your pennies! You do not need to buy special bottled water, and you DEFINITELY don’t need a machine costing £1.8k (I mean, really?) No, all you need is a tub of….

… baking soda!

Yep, good old sodium bicarbonate, also known as sodium hydrogencarbonate, bicarb, or NaHCO3. You can buy a 200 g tub for a pound or so, and that will make you litres and litres and litres of alkaline water. Best of all, it’s MADE for baking, so you know it’s food grade and therefore safe to eat (within reason, don’t eat the entire tub in one go).

All you need to do is add about a quarter of a teaspoon of aforementioned baking soda to a large glass of water and stir. It dissolves fairly easily. And that’s it – alkaline water for pennies!

Me* unconvinced by the flavour of alkaline water (*actually me).

Fair warning, if you drink a lot of this it might give you a bit of gas: once the bicarb hits your stomach acid it will react to form carbon dioxide – but it’s unlikely to be worse than drinking a fizzy drink. It also contains sodium, so if you’ve been told to watch your sodium intake, don’t do this.

If I had fewer scruples I’d set up shop selling “dehydrated alkaline water, just add water”.

Sigh. I’ll never be rich.


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Hazardous homeopathy: ‘ingredients’ that ought to make you think twice

Would you take a medicine made with arsenic? Or deadly nightshade? Lead? Poison ivy?

You’d ask some serious questions first, at least, wouldn’t you? Is it definitely safe? Or, more accurately, are the odds better than even that it will make me better without causing horrible side-effects? Or, you know, killing me?

There ARE medicines that are legitimately made from highly toxic compounds. For example, the poison beloved of crime writers such as Agatha Christie, arsenic trioxide, is used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia in patients who haven’t responded to other treatments. Unsurprisingly, it’s not without risks. Side-effects are unpleasant and common, affecting about a third of patients who take it. On the other hand, acute promyelocytic leukemia is fatal if untreated. A good doctor would talk this through with a patient, explain both sides, and leave the final choice in his or her properly-informed hands. As always in medicine, it’s a question of balancing risks and benefits.

Would you trust something with no proven benefit and a lot of potential risk? There are, it turns out, a swathe of entirely unregulated mixtures currently being sold in shops and online which clearly feature the substances I listed at the beginning. And more. Because they are all, supposedly, the starting materials in certain homeopathic remedies.

Homeopaths like to use unfamiliar, usually Latin-based, names which somewhat disguise the true nature of their ingredients. Here’s a short, but by no means comprehensive, list. (You might find remedies labelled differently but these are, as far as I can tell, the most common names given to these substances.)

If you haven’t heard of some of these, I do urge you to follow the links above, which will largely take you pages detailing their toxicology. Spoiler: the words “poison”, “deadly” and “fatal” feature heavily. These are nasty substances.

There are some big ironies here, and I’m not referring to the metal. For example, a common cry of anti-vaccinationists is that vaccines contain animal tissues – anything and everything from monkey DNA to dog livers. But many also seem to be keen to recommend homeopaths and courses of homeoprophylaxis – so-called “homeopathic vaccines” – which use bodily fluids such as pus and blood as starting materials.

Now, at this point I’m sure some of you are thinking, hang on a minute: aren’t you always telling us that “the dose makes the poison“? And aren’t homeopathic remedies diluted so much that none of the original substance remains, so they’re just placebos?

Yes, I am, and yes, they are.

Does anyone test homeopathic remedies to make sure there’s nothing in them….?

In THEORY. But here’s the problem: who’s testing these mixtures to make sure that the dilutions are done properly? And how exactly are they doing that (if they are)?

One technique that chemists use to identify tiny quantities of substance is gas chromatography (GC). This is essentially a high-tech version of that experiment you did at school, where you put some dots of different coloured ink on a piece of filter paper and watched them spread up the paper when you put it in some water.

