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.


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


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

Advertisements

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.

You can follow The Chronicle Flask on Facebook at fb.com/chronicleflask, or on Twitter as @ChronicleFlask.

 

Are you ok? You look a little flushed.

PrintYesterday was World Toilet Day (yes, really). This is actually an admirable campaign by WaterAid to raise awareness of the fact that one in three people around the world don’t have access to a safe and private toilet. This, of course, leads to unsanitary conditions which results in the spread of infection and disease. You’ve probably never given it a second thought, but loos literally save lives.

portaloo

Has the TARDIS’ replicator function gone funny?

So, with the topic of toilets in mind, I started thinking about chemical loos. If you live in the UK, the name Portaloo ® will probably spring to mind. This has practically become a generic word for a portable toilet, but it is (like Hoover, Sellotape and others) actually a brand name. I’m told that in America they call them porta-pottys or honey-buckets, which I rather like. In any case, all the chemicals and plastic make them seem like modern inventions, surely?

Actually, not at all. The idea of a self-contained, moveable toilet that you can pick up and take from place to place may be newer, but people have been using chemical toilets for hundreds of years. For example after, ahem, ‘business’ had been completed in an an old-fashioned wooden outhouse – basically a tall box built over a hole in the ground – the user would sprinkle a little lye or lime down the hole to help with the smell.

SodiumHydroxide

Don’t get sodium hydroxide on the toilet seat.

Both of these are strongly basic chemicals. Lye is either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, and lime is calcium oxide. Both mix with water to form extremely corrosive, alkaline solutions and, incidentally, give out a lot of heat in the process. Both are very damaging to skin. These were the days before health and safety; whatever you did, you had to try not to spill it on the seat.

Urea, a key chemical in urine, reacts with strong alkalis in a process known as alkaline hydrolysis. This produces ammonia, which is pretty stinky (if rather tough on the lungs), so if nothing else that helped to cover up other smells. Ammonia also kills some types of bacteria (which is one reason it’s popular in cleaning products). Flies generally don’t like high concentrations of it either, so that’s another plus.

Alkalis also have another effect in that decomposition of human waste is pH dependent; it works better in acidic conditions. Adding lye or lime raises the pH and slows down this decomposition. On top of this (literally) both lime and lye are hygroscopic: they absorb water. This keeps moisture down and allows a solid ‘crust’ to form on the surface of the waste, making it difficult for any volatile, smelly chemicals to escape. Lovely.

Bleach and ammonia could result in a rocket up your...

Bleach and ammonia could result in a rocket up your…

One word of caution: it’s very, very important you don’t try to clean such an outhouse with any kind of bleach. Bleach, which contains sodium hypochlorite, reacts with ammonia to form hydrogen chloride, chlorine gas and chloramine. None of which are good for your health. Even more dramatically (if this is more dramatic than death – you decide) if there’s lots of ammonia you might get liquid hydrazine, which is used in rocket fuels because it’s explosive. Who knew that toilet chemistry could also be rocket science?

But you don’t find buckets of lye in modern chemical toilets (although, apparently, there are still some people out there using it). So what’s in there? At one time, formaldehyde, otherwise known as methanal, was common. You probably recognise it as embalming fluid; the stuff that Damien Hirst floated that shark in. It’s an extremely effective preservative. Firstly, it kills most bacteria and fungi and destroys viruses, and secondly it causes primary amino groups in proteins to cross-link with other nearby nitrogen atoms, denaturing the proteins and preventing them from breaking down.

shark

Don’t worry, this won’t appear in your chemical toilet.

Interestingly, whilst definitely toxic in high concentrations, formaldehyde is a naturally-occuring chemical. It’s found in the bloodstream of animals, including humans, because it’s involved in normal metabolism. It also appears in fruits and vegetables, notably pears, grapes and shiitake mushrooms. The dose, as they say, makes the poison. I mention this because there are certain campaigners out there who insist it must be completely eliminated from everything, something which is entirely unecessary not to mention probably impossible (just for the hell of it, I’m also going to point out here that an average pear contains considerably more formaldehyde than a dose of vaccine).

All that said, because formaldehyde is extremely toxic in high concentrations, and because it can interfere with the breakdown processes in sewage plants (because it destroys bacteria), formaldehyde isn’t used in toilets so much anymore. In fact, many of the mixtures on sale are explicitly labelled “formaldehyde-free”. Modern formulations are enzyme-based and break down waste by biological activity. They are usually still dyed blue (if you work your way though the colour spectrum, it’s probably the least offensive colour), but usually using food-grade dye. As a result, what’s left afterwards is classed as sewage rather than chemical waste, making it easier to deal with.

