Absurd alkaline ideas – history, horror and jail time

I’ve written about the absurdity of alkaline diets before, and found myself embroiled in more than one argument about the idea.

To sum up quickly, it’s the notion that our bodies are somehow “acidic”, and if only we could make them “alkaline” all our health problems – cancer included – would disappear. The way you make your body “alkaline” is, mainly, by eating lots of vegetables and some fruits (particularly citrus fruits – yes, I know, I know).

The eating fruit and vegetables bit aside (they’re good for you, you should eat them), it’s all patent nonsense. Our bodies aren’t acidic – well, other than where they’re supposed to be acidic (like our stomachs) – and absolutely nothing we eat or drink can have any sort of effect on blood pH, which is kept firmly between 7.35-7.45 by (mainly) our lungs and kidneys. And if your kidneys or lungs are failing, you need something a little stronger in terms of medical intervention than a slice of lemon.

But who first came up with this crazy idea?

Claude Bernard carried out experiments on rabbits.

Actually, we can probably blame a nineteenth century French biologist and physiologist, Claude Bernard, for kicking the whole thing off, when he noticed that if he changed the diet of rabbits from largely plant-based to largely animal-based (i.e. from herbivorous to carnivorous) their urine became more acidic.

This observation, followed by a lot of speculation by nutritionists and some really quite impressively dodgy leaps of reasoning (by others, I should stress – not Bernard himself), has lead us to where we are now: umpty-million websites and books telling anyone who will listen that humans need to cut out all animal products to avoid becoming “acidic” and thus ill.

Bernard’s rabbits were, it seems, quite hungry when he got them – quite possibly they hadn’t been fed – and he immediately gave them boiled beef and nothing else. Meat contains the amino acids cysteine and methionine, both of which can produce acid when they’re metabolised (something Bernard didn’t know at the time). The rabbits excreted this in their urine, which probably explains why it became acidic.

Now, many of you will have noticed several problems here. Firstly, rabbits are herbivores by nature (they do not usually eat meat in the wild). Humans aren’t herbivores. Humans are omnivores, and we have quite different digestive processes as a result. It’s not reasonable to extrapolate from rabbits to humans when it comes to diet. Plus, even the most ardent meat-lover probably doesn’t only eat boiled beef – at the very least people usually squeeze in a battered onion ring or a bit of coleslaw along the way. Most critically of all, urine pH has no direct relationship with blood pH. It tells us nothing about the pH of “the body” (whatever we understand that to mean).

The notion that a plant-based diet is somehow “alkaline” should really have stayed in the 19th century where it belonged, and at the very least not limped its way out of the twentieth. Unfortunately, somewhere in the early 2000s, a man called Robert O Young got hold of the idea and ran with it.

Young’s books – which are still available for sale at the time of writing – describe him as “PhD”, even though he has no accredited qualification.

Boy, did he run with it. In 2002 he published a book called The pH Miracle, followed by The pH Miracle for Diabetes (2004), The pH Miracle for Weight Loss (2005) and The pH Miracle Revised (2010).

All of these books describe him either as “Dr Robert O Young” or refer to him as “PhD”. But he has neither a medical qualification nor a PhD, other than one he bought from a diploma mill – a business that offers degrees for money.

The books all talk about “an alkaline environment” and state that so-called acidic foods and drinks (coffee, tea, dried fruit, anything made with yeast, meat and dairy, amongst other foodstuffs) should be avoided if not entirely eliminated.

Anyone paying attention will quickly note that an “alkaline” diet is basically a very restrictive vegan diet. Most carbohydrate-based foods are restricted, and lots of fruits and nuts fall into the “moderately” and “mildly” acidic categories. Whilst a vegan diet can be extremely healthy, vegans do need to be careful that they get the nutrients they need. Restricting nuts, pulses, rice and grains as well as removing meat and dairy could, potentially, lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Young also believes in something called pleomorphism, which is a whole other level of bonkers. Essentially, he thinks that viruses and bacteria aren’t the cause of illnesses – rather, the things we think are viruses and bacteria are actually our own cells which have changed in response to our “acidic environments”. In Young’s mind, we are making ourselves sick – there is one illness (acidosis) and one cure (his alkaline diet).

It’s bad enough that he’s asserting such tosh and being taken seriously by quite a lot of people. It’s even worse that he has been treating patients at his ranch in California, claiming that he could “cure” them of anything and everything, including cancer.

One of his treatments involved intravenous injections of solutions of sodium hydrogen carbonate, otherwise known as sodium bicarbonate or baking soda. This common cookery ingredient does produce an alkaline solution (about pH 8.5) when dissolved in water, but remember when I said blood pH was hard to shift?

Screenshot from a BBC article, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-38650739

Well, it is, and for good reason. If blood pH moves above the range of 7.35-7.45 it causes a condition called alkalosis. This can result in low blood potassium which in turn leads to muscle weakness, pain, and muscle cramps and spasms. It can also cause low blood calcium, which can ultimately result in a type of seizure. Putting an alkaline solution directly into somone’s blood is genuinely dangerous.

And this is before we even start to consider the fact that someone who was not a medical professional was recommending, and even administering, intravenous drips. Which, by the way, he was reportedly charging his patients $550 a pop to receive.