GC analysis is brilliant at identifying tiny quantities of stuff. 10 parts per million is no problem for most detectors, and the most sensitive equipment can detect substances in the parts per billion range. Homeopathy dilutions are many orders of magnitude higher than this (30c, for example, means a dilution factor of 1060), but this doesn’t matter – once you get past 12c (a factor of 1024) you pass the Avogadro limit.

This is because Avogadro’s number, which describes the number of molecules in what chemists call a “mole” of a substance, is 6×1023. For example, if you had 18 ml of water in a glass, you’d have 6×1023 molecules of H2O. So you can see, if you’ve diluted a small sample by a factor of 1024 – more than the total number of molecules of water you had in the first place – the chances are very good that all you have is water. There will be none of the original substance left. (This, by the way, is of no concern to most homeopaths, who believe that larger dilutions magically produce a stronger healing effect.)

What if the sample ISN’T pure water after it’s been diluted?

If you carried out GC analysis of such a sample, you should find just pure water. Indeed, if you DIDN’T find pure water, it should be cause for concern. Potassium cyanide, for example, is toxic at very low levels. The lethal dose is is only 0.2-0.3 grams, and you’d suffer unpleasant symptoms long before you were exposed to that much.

So what if the dilutions somehow go wrong? What if some sample gets stuck in the bottle? Or on the pipette? Or a few dilution steps get skipped for some reason?

Are these largely unregulated companies rigorously quality-checking their remedies?

Well, maybe. It’s possible some producers are testing their raw materials for purity (ah yes, another question: they CLAIM they’re starting with, say, arsenic, but can we be certain?), and perhaps testing the “stability” of their products after certain periods of time (i.e. checking for bacterial growth), but are they running tests on the final product and checking that, well, there’s nothing in it?

And actually, isn’t this a bit of a conflict? If the water somehow “remembers” the chemical that was added and acquires some sort of “vibrational energy”, shouldn’t that show up somehow in GC analysis or other tests? If your tests prove it’s pure water, indistinguishable from any other sample of pure water, then… (at this point homeopaths will fall back on arguments such as “you can’t test homeopathy” and “it doesn’t work like that”. The name for this is special pleading.)

A warning was issued in the U.S. after several children became ill.

Am I scaremongering? Not really. There’s at least one published case study describing patients who suffered from arsenic poisoning after using homeopathic preparations. In January this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about elevated levels of belladonna (aka deadly nightshade) in some homeopathic teething products. Yes, teething products. For babies. This warning was issued following several reports of children becoming ill after using the products. The FDA said that its “laboratory analysis found inconsistent amounts of belladonna, a toxic substance, in certain homeopathic teething tablets, sometimes far exceeding the amount claimed on the label.”

Now, admittedly, I’m based in the U.K. and these particular teething remedies were never readily available here. But let’s just type “homeopathy” into the Boots.com (the British high-street pharmacy) website and see what pops up… ah yes. Aconite Pillules, 30c, £6.25 for 84.

What happens if you search for “homeopathy” on the Boots.com website?

Have you been paying attention lovely readers? Aconite is…. yes! Monkshood! One of the most poisonous plants in the garden. Large doses cause instant death. Smaller doses cause nausea and diarrhea, followed by a burning and tingling sensation in the mouth and abdomen, possibly muscle weakness, low blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.

I must stress at this point that there is no suggestion, absolutely none whatsoever, that any of the products for sale at Boots.com has ever caused such symptoms. I’m sure the manufacturers check their preparations extremely carefully to ensure that there’s absolutely NO aconite left and that they really are just very small, very expensive, sugar pills.

Well, fairly sure.

In summary, we seem to be in a situation where people who proclaim that rigorously-tested and quality-controlled pharmaceuticals are “toxic” also seem to be happy to use unregulated homeopathic remedies made with ACTUALLY toxic starting materials.

I wonder if the new “documentary” about homeopathy, Just One Drop, which is being screened in London on the 6th of April will clarify this awkward little issue? Somehow, I doubt it. Having watched the trailer, I think it’s quite clear which way this particular piece of film is going to lean.