Toilet twinning So, this has been brief tour around the fascinating world of toilet chemistry. You’d never have guessed there was so much to it, would you? Now, have you considered twinning your toilet?

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.

—-

Follow The Chronicle Flask on Facebook for regular updates and other interesting chemistry and science bits and pieces.

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

miracle-mineral-solution-220

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 21.20.37

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”.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 15.45.05

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.

jim-humble

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…

—-

* 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.

—-

Comments have now been closed on this article. Comments relating to this article left on other blog pages will be automatically deleted.

Are you (still) a chemist and you didn’t know it?

I recently wrote a post listing five bits of chemistry you (probably) do every day.  It was surprisingly popular and so, just like the big movie companies, here’s the sequel!

Picture 0151.  Make fresh coffee (or at least drink one someone else made)
Espresso (the basis of most coffee drinks) is made by forcing a small amount of very-nearly boiling water through ground coffee beans.  This handily extracts a number of chemicals including all the ones that produce the lovely coffee flavours and aromas but also, crucially, our friend caffeine, without which many of us simply wouldn’t function on a daily basis.  What you (or your favourite barista) have done here is a form of chemical extraction.  Extraction techniques are extremely important in chemistry, because nature has an annoying habit of stirring up the stuff we want with lots of other things.  Chemists, especially the organic ones (produced with all-natural fertilisers) spend most of their lives carefully and painstakingly extracting things from other things. Some of them probably earn less than baristas, too.

2.  Make toast
You know when you make the perfect slice, and it goes that lovely brown colour, just before black?  That’s the Maillard reaction in action.  It’s the same thing that happens when you brown meat, chips, onions or, well, anything else that goes brown when you cook it.  It’s a reaction between amino acids (the stuff proteins are made of) and sugars.  It’s also responsible for those lovely toasted-biscuity smells and favours.  The surface of the food has to be in contact with dry heat for this reaction to happen, which is why boiled and microwaved food doesn’t brown.  And alkaline conditions help it along, which is the main reason lye is traditionally used on the surface of pretzels and other German breads (that’s always made me a bit nervous).

Haemoglobin3.  Breathe
I mentioned respiration in my previous post but as any 13 year-old pupil will tell you, and most adults have long since forgotten, respiration is not the same as breathing.  Here I’m actually thinking of oxygen exchange (which is also not, technically, the breathing bit but bear with me).  You’re probably aware that you blood has iron in it: in fact that iron is tied up in rather beautifully complicated haemoglobin molecules.  Oxygen molecules bond to four iron atoms in the haemoglobin with something called coordinate, or dative covalent, bonds.  If it weren’t for this nifty bit of chemical bonding, there’s no way our blood could carry enough oxygen around our bodies, delivering it safely to our cells, to keep us going from one minute to the next.

251840969_6404.  Neutralised some excess acid
Taken an indigestion tablet recently?  Did you realise you were doing a chemistry experiment in your very own stomach?  Well you were!  Indigestion tablets contain a variety of substances, but some of the most common ingredients are magnesium hydroxide (also known, when suspended in water, as ‘milk of magnesia’), calcium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and magnesium carbonate.  These are all bases: they react with acids to form a salt and water and, in the case of the carbonates, carbon dioxide as well.  The acid in your stomach is hydrochloric acid, so for example:

sodium bicarbonate + hydrochloric acid –> sodium chloride + water + carbon dioxide

Now, is that Rennie advert that claims to “turn acid into water and other natural substances” starting to make sense?  They don’t want to use the word salt for some reason…

5.  Used drain cleaner
This is one of my favouritist little bits of chemistry.  Really.  It’s lovely.  Well apart from the horribly caustic chemicals involved obviously.  Drain cleaner is dangerous concoction nasty stuff but it’s main ingredient is often a strong alkali, like sodium hydroxide (there are also acidic drain cleaners; it’s quite important that you don’t mix them).  The stuff that blocks up your plughole is, largely, protein (hair, skin cells, yuck) and and oily dirt.  The strong alkali reacts with these things in a reaction called hydrolysis.  Now this is clever, because soap is made by (virtually) the exact same reaction.  Soap is produced by saponification, where fats are mixed with a strong alkali.  So what are you doing when you put drain cleaner in your stuffed-up plug hole?  You’re not only breaking down the gunk, you’re also effectively making soap in situ, which helps to wash away the remaining dirt.  How brilliant is that?

With thanks to Andrew (@_byronmiller) for his suggestions.

Jellyfish and wee – should you rely on the movies for first aid advice?

