Toxins and tanks: could your fishtank really be deadly?

Could a deadly poison be lurking in your fish tank?

A few days ago I came across a news story: “Fish owner tells how cleaning out tank released deadly palytoxin that poisoned family and led to closure of entire street“. Now you have to admit, as titles go that’s pretty compelling.

To begin with, for some reason, I had it in my head that this happened in Australia (in my defence, that is where most of the really deadly stuff happens, right?). But no, this happened in the U.K. Not only that, but it was even in Oxfordshire, which is my neck of the woods.

The fish tank owner, a man named Chris Matthews, was actually an experienced aquarist. He knew about palytoxin – a poisonous substance which can be released by corals – and he was aware that it can be deadly if ingested. He also knew that it can cause serious skin irritation.

What he didn’t realise was that taking his pulsing xenia coral out of the tank could cause it to release the toxin into the air.

But before I talk about palytoxin, let’s just look at the word “toxin” for a moment. It has a specific meaning, and it’s often misused. As in many, many adverts. Here’s a recent one, but these easy to find – just put “toxin free” into the search engine of your choice.

In a way, this is quite funny. You see, “toxin” specifically refers to “a poison of plant or animal origin“. In other words, a naturally occurring poison*. There are lots and lots of naturally occurring poisons. Plants make them all the time, generally to ward off pests. Most essential oils can, at a high enough dose, be toxic. The hand cream in that picture contains peppermint oil. Peppermint is, of course, pretty safe – we’ve all eaten mints after all – but guess what? Take huge dose of it and it becomes a real problem. Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that hand cream is dangerous or harmful, but technically, it’s not “toxin free”.

Beauty products which contain only synthetic ingredients are, by definition, toxin-free.

Yes, the irony or this sort of marketing is that beauty products made out of entirely synthetic ingredients definitely will be toxin-free. Nothing natural = no toxins. Whereas anything made out of naturally occurring substances almost certainly isn’t, regardless of its spurious labelling.

Anyway, back to the palytoxin. It’s naturally occurring. And incredibly dangerous. More proof, as if we needed it, that natural doesn’t mean safe. Very often, in fact, quite the opposite. The human race has spent millenia working out how to protect itself from nature and all her associated nastiness (bacteria, viruses, extreme temperatures, poor food supply, predators…. the list is long and unpleasant) and yet for some reason it’s become fashionable to forget all that and imagine a utopia where mother nature knows best. Honestly, she doesn’t. Well, maybe she does – but being kind to human beings isn’t on her agenda.

Palytoxin is especially unpleasant. Indeed, it’s thought to be the second most poisonous non-protein substance known (there are some very impressive protein-based ones, though – botulinum toxin for one). The only thing which is more toxic is maitoxin – a poison which can be found in striated surgeonfish thanks to the algae they eat.

Palytoxin is a large molecule.

Palytoxin is a big molecule, technically categorised as a fatty alcohol. It has eight carbon-carbon double bonds, 40 hydroxy groups (phew) and is positively covered in chiral centres (don’t worry students: your teacher isn’t going to expect you to draw this one. Probably). Bits of it are water-soluble whilst other parts are fat soluble, meaning it can dissolve in both types of substance. Because it’s not a protein, heat doesn’t denature it, so you can’t get rid of this toxin with boiling water or by heating it. However, it does decompose and become non-toxic in acidic or alkaline solutions. Household bleach will destroy it.

It’s mostly found in the tropics, where it’s made by certain types of coral and plankton, or possibly by bacteria living on and in these organisms. It also turns up in fish, crabs and other marine organisms that feed on these things.

In fact, story time! There is a Hawaiian legend which tells that Maui villagers once caught a Shark God with a hunger for human flesh whom they believed had been killing their fishermen. They killed the Shark God and burned him, throwing the ashes into a tide pool. The ashes caused ugly brown anemones to grow. Later, the villagers discovered that blades smeared with these “limu” would cause certain death. So the anemones came to be known as “Limu Make O Hana” or Seaweed of Death from Hana. We now know that those brown ‘anemones’ are zoanthid corals, and the ‘certain death’ was due to palytoxin poisoning.

Zoanthids are a source of palytoxin.

People don’t suffer palytoxin poisoning very often. Most cases have been in people who’ve eaten seafood and, as here, aquarium hobbyists. In a few cases people have been exposed to algae blooms.

It’s really nasty though. Palytoxin can affect every type of cell in the body (yikes) and as a result the symptoms are different according to the route of exposure. Eat it and you’re likely to experience a bitter taste in your mouth, muscle spasms and abdominal cramps, nausea, lethargy, tingling and loss of sensation, slow heart rate, kidney failure and respiratory distress. It can damage your heart muscle; in the worst case scenario, it causes death by cardiac arrest.

On the other hand, if you inhale it, the symptoms are more likely to revolve around the respiratory system, such as constriction of the airways which causes wheezing and difficulty breathing. It can also cause fever and eye-infection type symptoms. Over time, though, the result is the same: muscle weakness and eventually, death from heart failure.