One last thing. Some homeopathic mixtures include large quantities of alcohol. For example, the Bach Original Flower Remedies are diluted with brandy and contain approximately 27% alcohol (in the interests of fairness, they do also make alcohol-free versions of some of their products and, as I’ve recently learned, they may not be technically homeopathic). Alcohol is a proven carcinogen. Yes, I know, lots of adults drink moderate quantities of alcohol regularly and are perfectly healthy, and the dose from a flower remedy is minuscule, but still, toxins and hypocrisy and all that.

There are cheaper ways to buy brandy than Bach Flower Remedies.

Amusingly, the alcohol in these remedies is described an “inactive” ingredient. It’s more likely to be the only ACTIVE ingredient. And since Flower Remedies retail for about £7 for 20 ml (a mighty £350 a litre, and they’re not even pure brandy) may I suggest that if you’re looking for that particular “medicine” you might more wisely spend your money on a decent bottle of Rémy Martin?


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Chemistry jokes get the best reactions

Today, 24th March, is Red Nose Day 2017 in the UK. I decided to see if I could collect some new chemistry jokes. There are some, of course, that we’ve all heard before – we might even say that all the best ones argon.

So, I promised to donate £10 if I got sent at least five new jokes. And I did! So I have! And here are my favourite five, in no particular order. Enjoy!

“I’ll tell you a joke about a tiny amount of iron for a small Fe.”@hullodave

“Chemistry Fact: There’s really no such thing as hydrogen. The inventor of the Periodic Table just needed a place to land a tiny helicopter.”@hullodave

“Why don’t they galvanise ships to stop corrosion? …That would make them zinc.”

“Do you know why everyone wants to work with bismuth? Because there’s no bismuth like showbismuth!” — @GriceChemistry

“I know a great long Justus Von Liebig joke but it needs condensing to get it on Twitter.” — 

If you’ve enjoyed these, if they’ve even so much as made you crack a little smile, please go and donate a couple of quid to Comic Relief. It’s a brilliant charity which helps people all over the world.

Donate here

Vaccines are one of humankind’s best achievements, and we should all be shouting about it

science-fiction-1819026_960_720Imagine aliens finally get around to visiting our planet…

“About two hundred years ago,” explains the alien scientific advisor – let’s call him Spuck – “humans developed a way to prevent disease which they call vaccination. It’s really quite fascinating. They use a needle to place a tiny quantity of a fluid into the muscle under the skin of their arm or leg. The substances are then absorbed into their bodies and cause their highly-evolved immune systems to generate an immune response without, and this is really quite ingenious, Captain, their having to contact the actual diseases or suffer the symptoms. This simple procedure has saved millions of lives worldwide, and saved many millions more from having to suffer less fatal, but none the less still deeply unpleasant, consequences of serious illnesses.”

“Sounds great, Spuck,” says the Captain – let’s call him Birk – “is there a downside?”

“Not really, Captain. Side effects are rare and extremely minor compared to the seriousness of the illnesses themselves.”

“Fantastic. Why are you telling me all this? I’ve got some green-skinned action I’d like to get back to, if you know what I mean.”

“Well, it’s interesting that you should mention unusual skin tones, Captain. A leader has recently come to power who, amongst other things, has expressed concerns about vaccination.

“Valid concerns?”

“The scientific evidence suggests not, sir.”

“Sounds like an idiot, Spuck.”

“I couldn’t possibly comment, sir.”

“Huh. Sounds like he could definitely be detrimental to the future of their race, and besides, I’m bored. Let’s go and shoot some stuff in direct contravention of the Cardinal Directive. Set blazers to ki- I mean, stun. Beam me down, Dottie!”

***

Vaccination. It’s a hot topic at the moment, and one which is so important that I think anyone who has anything to do with science communication ought to be talking about it. I’m not a medical doctor, or an immunologist, or even a biochemist (for more qualified input on the subject, I refer you here, here and here), but I AM capable of recognising scientific consensus and of separating good-quality evidence-based information from conspiracy theory dross.