Hello and welcome to ‘the chronicle flask’, a blog of interesting chemical bits and pieces. Jumping right in, we begin with a tale of jellyfish, wee and wittertainment.  Here goes…

ImageLast week I was listening to the Kermode and Mayo ‘wittertainment‘ film podcast in which the esteemed film critic Mark Kermode was discussing the film The Paperboy.  There’s a scene in this film in which Nicole Kidman’s character wees (urinates, for the benefit of any non-Brits) on Zac Efron‘s jellyfish sting. It’s an idea that’s been used before, famously in an episode of Friends, and the question arose: does this actually work?  For those that aren’t aware, Simon Mayo is also an author of the rather wonderful Itch series of books, which hinge around a character with an interest in chemistry, and he wanted to know what the chemical equation might be for the wee + jellyfish venom reaction.  So, being a chemist and a big fan of the show, I fired off an email on this very subject.  Here it is:

———

First of all a quick reminder of the pH scale: it goes from 0-14 where 0 is very, very acidic (think battery acid) and 14 is very, very alkaline (think drain cleaner), and 7 is neutral (think water).

I mention this because acids neutralise alkalis, and vice versa.  If you mix exactly the right amount of acid with the right amount of alkali you get just water and salts.

Since you asked for an equation the general one is:

acid + alkali –> salt + water

Human urine is, actually, about pH 7, i.e. the same as plain water.  People often think it’s alkaline because they have the idea there’s ammonia in it, but there isn’t and it’s not (well not usually).  It varies a bit from 4.6-8, and if anything it tends to be a tiny bit acidic.  If you have a urinary infection it can become more acidic, but we’ll assume for our purposes that Nicole Kidman didn’t.

Jellyfish venom not surprisingly varies by species.  I’m relying on the internet here as I’m not a zoologist, and it seems that there are lots of different varieties of jellyfish in Florida, so the sting could be anything.  But as far as I can work out, they tend to be alkaline (greater than 7).

So if jellyfish venom is slightly alkaline, and human urine is slightly acidic, one MIGHT neutralise the other, and this is probably what lies behind this.  Obviously TV shows and films like this endlessly perpetrate the idea, so it sticks.  In truth this ‘remedy’ is unlikely to do anything much though.

In fact it might actually make it worse.  The proper, official medical advice is to rinse the area with salty seawater, because that apparently deactivates the stinging cells whereas plain water (and urine is closer to plain water than seawater) makes it worse – I imagine this is to do with osmosis, but that’s a lesson for another day – try and remove the stinging cells by scraping the skin with a credit card and, obviously, seek medical attention.

Whatever you do don’t try battery acid.  That’d be really bad.

———

I was then contacted by the editor of the show, and they actually invited me on to explain this as a special guest.  This, as you might imagine, made my week – I don’t think they’ve ever had a non-film guest on the show before.  If you’d like to hear it, you can download it here.  The shows used to only be available for about a week but they now seem to be hanging around a bit longer (hurrah!).

Now since this is supposed to be a chemistry blog, I have a few more musings on the topic of animal stings.  Jellyfish aren’t the only creatures to have this sort of defence mechanism of course, and probably more familiar to us here in the UK are the humble bee and wasp.  Bee stings are acidic, whereas wasp stings are alkaline.  So can you treat them with household acids or alkalis?  I think, to my shame, that I may even have suggested vinegar as a treatment for wasp stings myself in the past.

Now that I actually think about this for more than 30 seconds I realise that this is very unlikely to be effective.  First of all, wasp venom is complicated stuff.  After all it’s not as if the wasp is injecting a few drops of pure alkali into your arm.  No, wasp venom contains, amongst other things, enzymes which help to break down cell membranes and a chemical to reduce blood flow called norepinephrine, which is why the sting hurts for ages and doesn’t immediately get flushed away by your bloodstream.  The sting itself is a tiny amount of fluid, and only a minute amount of acid would be required to neutralise any alkali present.  So will sloshing an unknown quantity of an unknown concentration of acetic acid (the acid in vinegar, also known as ethanoic acid) actually achieve anything?  Especially considering that the sting is injected under the skin, whereas you’re dribbling the contents of your kitchen cupboard on the surface?  Very unlikely.  Chances are you’ll just irritate your skin even more.

Of course there is the placebo effect to consider.  Doing something, anything, rather than just dancing around yelping in pain will probably make you feel better.  And rubbing your skin usually makes minor injuries hurt a bit less.  But chemically?  Nah.

So in short, if you get stung it’s probably more effective to reach for the paracetamol rather than the condiments.