Young came to the attention of the authorities several times, but always managed to wriggle out of trouble. That is, until 2014, when he was arrested and charged with practising medicine without a license and fraud. In February last year, he was found guilty, but a hung jury caused complications when they voted 11-1 to convict on the two medical charges, but deadlocked 8-4 on fraud charges.

Finally, at the end of June 2017, he was sentenced. He was given three years, eight months in custody, but due to the time he’s already spent in custody and under house arrest, he’s likely to actually serve five months in jail.

He admitted that he illegally treated patients at his luxury Valley Center ranch without any medical or scientific training. Perhaps best of all, he was also made to publicly declare that he is not microbiologist, hematologist, medical doctor or trained scientist, and that he has no post-highschool educational degrees from any accredited school.

Prosecuting Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas called Young the “Wizard of pHraud”, which is rather apt. Perhaps the titles on his books could be edited to read “Robert O Young, pHraud”?


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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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8 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About ‘Scary’ Chemicals

scaryChemicals. The word sounds a little bit scary, doesn’t it? For some it probably conjures up memories of school, and that time little Joey heated something up to “see what would happen” and you all had to evacuate the building. Which was actually good fun – what’s not to love about an unplanned fire drill during lesson time?

But for others the word has more worrying associations. What about all those lists of additives in foods, for starters? You know, the stuff that makes it all processed and bad for us. Don’t we need to get rid of all of that? And shouldn’t we be buying organic food, so we can avoid ….

….Read the rest of this article at WhatCulture Science.


This is my first article for WhatCulture Science – please do click the link and read the rest!


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Puzzling pool problems?

We’re half way thorough the Rio 2016 Olypics, and it will have escaped no one’s notice that there have been a few little problems with one of the pools.

Maria Lenk Aquatic Enter, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Maria Lenk Aquatic Enter, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

First, the water turned a mysterious green colour. Then there were reports of a ‘sulfurous’ smell, with German diver Stephan Feck reported as saying it smelled like a “fart”.

The diving pool seemed to be the worst affected, but the water-polo pool next to it also suffered problems, and competitors complained of stinging eyes.

So what on earth was happening? An early suggestion was that copper salts were contaminating the water. It’s not unheard of for copper compounds to get into water supplies, and it would certainly explain the colour; copper chloride solutions in particular are famously greeny-blue. But what about that sulfurous smell? Copper chloride doesn’t smell of sulfur.

Was the strange pool colour due to algae bloom?

Was the strange pool colour due to an algae bloom, like this one in Lake Erie?

The most likely culprit was some sort of algae bloom – in other words rapid algae growth – with the smell probably coming from dimethyl sulfide, or DMS. There’s a singled-celled phytoplankton called Emiliania huxleyi which is particularly famous for producing this smelly compound. In fact, it actually has more than one very important role in nature: the smell is thought to alert marine life that there’s food nearby, but it also seeps into the atmosphere and helps with cloud formation, helping to control our planet’s temperature. Without these reactions, Earth might not be nearly so habitable.

But how did algae manage to grow in the pool? The pool chemicals should have prevented it, so what had happened? An Olympic official then went on to make the comment that “chemistry is not an exact science,” which of course led to much hilarity all around. Chemistry is, after all, incredibly exact. What chemistry student doesn’t remember all those calculations, with answers to three significant figures? The endless balancing of equations? The careful addition of one solution to another, drop by drop? How much more ‘exact’ would you like it to be?

But I had a bit of sympathy with the official, because I suspect that what they actually meant – if not said – was that swimming pool chemistry is not an exact science. And while that, too, is hardly accurate, it is true that swimming pool chemistry is very complicated and things can easily go wrong, particularly when you’re trying to work on an extremely tight schedule. They could hardly, after all, close down all the pools and spend several days carrying out extensive testing in the middle of the sixteen-day-long Olympic Games.

Rio 2016 Olympics Aquatics Stadium (Image: Myrtha Pools)

Rio 2016 Olympics Aquatics Stadium (Image: Myrtha Pools)

When a pool is first built and filled, things are, theoretically, simple. You know exactly how many cubic litres of water there are, and you know exactly how much of each chemical needs to be added to keep the water free of bacteria and other nasties. Those chemicals are added, possibly (particularly in a pool this size) via some kind of automated system, and the pH is carefully monitored to ensure the water is neither too alkaline (basic) nor too acidic.

There’s a certain amount of proprietary variation of swimming pool chemicals, but it essentially all comes down to chlorine, which has been used to make water safe now for over 120 years.

Originally, water was treated to make it alkaline and then chlorine gas itself was added. This produced compounds which killed bacteria, in particular sodium hypochlorite, but the practice was risky. Chlorine gas is extremely nasty stuff – it has, after all, been used as a chemical weapon – and storing it, not to mention actually using it, was a dangerous business.

However, hundreds of people swimming in untreated water is a recipe for catching all kinds of water-borne disease, so it wasn’t long before alternatives were developed.

The Chemistry of Swimming Pools (Image: Compound Interest - click for more info)

The Chemistry of Swimming Pools (Image: Compound Interest – click graphic for more info)

Those alternatives made use of the chemistry that was happening anyway in the water, but  allowed the dangerous bit, with the elemental chlorine, to happen somewhere else. And so hypochlorite salts began to be manufactured to be used in swimming pools.