The respiratory symptoms from palytoxin are easily misdiagnosed: it looks like a viral or bacterial infection. In fact, our fish tank owner initially thought he had flu. It was only when everyone in the family got ill, even the dogs, that he realised that it must be poisoning. Fortunately, the emergency services took it seriously and sent both ambulance and fire crews to his house, as well as police. They closed the street and ensured that the poison was safely removed.

There is no antidote, but the symptoms can be eased by, for example, treatment with vasodilators. If the source of exposure is removed the victim is likely to recover over time. You’ll be pleased to hear that Chris Matthews, his family, and the firefighters who attended the scene, were checked over at hospital and appear to be okay.

If you’re an aquarium owner, how to you avoid getting into this kind of predicament? As Chris Matthews said, the coral he had, pulsing xenia, was “not expensive and a lot of people have it.”

Click the image to read safety guidelines from the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association.

According to the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, the most important piece of safety advice is to only handle your marine creatures underwater and fully submerged. Don’t take them out of the tank unnecessarily, and if you do need to move them, use submerged plastic bags or a bucket, so that they stay underwater at all times. You should also wear strong rubber gloves, ideally gloves specifically designed for aquarium use (such as these). If you need to dispose of a rock which contains soft coral species, soak it in a bleach solution – one part household bleach to nine parts water – for several days before you intend to dispose of it. Leaving an untreated rock outside to dry will not make it safe – it could still be highly toxic. Finally, whilst activated charcoal can help to keep palytoxin out of the water, it may not be able to cope with large quantities, and it needs to be changed frequently.

Fish tank owner Chris also said: “The information is not readily available online in a way people can easily understand” and “I want to use this experience to educate people about the risks and the measures people need to take.” Hopefully this blog post (and all the associated news coverage) will help with that. Be careful with your corals!


* Note that while ‘toxin’ specifically refers to poisonous substances from plants and animals, this restriction doesn’t extend to the word “toxic”. The definition of that is “containing or being poisonous material” (regardless of whether it’s a naturally-occurring substance or not). So “non-toxic” labels are fine, if a little bit meaningless – no matter what the woo-pushing sites say, your hand cream really isn’t poisonous.


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Is oxygen really that good for you?

dove oxygen shampoo officialI don’t find time for huge amounts of television these days, and certainly not adverts. But I recently caught an advert for Dove Oxygen Shampoo out of the corner of my eye, and it brought me up short. Of course, beauty products are full of nonsense generally. Think, for example, of L’Oreal’s famous ingredient, ‘Boswelox’. (A word which, thanks to the wonderful Karl Pilkington, has since acquired a whole new meaning.) A little while ago I wrote a post about a toothpaste that was claiming to contain ‘liquid calcium’ (if it were true, cleaning your teeth would be much more exciting, trust me). It’s just par for the course. Really, is there any point wasting valuable energy continuing to be annoyed by these things?

Well yes, actually. Because this kind of silly hogwash just reinforces the ridiculous ‘science is so terribly hard, oooh aren’t all the complicated words impressive?’ attitude that is so frustratingly prevalent in the world today.

Besides which, picking apart this kind of thing is practically the reason for the existence of this blog. So here goes.

Firstly, a few snippets from Dove’s website:

“Oxygen & Moisture shampoo, conditioner and finishing products are pumped with Oxyfusion Technology, a new generation of moisture. This system moisturises fine, flat hair, giving you hair volume.”

And clicking through a bit further:

“[the shampoo] provides conditioning ingredients fused with oxygen as it instantly dissolves on your hair and breathes life into it.”

Hm.

Let’s start with that last sentence. Firstly: it dissolves on your hair? What does that mean? I’m just going to mention here that the meaning of the word dissolve is taught in year 7 (first year, in old money) science in all secondary schools in this country, and has been for many, many years. So everyone should know it, even the employees of the media company that came up with this tosh. (If you don’t, and you’ve ever muttered anything whatsoever about slipping standards and/or grade inflation, shame on you.)

‘Dissolve’ usually refers to solids. Salt dissolves in water. Sugar dissolves in tea (yes all right, also mostly water). It means that the solid becomes incorporated into the liquid, forming a solution. I haven’t checked, but I’m assuming Dove’s shampoo is not solid, as that would make it rather difficult to get out of the bottle.

Ok, oils and fats dissolve in certain solvents (not water mind you), and they could feasibly be liquid and yet the word still applies. True enough. It’s possible that the original text was ‘dissolves the grease on your hair’ (more or less accurate enough), and some marketing guy said, ‘I like really love it, I really reaaaahhhly do, but can we just lose two words from the middle?’

And yes, I think it’s safe to assume their shampoo mixes with water, because that is quite an important feature of shampoo, but they haven’t said ‘dissolves in the water’, they’ve said ‘dissolves on the hair’, which does sort of give the impression that it’s your hair that’s somehow dissolving the shampoo. Which is just weird.

But misuse of the world dissolve is only a minor irritation. No, my bigger problem is ‘ingredients fused with oxygen’. What the Dove does that mean?

