The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2017

We’ve made it! Not only to 2018 (which was starting to look doubtful earlier in the year), but also to the Chronicle Flask’s 100th post. Which doesn’t seem that many, really, but since posts on here frequently run to 1500 words, that adds up to a rather more impressive-sounding 150,000 words or so. I mean, that’s like… half a Brandon Sanderson novel. Oh.

Anyway, it’s time for a yearly round-up. Here goes!

Last January I began with a post about acrylamide. We’d all been enjoying lots of lovely crispy food over Christmas; it was time to tell us about the terrible dangers of such reckless indulgence. The newspapers were covered with pictures of delicious-looking chips, toast and roast potatoes alongside scary headlines such as:  “Crunchy toast could give you cancer, FSA warns”. The truth was not quite so dramatic. Acrylamide does form when foods are cooked to crispiness, and it is potentially harmful, but the quantities which form in food are tiny, and very unlikely to cause you any serious harm unless you literally live on nothing but burnt toast. The FSA (Food Standards Agency) hadn’t significantly revised their guidelines, it turned out, but were in fact only suggesting that the food industry should be mindful of acrylamide levels in food and seek to reduce them as much as possible. That wouldn’t have made for quite such a good “your food is going to killllll you!” story though, I suppose.

In February the spikey topic of vaccination came up. Again. Vaccines are awesome. They protect us from deadly diseases. No, I don’t want to hear any nonsense about “Big Pharma“, and I definitely don’t want to hear how “natural immunity” is better. It’s not. At best, it might provide a similar level of protection (but not in every case), but it comes with having to suffer through a horrible, dangerous disease, whereas vaccination doesn’t. It ought to be a no-brainer. Just vaccinate your kids. And yourself.

It was Red Nose Day in the UK in March, which brought some chemistry jokes. Turns out all the best ones aren’t gone, after all. Did you hear about the PhD student who accidentally cooled herself to absolute zero? She’s 0K now.

April brought a post which ought to have been an April Fool’s joke, but wasn’t. Sceptics often point out that homeopathy is just sugar and water, but the trouble is, sometimes, it’s not. There’s virtually no regulation of homeopathy. As far as I’ve been able to establish, no one tests homeopathic products; no one checks the dilutions. Since a lot of the starting materials are dangerously toxic substances such as arsenic, belladona, lead and hemlock, this ought to worry people more than it does. There has been more than one accidental poisoning (perhaps most shockingly, one involving baby teething products). It really is time this stuff was banned, maybe 2018 will be the year.

In May I turned to something which was to become a bit of a theme for 2017: alkaline water. It’s not so much that it doesn’t do anything (although it really doesn’t), more the fact that someone is charging a premium for a product which you could literally make yourself for pennies. It’s only a matter of dissolving a pinch of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in some water.

June brought a selection of periodic tables because, well, why not? This is a chemistry blog, after all! And now we’ve finally filled up period seven they do have a rather elegant completness. 2019, by the way, has just been announced as the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, to coincide with IUPAC’s 100th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of Mendeelev’s discovery of periodicity (his presentation, The Dependence Between the Properties of of the Atomic Weights of the Elements, was made on 6th March 1869). Looks like 2019 will be an exciting year for chemists!

In July it was back to the nonsense of alkaline diets again, when Robert O. Young was finally sentenced to 3 years, 8 months in custody for conning vulnerable cancer patients into giving him large sums of money for ineffective and dangerous treatments. Good. Moving on.

August brought me back to a post that I’d actually started earlier in the year when I went to a March for Science event in April. It was all about slime, and August seemed like a good time to finally finish it, with the school holidays in full swing – what could be more fun on a rainy day at home than making slime? Slime was a bit of a 2017 craze, and there have been a few stories featuring children with severely irritated skin. But is this likely to be caused by borax? Not really. Turns out it’s actually very safe. Laundry detergents in general, not so much. In short, if you want to make slime the traditional way with PVA glue and borax, fill your boots. (Not really – your parents will be uninpressed.)

In September it was back to quackery: black salve. A nasty, corrosive concoction which is sold as a cancer cure. It won’t cure your cancer. It will burn a nasty great big hole in your skin. Do not mess with this stuff.