Vaccination is awesome.

Awesome is a word that is somewhat overused. But I mean it literally. As in, inspires awe. We should stop, for a moment, and just look at how bloody amazing vaccination is. Thanks to these simple, near-painless, injections – most of which we receive as young children and therefore don’t even remember – we are largely protected from the horrors of….

  • Poliosymptoms and complications include fever, vomiting, headache, back pain, joint pain and stiffness, permanent muscle weakness, permanent paralysis and death.
  • Mumpssymptoms and complications include fever, headache, meningitis, painful testicular swelling in males and ovarian inflammation in females, both of which can  result in permanent infertility, pancreatic inflammation and, occasionally, hearing loss. Death from mumps is rare, but does occur in about 1 in 10,000 cases.
  • Tuberculosis – symptoms and complications include fever, loss of appetite, severe fatigue, chest pain, coughing up of blood, scarring of the lungs, internal bleeding and death (death is considerably more likely if the patient does not have access to medical care).
  • Measlessymptoms and complications include fever, painful skin rash, diarrhoea, vomiting, ear infection which can result in deafness, eye infection which can result in blindness, laryngitis, pneumonia, bronchitis, liver infection, encephalitis, and increased likelihood of re-contracting diseases previously survived (measles essentially “wipes” your immune system). Oh yes, and death. As many as 1% of measles patients will die from the disease.

… and umpteen other, horrible diseases, the majority of which most people reading this will have never experienced. Because of vaccination.

Measles rash

A child with a measles rash. The disease can cause serious complications, including immune suppression.

The risks of vaccination are tiny. The most common complications are redness and swelling around the injection site and/or slight temperature which is easily treated with an antipyretic such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Very occasionally people suffer a serious allergic reaction, but this inevitably happens quickly after the injection is given. Since vaccinations are usually administered in a medical setting, any allergic reaction that does occur can be quickly managed. There have been a few other genuine cases of serious, adverse reactions to vaccines, but problems are still very rare (the swine flu-narcolepsy link, for example, affected 1 in 55,000) and specific to particular vaccines, and the vaccine in question has been quickly investigated.

Like Birk, if you’ve had nothing to do with the anti-vaccination community, you may be thinking this all sounds good. Benefits massive, risks tiny. Fab. Let’s go.

However, the anti-vaccination crowd – a real, and not entirely new, thing – will tell you that this is all lies. They will tell you this loudly, and at length, and repeatedly. They believe that vaccinations cause every health problem from acne to zygomycosis, but particularly the neurodevelopmental condition known as autism.

Vaccines do not cause autism. At all. As Spuck said, the scientific evidence is clear. It’s absolutely ice-from-a-moutain-stream-in-the-middle-of-nowhere crystal clear. Just for one example, a meta analysis published in the journal Vaccine in 2014 looked at studies involving over a million children. The data revealed no relationship between vaccination and autism. None. Nada.

Vaccines, you see, do not cause autism. And actually, it’s about time we stopped wasting precious resources proving that over and over and over and over again and instead focused on what does cause autism, because that would be a question worth answering.

Infection rates dropped enormously in the US after the measles vaccination was introduced.

Infection rates dropped enormously in the US after the measles vaccination was introduced.

Anti-vaxxers will often repeatedly talk about mercury in vaccines. There’s mercury in vaccines, they’ll say, and that’s nasty stuff, so even if we haven’t proved it yet, they must be causing something bad. One problem there: there isn’t any mercury in vaccines. There’s a preservative called thimerosal (or thiomersal) in some flu vaccines – which are not the ones usually given to children – but thimerosal is no more mercury than salt is chlorine.

The anti-vax crowd get whackier after this. Some of them will tell you that vaccinations don’t, in fact, protect against against disease at all – despite huge evidence to the contrary (see also here), not to mention the simple fact that many of our grandparents and even parents remember these diseases, and their complications, as horribly commonplace.