For years and years we’ve been told that oxidants are bad. Or at least, that antioxidants are good (although this hasn’t really been backed up by scientific studies).

Is it difficult to work out that oxygen is an oxidant? It’s the granddaddy of oxidants. It’s the oxidant that all the other oxidants were named after. Oxy/oxi – see?

Chemists have two definitions of oxidation, but they’re broadly equivalent. Oxidation can be thought of as gaining oxygen, or it can be thought of as loss of electrons. Electrons are the negatively-charged particles that surround atoms. I mention them because the phrase ‘free radicals’ often turns up in the same breath as ‘antioxidants’. Free radicals are atoms or molecules which have an unpaired electron. Electrons like to be paired up. They REALLY like to be paired up. When they’re not, they’ll do pretty much anything they can to get paired up. Unpaired electrons are, if you like, the desperate guy at the nightclub at the end of the night. This makes them incredibly reactive, which means they can cause cell damage.

Worse, this happens in a chain reaction – meaning that a single free radical can do an awful lot of harm. So where to antioxidants come in? Well, antioxidants react with free radicals and essentially stop them in their tracks.

oxygen cylinder

Don’t suck on this.

Jolly good. But you see where I’m going here? Oxygen is the complete opposite of this. Yes, we breathe oxygen. It’s quite important stuff. Certainly, if you run out of it you’re in trouble. But it’s far from harmless. The air we breathe is only about twenty-one percent oxygen. Too much oxygen is flat-out dangerous. Breathe air with something like 50% oxygen for any length of time and you risk damaging your lungs, eyes and central nervous system. Really. Hospitals control oxygen use very carefully, and scuba divers who use it have to undergo rigorous training. The fad for oxygen bars has caused real concern in some quarters.

What does ‘ingredients fused with oxygen’ mean? Does it mean Dove have somehow dissolved oxygen in their shampoo? I’m certain that it doesn’t, because this wouldn’t be stable, and it would likely cause your shampoo to ‘go off’ in some way very quickly. Does it mean that their shampoo contains an ingredient that releases oxygen somehow? Hydrogen peroxide famously does this, when it breaks down into oxygen and water. Of course hydrogen peroxide is used to bleach hair, so… probably not (and anyway, again, not stable).

I looked up the ingredients in Dove Oxygen Moisture shampoo (and I’ve reproduced them below). To be honest, looking at the list I’m drawing a blank. My suspicion is that they’re using ‘oxygen’ simply because it’s the latest trendy thing. Oxygen is common enough – water contains one atom of oxygen in every molecule for starters, so they’re safe with the idea that the shampoo contains oxygen in some form – just not elemental oxygen.

But, ok, if I had to pick something… there is an interesting ingredient called ‘guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride‘ in there. If that is the one that inspired them, I can see why they went with Oxyfusion Technology – guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride hardly trips off the tongue.

Sucrose

Table sugar (sucrose) – perhaps we should wash our hair with this?

620px-Guaran.svg

Guar gum – check your salad dressing. Another conditioning alternative perhaps?

I’ve picked that one out of the list partly because it has ‘hydroxy’ in its name. Now in reality, that just means it contains an -OH group or several. This isn’t anything particularly special, table sugar has eight of ’em. Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride comes from guar gum, which in turn is made from guar beans. Guar gum is a food additive that’s used to thicken foods, and it turns up all over the place (check your salad dressing or ice cream).

Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride has been shown to have conditioning properties, which explains its inclusion in shampoo (this is my other reason for picking it out). It probably does leave your hair feeling nice and soft. And it does have several -OH groups, so it arguably sort of works with the ‘conditioning ingredients fused with oxygen’ claim. In the sense that it has oxygen atoms chemically bonded to it. As does, you know, water.

There’s no way that it releases oxygen though. Now in fairness to Dove, that claim isn’t actually made explicitly anywhere, although the lovely bubbly imagery does its damnedest to imply it.

Bad-Hair-Day

Bad hair day?

And here’s the thing: even if you could, would you want to routinely use a product that releases oxygen directly onto your skin or hair? Given that oxygen is an oxidising agent, and is likely to cause cell damage in high concentrations? Just bear in mind what happens to hair that’s exposed to too much hydrogen peroxide.

And don’t even get me started on the dozens and dozens of moisturisers that claim to do the same. Really? Straight into your skin? There are even some products that claim to do both at once, which frankly is jolly clever. In the Doctor Who sense of clever. I.e. fictional.

But what I want to know is this: after years of anti-oxidant this, and anti-oxidant that, how have we managed to go in exactly the opposite direction without consumers saying ‘er, hang on a minute, surely this has to be a load of old boswelox?’

Ingredients in Dove Oxygen & Moisture Shampoo:
Aqua, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Chloride, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Glycerin, Citric Acid, Dimethiconol, Disodium EDTA, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Laureth-23, Parfum, PPG-12, TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, TES-Sulfate, DMDM Hydantoin, Sodium Benzoate, Amyl Cinnamal, Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Salicylate, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Hexyl Cinnamal, Limonene, Linalool, CI 17200, CI 42090.