As the lovely graphic from Compound Interest illustrates, sodium hypochlorite reacts with water to form hypochlorous acid, which in turn goes on to form hypochlorite ions. These two substances sit in an equilibrium, and both are oxidants, which is good because oxidants are good at blasting bacteria. The equilibria in question are affected by pH though, which is one reason why, quite apart from the potential effects on swimmers, it’s so important to manage the pH of pool water.

There are a couple of different chemicals which can be added to adjust pH. Sodium bicarbonate, for example, can be used to nudge the pH up if needed. On the other hand, sodium bisulfate can be used to lower pH if the water becomes too alkaline.

Open-air pools have particular problems

UV light breaks down the chemicals that are used to keep swimming pool water clean.

This can all be managed extremely precisely in an unused, enclosed pool. But once you open that pool up, things become less simple. Open-air pools have a particular problem with UV light. Chlorine compounds are often sensitive to UV – this is why CFCs are such a problem for the ozone layer – and hypochlorite is no exception. In the presence of UV it breaks down in a process called photolysis to form chloride ions and oxygen. This means that outdoor pools require more frequent treatments, or the addition of extra chemicals to stabilise the ‘free available chlorine’ (FAC) levels.

Sadly, I haven’t managed to make it over to Rio, but from what I’ve seen the Aquatic Centre has a roof which opens up, which means that the pool water is indeed being exposed to UV light.

So perhaps the chemical levels simply dropped too low, which allowed algae to proliferate? Possibly aggravated by environmental conditions? Indeed, initially this seemed to be the explanation. FINA, the international governing body of aquatics, issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon which said:

“FINA can confirm that the reason for the unusual water color observed during the Rio diving competitions is that the water tanks ran out of some of the chemicals used in the water treatment process. As a result, the pH level of the water was outside the usual range, causing the discoloration. The FINA Sport Medicine Committee conducted tests on the water quality and concluded that there was no risk to the health and safety of the athletes, and no reason for the competition to be affected.”

This prompted people to wonder how on earth chemical levels were allowed to run out in an event as significant as the Olympics – did someone forget to click send on the order? – but still, it seemed to explain what had happened.

FINA issued a new statement

FINA issued a new statement on Sunday

Until today (Sunday), when more information surfaced as Olympic officials announced that they were going to drain at least one of the swimming pools and refill it. This is no small feat and will involve considerable cost: after all, we’re talking about millions of gallons of water. But it seems to be necessary. As Rio 2016’s director of venue management Gustavo Nascimento said:

“On the day of the Opening Ceremonies of the Games, 80 litres of hydrogen peroxide was put in the water. This creates a reaction to the chlorine which neutralises the ability of the chlorine to kill organics. This is not a problem for the health of anyone.”

Whoops. Yes indeed. Hydrogen peroxide reacts with chlorine to produce oxygen and hydrochloric acid. In fact, hydrogen peroxide is actually used to dechlorinate water which contains levels of chlorine that are too high. It might not be the very worst thing you could add to the water (when you think of all the things that could end up swimming pools) but it’s definitely up there.

Why and how this happened doesn’t, at the moment, appear to be clear. Presumably someone is for the high jump, and not just on the athletics field.

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Do you really need to worry about baby wipes?

Never mind ingredients, just give me a packet that's not empty!

Never mind ingredients, just give me a packet that’s not empty!

A little while back I wrote a post about shampoo ingredients, and in passing I mentioned baby wipes. Now, these are one of those products which you’ve probably never bought if you’re not a parent, but as soon as you are you find yourself increasingly interested in them. Yes, I know, reusable ‘wipes’ are a thing. But after dealing with a nappy explosion at 2am in the morning, I’m willing to bet that more than one parent’s environmental conscience has gone in the rubbish bin along with a bag of horror they never want to see again, at least for a little while.

But which wipes to buy? The cheapest ones? The nicest-smelling ones? The fragrance-free ones? The ones with the plastic dispenser on the top that allow you to easily grab one wipe at a time? Or not, because those bulky dispensers produce yet more plastic waste? Or just whichever brand you grabbed first at the all-night supermarket at some unpleasant hour that’s too late to be night yet too early to be morning?

All of the above at one time or another, probably. However, I’m going to suggest that one thing you can stop worrying about right now is whether or not your wipes are labelled ‘chemical-free’.

As I’ve explained before, everything is made up of chemicals. By any sensible definition, water is a chemical, and thus the claim that Water Wipes® (“the world’s purest baby wipe”) are “chemical free” is simply incorrect.

These wipes are not, actually, chemical-free.

These wipes are not, actually, chemical-free.

In fact, Water Wipes® aren’t even, as you might imagine, made of some sort of non-woven fabric impregnated with plain water. No, they contain something else: grapefruit seed extract.

Well, that sounds natural, I hear you say. It does, doesn’t it? Grapefruit, that sounds fresh. Seed, well seeds are healthy, aren’t they? And the word ‘extract’ is very natural-sounding. What’s the problem?

Let’s start with what grapefruit seed extract, also called GSE, actually is. It’s made from the seeds, pulp and white membranes of grapefruit. These ingredients are ground up and a drop of glycerin is added. Glycerin, by the way, is otherwise known as glycerol, or propane-1,2,3-triol. It’s naturally-occurring – it’s one of the molecules you get when you break up fats – and it’s usually made from plants such as soybeans or palm (uh oh…), or sometimes from tallow (oh dear…) or as a byproduct of the petroleum industry (yikes! – I wonder if the manufacturers of Water Wipes® enquired about the nature of the glycerin being added to their product…?)