October carried on in a similar vein, literally. This time with a piece about naturopaths recommending hydrogen peroxide IVs as a treatment for lots of things, not least – you guessed it – cancer. Yes, hydrogen peroxide. The stuff you used to bleach hair. Intraveneously. Argh.

The puking pumpkin!

The end of the month featured a far better use for hydrogen peroxide, that of the puking pumpkin. Definitely one to roll out if, for any reason, you ever find yourself having to demonstrate catalysis.

November brought us, somewhat unseasonally, to tomatoes. Where is the best place to store them? Fridge or windowsill? Turns out the answer involves more chemistry than you might have imagined.

And then, finally, December. Looking for a last-minute Christmas gift? Why not buy a case of blk water? I mean, other than it’s an exorbitantly priced bottle of mysterious black stuff which doesn’t do any of the things it claims to do, and might actually get its colour from coal deposits, that is.

And that, dear friends and followers, is it for 2017! Happy New Year! Remember to be sceptical when the inevitable “deadly food” story appears in a few weeks….


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Just what is blk water, and should you drink it?

Christmas is almost here! Are you ready yet? Are you fed up with people asking if you’re ready yet? Have you worked out what to buy for Great-uncle Nigel, who says he neither needs nor wants anything? Always a tricky scenario, that. Consumables are often a safe fallback position. They don’t clutter up the house, and who doesn’t enjoy a nice box of luxury biscuits, or chocolates, or a bottle of champagne, or spirts, or a case of blk water.

Wait, what?

Yes, this mysterious product turned up in my feed a few weeks ago. It’s water (well, so they say), but it’s black. Actually black. Not just black because the bottle’s black, black because the liquid inside it is… black.

It’s black water.

A bit like… cola. Only blacker, and not fizzy, or sweet, or with any discernable flavour other than water.

It raises many questions, doesn’t it? Let’s start with why. Obviously it’s a great marketing gimmick. It definitely looks different. It also comes with a number of interesting claims. The suppliers claim it contains “no nasties” and “only 2 ingredients”, namely spring water and “Fulvic Minerals” (sic). (Hang on, I hear you say, if it’s minerals, plural, surely that’s already more than two ingredients? Oh, but that’s only the start. Stay with me.)

It claims to “balance pH levels” and help “to regulate our highly acidic diets”. Yes, well, I think I’ve covered that before. Absolutely nothing you drink, or eat, does anything to the pH in any part of your body except, possibly, your urine – where you might see a small difference under some circumstances (but even if you do it doesn’t tell you anything significant about the impact of your diet on your long-term health). And bear in mind that a few minutes after you drink any kind of alkaline water it mixes with stomach acid which has a pH of around 2. Honestly, none of that alkaline “goodness” makes it past your pyloric sphincter.

Finally, blk water apparently “replenishes electrolytes”. Hm. Electrolytes are important in the body. They’re ionic species, which means they can conduct electricity. Your muscles and neurons rely on electrical activity, so they are quite important. Like, life or death important. But because of that our bodies are quite good at regulating them, most of the time. If you run marathons in deserts, or get struck down with a nasty case of food poisoning, or have some kind of serious health condition (you’d know about it) you might need to think about electrolytes, but otherwise most of us get what we need from the food and drink we consume normally every day.

Besides which, didn’t they say “only 2 ingredients”? The most common electrolytes in the body are sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate. Most spring waters do contain some, if not all, of these, in greater or smaller amounts, but it’s not going to be enough to effectively “replenish” any of them. If, say, you are running marathons in the desert, the advice is actually to keep a careful eye on your water intake because drinking too much water can dangerously lower your sodium levels. Yes, there are sports drinks that are specifically designed to help with this, but they taste of salt and sugar and/or flavourings which have been added in a desperate attempt to cover up the salty taste. This is apparently not the case with blk water which, to repeat myself, contains “only 2 ingredients”.

And, according to the blk website the drink contains “0 mg of sodium per 500ml” so… yeah.