Anti-vaxxers often state that deaths from these diseases were dropping before the vaccines were introduced. This is true. Deaths did drop, because medical science was developing rapidly. A measles patient receiving medical care is, indeed, less likely to die than one left to her own devices. If I may say so, duh.

What vaccines did is to massively reduce infection rates. But just to state the obvious: if people don’t catch a disease, they also can’t die from it.

In short, if an anti-vaxxer shows you a graph, it’s smart to check to the axes labels.

After that they get really loony, and some of them will even tell you things such as smallpox wasn’t eradicated, it was just renamed acne. Or polio has been reclassified as Guillain-Barré syndrome. These ideas are so utterly ridiculous they don’t even deserve rebuke.

This has started up again in the last few days, particularly in the UK, because of the nasty deposit of conspiracy crap that is the film Vaxxed. It’s available online, but I shall not be linking to it here.

The film claims to reveal a massive cover-up at the Centre for Disease Control (the CDC) in America, and evidence that vaccines are generally evil and cause all manner of heinous negative health outcomes. Very little of it is true, and where a tiny nugget of true fact has been included it’s been so beaten and manipulated as to have lost all of its original meaning. There’s an excellent piece about it on Skeptical Raptor website, which I recommend reading before you google the term “vaxxed”. Consider it a sort of inoculation against the nonsense, if you like (hoho).

A Guardian article from 2010 reports on Wakefield.

A Guardian article from 2010 (click for link).

The main brain behind the film is Mr Andrew Wakefield, a former British doctor who was struck off the General Medical Council in 2010, when the GMC said he had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.” Wakefield was, it turned out, trying to patent his own measles vaccine. In an effort to further his own aims, he set out to discredit the widely-used MMR (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) by fabricating results and, in particular, suggesting a link between the MMR and autism. He denied all this, of course, but a libel judge disagreed.

Wakefield is still pushing his message. He is not a particularly nice individual. Listen to him in this video clip, for example, where he responds to Bill Gates comment, made in 2015, that he (Gates) fears a pandemic could wipe out humanity in his lifetime. Actually, I’ll save you the trouble:

“Ho Chi Minh City, you may have seen this, an outbreak of [laughs] the plague in Ho Chi Minh City. The outbreak that they were not prepared for, they never prepared for, and that is the number of children with autism in Ho Chi Minh City has increased by nearly one hundred and sixty times over eight years. So, Bill, just for your edification, the plague that you’re talking about, the next plague, the next epidemic, it’s already here. It’s already here.”

Yes, you heard that right, according to Wakefield autism is a “plague”. Anyone reading this with an autism diagnosis? You have the plague. Nice, huh?

Andrew Wakefield describes autism as a "plague".

Andrew Wakefield describes autism as a “plague”.

For the record, the number of autism diagnoses in Ho Chi Minh has increased sharply over recent years, but this is may well be – as often turns out to be the case – largely due to to better diagnosis. Certainly there’s absolutely no suggestion that it’s linked to the introduction of a vaccine or vaccines. There might be an environmental factor – some sort of pollutant perhaps – but no one is certain at the moment. (To repeat myself: perhaps if we stopped wasting time endlessly disproving the link between vaccines and autism, we’d have a better idea.)

By the way, the woman in that video clip is Polly Tommey. She has an autistic son who’s now in his twenties. Back in 2010 she chose to try and raise awareness of autism by posing in a Wonderbra-style advert, and these days she follows the campaign trail with Wakefield, repeating the message that they “will win”. What exactly they’re going to win isn’t entirely clear. Would preventing vaccination, at the cost of many lives, really be a win?

Vaxxed was due to be shown at the Curzon cinema in Soho, London on Valentine’s Day. It was pulled after the cinema realised what the film was – they had merely leased their premises to private individuals and only realised what was going on when a number of science advocates started complaining.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Curzon Cinemas said:

“We do not wish to profit from a film that has demonstrably caused great distress.”