But anyway, back to GSE. Like all plant extracts, grapefruit seed extract is stuffed full of other chemicals that occur naturally. In particular, flavonoids, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherols, citric acid, limonoids and sterols.

citric acid synthetic vs natural

Can you tell the difference?

So… in short, not chemical-free at all. Not even a bit. The problem here is that, in marketing, the term ‘chemical-free’ is used to mean something that only contains ingredients from ‘natural’ sources. But this is meaningless. Take citric acid, for example. (E330 by the way – E numbers don’t mean something’s deadly, either. In fact, quite the opposite.) There’s no difference between citric acid extracted from a grapefruit and citric acid prepared in a laboratory. They both have exactly the same atoms and the same molecular formula and structure. They both react in the same way.

They’d both be classified as corrosive in high concentrations, and irritant in low concentrations. This isn’t even “might” cause irritation. This is absolutely, definitely, positively WILL cause irritation.

Wait, hang on a minute! There’s a potentially corrosive chemical in the ‘chemical-free’ baby wipes, and unsuspecting parents are putting it on their baby’s skin?!

Yep.

But before anyone runs off to write the next Daily Mail headline, let’s be clear. It’s really not going to burn, alien acid-style, through a new baby’s skin. It’s not even going to slightly redden a baby’s skin, because the quantity is so miniscule that it quite literally has no corrosive properties at all. It’s the same logic as in the old adage that “the dose makes the poison“.

This is where we, as consumers, ought to stop and think. If a fraction of a drop of citric acid is harmless then…. perhaps that small quantity of PEG 40 hydrogenated castor oil or sodium benzoate in most (considerably less expensive, I’m just saying) other brands of baby wipes isn’t as awful as we thought, either…

Indeed, it’s not. But what sodium benzoate in particular IS, is a very effective preservative.

Grapefruit seed extract is marketed as a natural preservative, but studies haven't backed up this claim.

Grapefruit seed extract is allegedly a natural preservative, but studies haven’t backed up this claim.

Why does this matter? Well, without some sort of preservative baby wipes, which sit in a moist environment for weeks or months or even years, might start to grow mould and other nasties. You simply can’t risk selling packets of water-soaked fabric, at a premium price, without any preservative at all, because one day someone might open one of those packets and find it full of mould. At which point they would, naturally, take a photo and post it all over social media. Dis-as-ter.

This is why Water Wipes® include grapefruit seed extract, because it’s a natural preservative. Except…

When researchers studied GSE and its antimicrobial properties they found that most of their samples were contaminated with benzethonium chloride, a synthetic preservative, and some were contaminated with other preservatives, some of which really weren’t very safe at all. And here’s the kicker, the samples that weren’t contaminated had no antimicrobial properties.

In other words, either your ‘natural’ grapefruit seed extract is a preservative because it’s contaminated with synthetic preservatives, or it’s not a preservative at all.

If you're worried, just use cotton wool pads and water.

You can always use cotton wool pads and water.

If you’re worried that baby wipes may be irritating your baby’s skin – I’m not claiming this never happens – then the best, and cheapest, thing to do would be to simply follow the NHS guidelines and use cotton wool and water. It’s actually easier and less messy than you might imagine – packets of flat, cosmetic cotton wool pads are readily available (and pretty cheap). Simply dip one in some clean water, wipe and throw it away. It’s really no more difficult or messy than wipes.

But if you’re choosing a particular brand of wipes on the basis that they’re “chemical-free”, despite the fact that other types have never actually caused irritation, you can stop. Really. Buy the cheap ones. Or the nicest-smelling ones, or the ones that come out of the packet most easily. Because NONE of them are chemical-free, and it’s really not a problem.


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Words of woo: what does ‘alkalise’ mean?

220px-Marketvegetables

‘alkaline’ diets usually revolve around eating lots of fruit and vegetables – no bad thing, but it won’t change your body’s pH

If you hang around in the unscientific chunks of the internet for any length of time, as I find myself doing from time to time, you start to come across certain words that get used over and over. They are usually words that sound very sciency, and they’re being used to make things sound legitimate when, if we’re honest, they’re really not.

One such word is ‘alkalise’ (or ‘alkalize’). I’ve met it often ever since I wrote my post ‘Amazing alkaline lemons?‘. So, what does this word mean?

Good question. Google it, and at least the first three pages of links are about diets and how to ‘alkalise your body’ featuring such pithy lines as:

“It’s not really a diet… it’s a way of eating” (is there a difference?)
“Alkalise or live a life of misery” (gosh)
“Alkalise or die” (blimey)
“Alkaline water” (apparently this is a thing)
“Why it’s important to alkalise your water” (using our overpriced products)

In fact, I had to click through several pages of Google links before I even got to something that was simply a definition. (I’m aware that Google personalises its search results, so if you try this yourself you might have a different experience.) Certainly, there are no legitimate chemistry, biochemistry – or anything else like that – articles in sight.

Hunt specifically for a definition and you get turn basic and less acidic; “the solution alkalized”‘ (The Free Dictionary), to make or become alkaline. (Dictionary.com) and, simply, ‘to make alkaline’ (Collins).

Universal_indicator_paper

pH 7 is neutral, more than 7 is basic

The first of these is interesting, because it refers to ‘basic’. Now, as I’ve explained in another post, bases and alkalis are not quite the same thing. In chemistry a base is, in simple terms, anything that can neutralise an acid. Alkalis, on the other hand, are a small subset of this group of compounds: specifically the soluble, basic, ionic salts of alkali metals or alkaline earth metals.