Speaking of ingredients, what about those so-called fulvic minerals? Maybe they’re the source of those all-important electrolytes (but not sodium)? And maybe they’re magically tasteless, too?

And perhaps, like other magical objects and substances, they don’t actually exist – as geologist @geolizzy told me on Twitter when I asked.

It’s not looking good for blk water (£47.99 for a case of 24 bottles) at this point. But hang on. Perhaps when they said fulvic minerals, what they meant was fulvic acid – which is a thing, or possibly several things – in a the presence of oh, say, some bicarbonate (*cough* 2 ingredients *cough*).

That could push the pH up to the stated 8-9, and didn’t we learn in school that:
acid + alkali –> salt + water
and maybe, if we’re being generous, we could call the salts of fulvic acids minerals? It’s a bit shaky but… all right.

So what are fulvic acids?

That’s an interesting question. I had never heard of fulvic acids. They do, as it turns out, have a Wikipedia page (Wikipedia is usually very reliable for chemical information, since no one has yet been very interested in spoofing chemical pages to claim things like hydrochloric acid is extracted from the urine of pregnant unicorns) but the information wasn’t particularly enlightening. The page did inform me that fulvic acids are “components of the humus” (in soil) and are  “similar to humic acids, with differences being the carbon and oxygen contents, acidity, degree of polymerization, molecular weight, and color.” The Twitter hive-mind, as you can see, was sending me down the same path…

A typical example of a humic acid.

Next stop, humic acids. Now we’re getting somewhere. These are big molecules with several functional groups. The chemists out there will observe that, yes, they contain several carboxylic acid groups (the COOH / HOOC ones you can see in the example) so, yes, it makes sense they’d behave as acids.

“No nasties”, blk said. “Pure” they said. When you hear those sorts of things, do you imagine something like this is in your drink? Especially one that, let’s be clear, is a component of soil?

Oh, hang on, I should’ve checked the “blk explained” page on the blk water website. There’s a heading which actually says “what are Fulvic Minerals”, let’s see now…

“Fulvic minerals are plant matter derived from millions of years ago that have combined with fulvic acid forming rare fulvic mineral deposits. They deliver some of the most powerful electrolytes in the world.”

“Fulvic minerals contain 77 other trace minerals, most of which have an influence on the healthiness of our body. They are very high in alkaline and when sourced from the ground contain a pH of 9.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not totally convinced. I mean, as @geolizzy says in her tweet here (excuse the minor typo, she means humic, not humid),  it sounds a bit like… water contaminated with hydrocarbon deposits?

Yummy.

And, by the way, the phrase “very high in alkaline” is utterly meaningless. Substances are alkaline, or they contain substances which are alkaline. “Alkaline” is not a thing in itself. This is like saying my tea is high in hot when sourced from the teapot.

There’s one more thing to add. So far this might sound a bit weird but… probably safe, right? What could be more wholesome than a bit of soil? Didn’t your granny tell you to eat a pinch of soil to boost your immune system, or something? At worst it’s harmless, right?

Tap water is chlorine-treated to keep it free of nasty bacteria.

Maybe. But then again… water is often treated with chlorine compounds to keep it bacteria-free. Now, blk water is supposedly spring water, which isn’t usually treated. But hypothetically, let’s consider what happens when humic acids, or fulvic acids, or whatever we’re calling them, come into contact with chlorine-treated water.

Oh dear. It seems that dihaloacetonitriles are formed. (See also this paper.) This is a group of substances (possibly the best known one is dichloroacetonitrile) which are variously toxic and mutagenic. Let’s hope that spring water is totally unchlorinated, 100% “we really got it from out of a rock” spring water, then.

To sum up: it is black, and that’s kind of weird and a fun talking point – although if you like the idea of a black drink you can always drink cola. It doesn’t balance your pH levels – nothing does. I don’t believe it replenishes electrolyte levels either – how can it when it doesn’t contain sodium? – and I’m dubious about the “2 ingredients” claim (could you tell?). And the oh-so-healthy-sounding fulvic minerals are most likely due to contamination from coal deposits.

All in all, whilst it might not be quite such a conversation piece, I think it would be better to get Great-uncle Nigel a nice box of chocolates this year.


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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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