The heyevent.uk page on Vaxxed, explaining that the location will be "annnounced" two hours before the screening.

The heyevent.uk page on Vaxxed explains that the location will be “annnounced” two hours before the screening.

Tommey was predictably unimpressed by this outcome, which she blamed on “our little five trolls in England,” saying “Britain being who they are, being big wussy pussies, just strike it off.”

Unfortunately, the cancellation turned out to be less of a victory than it first appeared. The anti-vaxx crowd then set out to find a new venue. And this time, they kept it quiet. There are many, many places that will rent you a space to screen a film, and I’ll wager that few of them really check the nature of that film. So, the anti-vaxxers correctly reasoned, if we don’t tell people where it is, no one will be able to stop us. People who had previously bought tickets were told it would be in “Central London”, and that the venue would be revealed two hours before the show.

And so, it happened. At Regent’s University London, a private university which was, incidentally, recently identified as the most expensive place to study in the UK.

In hindsight, this might actually have been worse than a screening at an independent cinema. Dodgy film in a cinema – so what? “Official” screening at a university with Q&A sessions afterwards? Hm, sounds important and… academic. The press, naturally, made the most of it, with headlines such as “Disgraced anti‑MMR vaccine doctor Andrew Wakefield gets invitation to university in London.” Sure, the first line of the actual article says the university has been criticised, but who actually reads beyond the headlines these days? Sounds like he’s being taken seriously, doesn’t it?

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Regent’s University’s response on Twitter on February 15th

Regent’s University responded pretty quickly to say that they hadn’t known what the film was, that they didn’t endorse its views, and that they would be revetting all their clients.

This provoked lots of complaints about freedom of speech, because many people seem to be under the misapprehension that freedom of speech means that any and all organisations and venues have a duty to allow them to repeat their nonsense. This is not what freedom of speech means. Freedom of speech means you can’t be chucked in prison for saying a thing (with some exceptions). It does NOT mean that everyone has to listen to you, or that you can say your thing wherever and whenever you like, whether the place renting you the space likes it or not.

More alarming still was the Q&A session at the end of the screening of Vaxxed. I watched some of it (one for the team, you’re welcome). There was much talk of “getting the message out there”, “sowing the seeds”, “people have to hear the message x times before they’ll start to accept it” and so on. In short, if you didn’t know it was all about vaccines it would start to sound an awful lot like…. well, at best a religion, and at worst a cult.

Wakefield was also asked if he would ever get his name cleared. This was his response:

Wakefield speaking at the end of the Vaxxed screening.

Wakefield speaking at the end of the Vaxxed screening.

“Well, cleared by whom? Here’s a… it’s a really important… cleared by whom? Do I want to be part of the medical profession again? [muttering from the audience] Do I want to be exonerated by the General Medical Council? Do I want to pay them an annual retainer fee? To be part of… Do I really? Is that… that takes time and effort. What is more important? Making films like this? Or trying to clear my name? [applause]

Hang on. If he really cared about getting the science right, about doing the right thing by patients, wouldn’t getting his name cleared and being reinstated as a medical doctor be of utmost importance? If he’s right about vaccines, particularly the MMR vaccine, and if he truly wants to prove it for the good of humanity, what better way than to be exonerated?

But as he says, “that takes time and effort.” What he doesn’t add, of course, is that making films like Vaxxed, travelling around the world spreading his message and hobnobbing with Donald Trump, almost certainly makes him a lot more money than being a doctor ever did. And I’ll bet it’s more fun. Why would he go back to the long hours and hard work that being a regular old doctor entails?