Since there are only six alkali metals (only five that are stable) and only six alkaline earth metals (the last of which is radium – probably best you steer clear of radium compounds) there are a rather limited number of alkalis, namely: lithium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, rubidium hydroxide, caesium hydroxide, beryllium hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide, strontium hydroxide, barium hydroxide and radium hydroxide. There you go. That’s it. That’s all of them. (Okay, yes, under the ‘soluble in water’ definition we could also include ammonium hydroxide, formed by dissolving the base, ammonia, in water – that opens up a few more.)

This, you see, is why real chemists tend not to use the term ‘alkalise’ very often. Because, unless the thing you’re starting with does actually form one of these hydroxides (there are some examples, mostly involving construction materials), it’s a little bit lead-into-gold-y, and chemists hate that. The whole not changing one element into another thing (barring nuclear reactions, obviously) is quite fundamental to chemistry. That’s why your chemistry teacher spent hours forcing you to balance equations at school.

No, the relevant chemistry word is ‘basify‘. This is such a little-known word that even my spell checker complains, but it’s just the opposite of the slightly better-known ‘acidify’ – in other words, basify means to raise the pH of something by adding something basic to it. Google ‘basify’ and you get a very different result to that from ‘alkalise’. The first several links are dictionary definitions and grammar references, and after that it quickly gets into proper chemistry (although I did spot one that said ‘how to basify your urine’ – sigh).

What does all this mean? Well, if you see someone using the word “alkalising” it should raise red flags. I’d suggest that unless they’re about to go on to discuss cement (calcium hydroxide is an important ingredient in construction materials) cocoa production or, possibly, certain paint pigments, then you can probably write off the next few things they say as total nonsense. If they’re not discussing one of the above topics, the chances are good that what they actually know about chemistry could safely fit on the back of a postage stamp, with space to spare, so nod, smile and make your escape.

For the record, you absolutely don’t need to alkalise your diet. Or your urine*. Really. You don’t.

And please don’t waste your money on alkaline water.

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Lemon

There’s no good evidence that drinking lemon juice has a significant impact on urine pH.

* In the event that you actually have problematically acidic urine, perhaps due to some medical condition, there are proven treatments that will neutralise it (i.e. take it to around pH 7, which is the pH urine ought to be, roughly). In particular, sodium citrate powder can be dissolved in water to form a drinkable solution. Of course, if this is due to an infection you should see a doctor: you might need antibiotics – urinary tract infections can turn nasty. Yes, I am aware that the salt of the (citric) acid in lemons is sodium citrate, however there is no good evidence that drinking lemon juice actually raises urine pH by a significant amount. And yes, I’m also aware that dietary intake of citrate is known to inhibit the formation of calcium oxalate and calcium phosphate kidney stones, but that’s a whole other thing. If you have kidney stones there are a number of dietary considerations to make, not least of which might be to cut down on your consumption of certain fruits and vegetables such as strawberries and spinach (and ironically, if you look at some of the – entirely unscientific – lists of acid-forming and alkali-forming foods these are almost always on the alkaline side).

A horrifying story: autism, miracle mineral solution and the CD protocol

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It looks lovely, but what IS it?

UPDATE: August 2016
I’ve written a summary of the key CD/MMS facts, which you will find if you follow this link. The numbers quoted are slightly different in places, as I revised my calculations based on new reading.


In my last blog post I wrote about people using apricot kernels, which contain amygdalin, as a cancer treatment. I explained how this chemical is toxic, and why eating apricot kernels could be extremely dangerous. For me, the scariest thing was that some groups were recommending that children eat them to ‘ward off cancer’. If an adult makes a bad decision about their health and treatment and consequently makes themselves more ill, or even dies as a result, it is of course a tragedy. People who prey on vulnerable individuals in this way should have the book thrown at them (and as I said in my last post, the owner and director of The Vitamin Service Ltd was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and his company was fined £10,000 for just this).

But when these dangerous treatments are given to children it’s worse. It’s much, much, MUCH worse, because children aren’t consenting. They haven’t read around the whole area and made a conscious decision, even if deeply flawed, to ignore the advice of medically-trained professionals in favour of following some other regime. They trust their parents. If their parents are somehow persuaded into giving them something dangerous and toxic, they don’t know any different.

This is why when I heard about miracle mineral solution (MMS, sometimes called ‘master mineral solution’, or ‘miracle mineral supplement’) and the CD Protocol I felt I had to write about it. Plenty of others have written about this and tried to warn people, but this is one of those times that I feel that the more people that talk rationally about this, the better. If someone is even a bit undecided and goes looking for more information, I want them to stand every chance of finding words like these rather than dangerous and inaccurate information. So here goes.

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This year’s controversial Autism One conference is in May.

MMS and CD have been around for a few years, but they’re in the public eye again at the moment because of the upcoming Autism One conference*. This is a conference that claims to provide education and support advocacy efforts for children and families ‘touched by’ an autism diagnosis. Which all sounds very worthy and positive, but the conference is deeply controversial for, amongst other things, its anti-vaccination stance, its support for highly questionable therapies, and the general assertion that we are currently suffering some kind of ‘autism epidemic’ caused by environmental factors (although it’s true that autism diagnoses have risen in the last few years, evidence suggests this has much more to do with better diagnostic techniques than anything else).

This year’s Autism One conference is at the end of May, and someone called Kerri Rivera is planning to speak there.

KerriRivera

Kerri Rivera

Rivera is one of the founders of CD Autism. Visit the CD Autism website, and you will see that their headline is “Autism: Avoidable. Treatable. Curable”, which ought to right a few alarm bells right there.

For those who might not be aware, autism is what’s called a neurodevelopmental disorder, which essentially means the brain doesn’t develop in the ‘normal’ way. In particular, children with autism struggle with social interactions and often engage in repetitive, compulsive behaviours such as flapping their hands or compulsively lining up objects. Autism symptoms usually appear gradually as the child gets older, but occasionally children get to one or two years old and then suddenly appear to go ‘backwards’ and lose their ability to communicate with the world around them. Exactly why this happens isn’t well understood. There is strong evidence that autism is primarily genetic, although it is possible that environmental factors (pollutants, certain drugs, etc) in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy might also trigger it. Either way, it looks like children are born with autism, even if their symptoms don’t appear until later.

Autism-stacking-cans_2nd_edit

Children with autism often repetitively stack objects.

Autism has no cure, in the sense that there isn’t a medicine or a treatment plan you can follow which will make it go away (although Kerri Rivera would have everyone believe otherwise). Children, however, often improve as they get older. This is probably simply due to the fact that as children grow their brains develop, and the human brain is remarkably adaptable and flexible. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means there’s a huge range in the level of impairments individuals suffer. Those at the more severe end of the spectrum will always need huge amount of support and will never achieve independence. On the other hand, you do very occasionally hear stories of children ‘recovering’ from autism and losing their diagnosis (although it’s more likely that they were misdiagnosed in the first place). Others are able to learn coping strategies as they get older and, while they will probably always find certain aspects of daily life difficult, are ultimately able to function quite successfully in society.

This is where it gets dangerous, because a condition that naturally tends to improve over time is an absolute gift to anyone pushing quackery. It means that no matter what you do (or don’t) do, you’ll always be able to find lots of positive testimonials from people who are happy to say “I tried this and it worked for us!”, “My son/daughter is so much better since we started this treatment!” They probably did see a genuine improvement. Thing is, they would have seen it anyway. The really worrying question is: might they have seen a bigger improvement without the treatment? 

And so briefly back to CD Autism’s tagline: “Autism: Avoidable. Treatable. Curable”. Scientific research suggests that autism probably isn’t avoidable; children are born with it. It’s not curable. There are strategies which can help children and their families to mange it (along the lines of speech therapy, social skills therapy, structured teaching and so on), but there’s no one, single proven ‘treatment’ for autism.

As a parent myself, I can empathise with parents who don’t want to believe these things. You gave birth to an apparently normal and healthy child, and then you’re told they have this condition which will affect them for the rest of their life. A condition which prevents them from interacting normally with you and the rest of your family, and one which other people will find very difficult to understand. People who don’t know them may very well think they’re rude and disruptive, and that you’re a weak parent who needs to start dishing out some discipline. Your child probably isn’t going get the education you hoped for them. They might not be able to live independently, or even ever communicate effectively. And there’s no cure for this, although some therapy might help. Your child might improve with time, but you’ll just have to wait and see how much. The uncertainty, and the stress of dealing with a child exhibiting such difficult behaviours, must be incredibly difficult to deal with.

So yes, I can understand why parents might not want to believe the science. The whole ‘big pharma has all the doctors on its payroll‘ thing must be very tempting. People like Kerri Rivera say they’re not making money from selling these treatments – they genuinely just want to spread the word – so that makes them trustworthy, right? There are many stories of other parents who’ve tried it, and they say their child improved. Surely doing something is better than doing nothing?

Well, no. No, it isn’t. Not in this case.

Have you been wondering what the CD in ‘CD Autism’ stands for? It stands for chlorine dioxide. The ‘CD protocol’ is the chlorine dioxide protocol and CDS (another common acronym) stands for ‘chlorine dioxide solution’.

CDS is made from MMS: ‘miracle’, or ‘master’ mineral solution. Minerals sound good for you, right? It’s important to eat your vitamins and minerals, isn’t it?

Let’s get down to the chemistry. Kerri Rivera has previously attacked her critics for not knowing any chemistry, and describing MMS and CDS inaccurately as a result. Well I know some chemistry. I have a BSc and a PhD in the subject, and I taught it for over ten years. So I reckon I know enough not to get this wrong.

On the CD Autism site Rivera quite openly states that this treatment is based around chlorine dioxide, ClO2, which is produced when two liquids – sodium chlorite and citric acid – are combined. I reiterate, this isn’t hidden in any way, they are quite open about it.

SodiumChlorite

Sodium chlorite, NaClO2

There is also an MMS Wiki, which explains in more detail exactly what is in this solution and how it’s ‘activated’. Here they are again quite open: MMS starts out as a 22.4% solution of sodium chlorite, NaClO2, along with some table salt (sodium chloride, NaCl) and other trace ‘neutral’ chemicals “such as sodium hydroxide, sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate”. I find it interesting that they use the term neutral, because sodium hydroxide certainly is not, and least not in the pH sense of neutral. Sodium hydroxide is a strong alkali with a pH of (depending on the concentration) somewhere between 11-14. Sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate are also alkaline, although not as strong as sodium hydroxide. That said, Wikipedia gives a pKa value for NaClO2 of 10-11, which I estimate ought, for a 22.4% solution, to produce a slightly acidic pH of about 5 (I was expecting it to be alkaline, so fellow chemists, please weigh in if you disagree – is the pKa value wrong?) I suspect that enough sodium hydroxide is added to keep the mixture slightly alkaline, since NaClO2 is stable in alkaline and neutral solutions.