Wakefield is playing an extremely unpleasant and disingenuous game. The really worrying thing is that he and other anti-vaccination campaigners might be gaining ground. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro recently announced a $100,000 “challenge” to prove the safety of thimerosal vaccines. Thimerosal has already been extensively investigated – no evidence has ever been found that its inclusion in vaccines causes neurological effects, but anyway, it’s only in a few flu vaccines. Of course, the implication is that all vaccines are unsafe and that no one can prove otherwise – and now those headlines are out there, and that seed has been planted, will people really read further into it? Or will they just decide to skip the visit to the doctor?

The consequences of that are potentially serious. A mumps outbreak was reported in Washington State a week ago, and cases of mumps and measles have also just been reported in Salt Lake County. Last autumn the Guardian reported that the proportion of under-twos receiving their first dose of the MMR vaccine had fallen for the third consecutive year, and there were several reports of measles outbreaks in the UK. Flu outbreaks are also a real concern: years of hearing the phrase “mild flu-like symptoms” have created the misconception that influenza itself is a mild disease. It is not. There have been over 100 deaths from flu in Germany this year alone. People in Germany have access to good healthcare. People are still dying.

Outbreaks put everyone at risk: vaccination is effective, but nothing is 100% effective. In the midst of a full outbreak, even the vaccinated are at risk of catching the disease, and of course, those who are too young to receive the vaccine, or who can’t have it because of a genuine allergy, or because they’re immunocompromised, will be in real trouble. Let’s not forget: measles in particular is a disease with a host of horrible complications, not to mention the potential to reduce a person’s previously acquired immunity to other diseases.

Do we really want to see measles and mumps come back? Really? Because that will ultimately be the result of all of this.

And unfortunately, Captain Birk and Mr Spuck aren’t actually there to fix this mess for us. We need to see sense ourselves.


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Is acrylamide in your toast really going to give you cancer?

Acrylamide has been in the news today, and this might be the understatement of the year. Front page newspaper headlines have been yelling everything from “Brits officially warned off chips” to “Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast could cause cancer” to the marginally more restrained “What is the real cancer risk from eating roast potatoes or toast?” All this has been accompanied by radio interviews with everyone from actual scientists to professional chefs to people keen to share their roast potato recipes. I expect there have been television interviews too – I haven’t had a chance to watch.

Hey, what could be more traditional, or more fun, than a food-health scare in January?

Acrylamide

Acrylamide

Never fear, the Chronicle Flask is here to sort out the science. Let’s get to the facts: what is acrylamide?

It’s actually a rather small molecule, and it falls into a group of substances which chemists call amides. Other well-known amides include paracetamol and penicillin, and nylon is a polyamide – that is, lots of amide molecules joined together. Amide linkages (the CO-NH bit) are a key feature of proteins, which means they appear in all kinds of naturally-occurring substances.

And this is where the food-acrylamide link comes in. Because acrylamide, or prop-2-enamide to give it its official name (the one only ever used by A-level chemistry students), forms when certain foods are cooked.

Acrylamide occurs naturally in fried, baked, and roasted starchy foods.

Acrylamide occurs naturally in fried, baked, and roasted starchy foods.

It begins with an amino acid called asparagine. If you’re wondering whether, with that name, it has anything to do with asparagus, you’d be on the right track. It was first isolated in the early 1800s from asparagus juice. It turns out to be very common: it’s found in dairy, meat, fish and shellfish, as well as potatoes, nuts, seeds and grains, amongst other things.

This is where the trouble begins. When asparagine is combined with sugars, particularly glucose, and heated, acrylamide is produced. The longer the food is heated for, the more acrylamide forms. This is a particular issue with anything wheat or potato-based thanks to the naturally-occurring sugars those foods also contain – hence all the histrionics over chips, roast potatoes and toast.

How dangerous is acrylamide? The International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified it as a Group 2A carcinogen, or a “probable” carcinogen. This means there’s “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans, but “sufficient evidence” of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. In other words (usually) scientists know the thing in question causes cancer in rats – who’ve generally been fed huge amounts under strictly controlled conditions – but there isn’t any clear evidence that the same link exists in humans. It’s generally considered unethical to lock humans in cages and force feed them acrylamide by the kilo, so it’s tricky to prove.