To a chemist, this list of chemicals is not very surprising. Bleach solution, the stuff that you use to clean your bathroom, is made by mixing cold sodium hydroxide with chlorine gas to produce a mixture of sodium chloride, sodium chlorate(I) (NaClO, also sometimes called sodium hypochlorite), and water. Just to be absolutely crystal clear, bleach is not one single pure chemical, it’s a mixture. Household cleaning products have even more stuff added to them to make them more effective, so it’s probably not accurate to directly compare MMS to household bleach (this doesn’t mean they’re safe, please read on).

NaClO2, the stuff in MMS, is made slightly differently. But it still starts out with the reaction between chlorine and sodium hydroxide, except this time the solutions are hot. This produces yet another form of sodium chlorate, NaClO3, which can then be combined with a reducing agent to ClO2 and a mixture of other things.

NaClO and NaClO2 are not quite the same things, something which Rivera and other CD advocates have been keen to point out. MMS is not bleach, they say, no matter how the media reports it. They have similar formulas, yes, but ozone and oxygen (a favoured example) also differ by one oxygen atom, and it’s safe to breathe oxygen whereas it’s not safe to breathe ozone.

Well. Yes. The thing about ozone and oxygen is true. Yes. But does that imply that NaClO2 and chlorine dioxide are completely safe and inert? Er, no. NaClO2 is a strong oxidant and, although it may not technically be bleach, and isn’t as corrosive as the bleach solution in your bathroom cupboard, will still make you sick if you drink it. In particular, it could affect blood-oxygen transport and cause kidney failure, amongst other things. It has an LD50 of 350 mg/kg for rats. That means that if rats are fed 350 mg per kg of body weight, half of them will die. If we scale that up to a 20 kg child (very roughly 6-7 years old), that suggests that 7 grams is enough to kill. Remember that MMS is a 22.4% solution, which I assume means 22.4 g per 100 g of water.

That means that a 100 ml bottle of MMS might be enough to kill a young child three times over.

Perhaps this is disingenuous of me. CD Autism don’t advocate drinking whole bottles of MMS, they suggest using a few drops at a time. Perhaps it’s not fair to talk about toxicity in this way. After all you can, for example, perfectly safely take a small amount of paracetamol, but if you swallow a whole packet you’ll be in serious trouble.

Chlorine-dioxide-from-xtal-3D-balls

Chlorine dioxide, ClO2

But here’s the kicker, you don’t use MMS as it is. You ‘activate it’. Ah yes. This means mixing it with an acid solution, in particular citric acid, the acid found in citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons. When you do this, another chemical reaction happens, and ClO2 (chlorine dioxide), NaCl (sodium chloride) and water are formed, and the resulting pH ends up somewhere around the 2.5-3 mark (which is acidic). Now we have a chlorine dioxide solution, hence “CDS”.

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You really don’t want to swallow this stuff.

Let’s look at the safety data for chlorine dioxide. Chlorine dioxide IS a bleach. You see, they’re clever here. When denying the whole bleach thing, they say ‘MMS is not bleach’ (true), not ‘CDS is not bleach’ (which would be false). Chlorine dioxide is a strong oxidising agent and under EU classification it’s described as very toxic, corrosive and damaging to the environment. It’s LD50 is lower than NaClO2‘s (lower is bad, it means less of it will kill you). Under US classifications, it has an NFPA Health rating of 3, which means that “short exposure could cause serious temporary or moderate residual injury”. Compared to chlorine dioxide, NaClO2 is practically harmless.

Industrially chlorine dioxide is used to bleach wood pulp and in water purification, but because it’s toxic the US Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum level of 0.8 mg/L for chlorine dioxide in drinking water. Now, it’s difficult to be sure exactly how much NaClO2 actually gets converted to ClO2 when it’s ‘activated’ by adding citric acid, but based on the only half-sensible balanced equation I could find and allowing for 70% conversion, I estimate conservatively that there would be about 9.5 grams of chlorine dioxide per 100 ml of activated master mineral solution (plus, don’t forget, there’s still some NaClO2 as well). That’s 95,000 mg/L, which is over one hundred thousand times the safe limit for drinking water. Even if the conversion is much less than I’ve estimated, I think we can be sure it’s well over safe limits.

And this, THIS, is the stuff that CD Autism are advocating that parents give to their children to swallow, and use in enemas.

Oh, but wait, I know what’s coming: you don’t use the whole solution in one go. You use a few drops at a time. Fine. How many drops? Well, there are different ‘protocols’ for different diseases, and for different stages of ‘treatment’, but to pick one fairly randomly I have seen someone mention 15 drops in 700 mls. Assuming a drop is 0.1 ml, I reckon that’s still about 200 mg/L. To reiterate, US safe limits are 0.8 mg/L. This is two thousand times safe limits. Even if some of my assumptions turn out to be over-generous, we are dangerously over safe limits. Do not listen when CD Autism tell you chlorine dioxide is safe because it’s used in drinking water, and because they’re only using small amounts. It is not. The amounts they’re suggesting are not, in fact, that small. This is highly dangerous and is highly likely to make your child seriously ill.