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-22-10-46At this point I will point out that alcoholic beverages are classified as Group 1 carcinogens, which means there is “sufficient evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans. Alcohol definitely causes cancer. If you’re genuinely concerned about your cancer risk, worry less about the roast potatoes in your Sunday roast and more about the glass of wine you’re drinking with them.

But back to acrylamide. In animals, it has been shown to cause tumours. It’s one of those substances which can be absorbed through the skin, and after exposure it spreads around the body, turning up in the blood, unexposed skin, the kidneys, the liver and so on. It’s also been shown to have neurotoxic effects in humans. BUT, the evidence that it causes cancer in humans under normal conditions isn’t conclusive. A meta-analysis published in 2014 concluded that “dietary acrylamide is not related to the risk of most common cancers. A modest association for kidney cancer, and for endometrial and ovarian cancers in never smokers only, cannot be excluded.” 

The dose makes the poison is an important principle in toxicology (image credit: Lindsay Labahn)

The dose makes the poison (image credit: Lindsay Labahn)

As I so often find myself saying in pieces like this: the dose makes the poison. The people who have suffered neurotoxic effects from acrylamide have been factory workers. In one case in the 1960s a patient was handling 10% solutions of the stuff, and “acknowledged that the acrylamide solution frequently had splashed on his unprotected hands, forearms and face.” The earliest symptom was contact dermatitis, followed by fatigue, weight loss and nerve damage.

Because of these very real risks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have set occupational exposure limits at 0.03 mg/m3 over an eight-hour workday, or 0.00003 g/m3.

Let’s contrast that to the amount of acrylamide found in cooked food. The reason all this fuss erupted today is that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published some work which estimated the amounts of acrylamide people are likely to be exposed to in their everyday diet.

The highest concentrations of acrylamide were found in snacks (potato crisps etc), and they were 360 μg/kg, or 0.00036 g/kg or, since even the most ardent crisp addict doesn’t usually consume their favoured snacks by the kilo, 0.000036 g/100g. (Remember that those occupational limits are based on continuous exposure over an eight-hour period.)

In other words, the amounts in even the most acrylamide-y of foodstuffs are really quite tiny, and the evidence that acrylamide causes cancer in humans is very limited anyway. There is some evidence that acrylamide accumulates in the body, though, so consuming these sorts of foods day in and day out over a lifetime could be a concern. It might be wise to think twice about eating burnt toast every day for breakfast.

Oh yes, and there’s quite a lot of acrylamide in cigarette smoke. But somehow I doubt that if you’re a dedicated smoker this particular piece of information is going to make much difference.

As the FSA say at the end of their report:

Your toast almost certainly isn't going to kill you.

Your toast almost certainly isn’t going to kill you.

“The dietary acrylamide exposure levels for all age classes are of possible concern for an increased lifetime risk of cancer. The results of the survey do not increase concern with respect to acrylamide in the UK diet but do reinforce FSA advice to consumers and our efforts to support the food industry in reducing acrylamide levels.”

This is not, I would suggest, QUITE the same as “Crunchy toast could give you cancer, FSA warns” but, I suppose, “FSA says risk hasn’t really changed” wouldn’t sell as many newspapers.

One last thing, there’s acrylamide in coffee – it forms when the beans are roasted. There’s more in instant coffee and, perhaps counterintuitively, in lighter-roasted beans. No one seems to have mentioned that today, possibly because having your coffee taken away in January is just too terrifying a prospect to even contemplate. And also perhaps because coffee seems to be associated with more health benefits than negatives. Coffee drinkers are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, suffer fewer cases of some cancers and fewer incidences of stroke. Whether the link is causal or not isn’t clear, but coffee drinking certainly doesn’t seem to be a particularly bad thing, which just goes to show that when it comes to diet, things are rarely clearcut.

Pass the crisps, someone.


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