As the FDA warns, CDS can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and symptoms of severe dehydration. There have also been reports of liver failure and severe kidney damage. CD Autism will say that the nausea and diarrhoea are symptoms of ‘detox’. It is just your body getting rid of ‘parasites’ and ‘toxins’ that have accumulated. It’s not. These are symptoms of acute toxicity. The chlorine dioxide is poisoning you, or worse, your child. These symptoms are a sign that you should stop before you do any more damage. If it’s not already too late.

The advocates CDS say that “the chlorine dioxide molecule has a chemical characteristic that changes and makes it selective for pathogens“. In other words, chlorine dioxide somehow ‘knows’ to only attack harmful microorganisms. It doesn’t – chemistry doesn’t work that way. Molecules aren’t capable of distinguishing one from another. Chlorine dioxide attacks and damages all the cells in its path, healthy and (possibly) harmful alike. And bear in mind that the bacteria in and on our bodies still aren’t that well understood. Our bodies contain a hundred bacterial cells for every single human one. Most of these bacteria are not harmful; in fact quite the opposite. They help us digest our food, bolster our immune system, and may be involved in all kinds of other processes (there was a even a paper recently suggesting that a change in gut bacteria had caused obesity in a patient). If you put something inside you, particularly straight into your gut in the form of an enema, which indiscriminately destroys pretty much everything in its path you could be literally be doing untold damage.

I mentioned parasites back there, and I just want to say a little more about this. CD Autism and their ilk are big on parasites. They believe that huge numbers of the population are infected with parasites, and that these are causing everything from cancer to autism. Their evidence for this mainly seems to come from enemas, where the ‘results’ of enema treatments (I’ll spare you pictures) show long, mucous-y strands. They say that these are worms, and sometimes call them ropeworms. Critics, on the other hand, say they are intestinal lining, removed by the harsh enema process.

Of course there are some real intestinal worms that actually exist. Roundworms and tapeworms for example. If you think you may have one of these, see a doctor – there are safe and effective treatments you can use to get rid of them without resorting to chlorine dioxide enemas. There is however no real evidence for the fictitious ‘ropeworm’. It was born out of the fevered imaginations of Nikolai Gubarev (who works, or possibly worked, in occupational safety in Russia) and Alex Volinsky (a mechanical engineer). The articles which describe their ‘discovery’ have never been published in any kind of peer-reviewed journal, although they are available online. And the very fact that they claim in one of their papers that people with “blood pH of 8-10” are more susceptible should immediately tell you everything you need to know about their (lack of) medical background. Someone with a blood pH in that range would be dead. Blood pH is strictly maintained by your body to be between 7.35 and 7.45. If it somehow gets out of that range you’re in serious trouble. A high blood pH is otherwise known as alkalosis, and results in muscle pain, muscle weakness and low blood calcium levels, and ultimately leads to seizures.

In short, don’t believe anyone that tells you that you’re infested with parasites, unless it’s a qualified medical doctor who’s had a sample of your stool properly analysed in a laboratory.

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Jim Humble, who started it all in 2006 with a self-published book on MMS.

Finally, I have focused mainly on autism in this piece, and that’s because I find the use of MMS and CDS in this area the most upsetting. These chemicals are being used on children, doing them terrible damage, and it’s completely out of their control. But I also want to point out that MMS and CDS are suggested for the ‘treatment’ of a whole raft of conditions. There are ‘protocols’ for everything from acne to cancer, and from mad cow disease (seriously) to yeast infections. This all seems to have started with a character called Jim Humble, who is in his own words “an inventor” (and not a scientist, and certainly not a doctor). There is an article all about him here, which I strongly recommend. Of particular note is the fact that more than one country has an arrest warrant out for him, regarding the poisoning and death of several people.

All of which means that there is a real danger that if you go looking for alternative treatments for pretty much anything, you might at some point run into someone selling MMS and CDS. And if you do, please, turn and run.

Update June 2015

On the 28th of May 2015 a man called Louis Daniel Smith was convicted, following a seven-day trial, of conspiracy, smuggling, selling misbranded drugs and defrauding the United States. Smith operated a business called “Project GreenLife” (PGL) from 2007 to 2011, which sold a product called “Miracle Mineral Supplement,” or MMS, over the Internet. The government presented evidence that Smith instructed consumers to combine MMS with citric acid to create chlorine dioxide, add water and drink the resulting mixture to cure numerous illnesses including cancer, AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, lyme disease, asthma and the common cold.

The jury convicted Smith of one count of conspiracy to commit multiple crimes, three counts of introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead and one count of fraudulently smuggling merchandise into the United States.  The jury found Smith not guilty on one out of four of the misbranded drug counts. He faces a statutory maximum of 34 years in prison at his Sept. 9 sentencing.

For the full press release from the United States Department of Justice, just follow this link.

One down…

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* Here, and throughout this article where I have felt that I ought to link to websites associated with MMS proponents, I have used the Do Not Link service. This allows me to link to the relevant pages without giving them any kind of boost in search engine rankings. I urge anyone who writes anything of a skeptical nature to use Do Not Link. Let’s not help these guys out if we don’t have to.

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