Post 150: Choice Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask

From citric to hydrofluoric, acids are an ever-popular topic

I began this blog in 2013, and since then I’ve written at least one post a month. This will be the 150th.

I put love and care into all my posts and, in turn, this blog has been good to me. Although no one’s ever paid me to write it, it has brought me work over the years – many people have asked me to write for them having read things here. But life is busier now than it’s ever been, and it’s time to wind things down. You’ll continue to find my non-fiction here and there, I’ll still be regularly updating my fiction blog, and if you want the latest info, look me up on Twitter. In particular, check out the #272sci hashtag for tiny bits of bite-sized science.

In the meantime, how about a little reminder of some of this blog’s most popular, most important, or just my favourite, posts? Let’s go!

The acid that really does eat through everything (2013)
Turns out, everyone loves acid – this post is one of my all-time most viewed. I guess there’s just something compelling about substances that can dissolve metal, and this one is particular special (and terrifying) for its ability to also dissolve glass and ceramic. (Oh, and sorry about the double spaces after the full stops. It was a long time ago. I know better now.)

Butyric acid, a very smelly molecule (2014)
On the subject of acids, this has been another popular post. I suppose if there’s anything more fun than an acid that eats through the bottle you’re trying to store it in, it’s an acid that smells of Parmesan and vomit. Seriously, it is an interesting one: we’re all familiar with the smell of ethanoic acid (aka acetic acid, found in vinegar), and propanoic acid (propionic acid) merely smells a bit sweaty, but add one more carbon and, hoo boy, you have an utterly revolting stench that some people are so sensitive to they can still detect it weeks, even months, after cleaning.

It’s important to understand what sugar actually is if you want to reduce your intake

Sugar that’s not sugar? (2015)
People talk a lot of nonsense about sugar. A particular pet hate of mine is people calling products sugar-free when they’re nothing of the sort, or implying that the type of sugary ingredient they’ve put in the thing they’re trying to sell you is somehow extra-healthy. If actually reducing your sugar intake is your goal (and it’s not a terrible one), this piece might help.

MMS and CD chemistry – the facts (2016)
This is my simple explainer about MMS (‘miracle’ or ‘master’ mineral solution) and CD (chlorine dioxide). This horrible, nasty fad seems to have faded away in recent years – partly thanks to the fact that even its founder, Jim Humble, admitted it cures nothing – but then again, I have seen CD-MMS linked to pseudoscientific Covid ‘cures’. Let’s hope this post continues to do its job as a useful reference for anyone that needs it.

Absurd alkaline ideas – history, horror and jail time (2017)
Continuing the theme of health, I’ve written several posts about so-called ‘alkaline’ diets, and this isn’t the most popular (that would be Amazing Alkaline Lemons?) but this is the one I wish more people would read. It explains where the whole silly notion came from in the first place. (As does this Twitter thread, slightly more succinctly.)

There really is no need to panic about slime

No need for slime panic: it’s not going to poison anyone (2018)
I’ve yet to meet a child who doesn’t love slime, and every now and then the gooey stuff becomes so popular that we start to see scare stories. So it was in 2018. However, with a few sensible precautions, slime really isn’t dangerous. It’s all explained here.

Let’s speed up the rate at which we recognise our female chemists (2019)
This one was all about the little-known Elizabeth Fulhame. She was the first chemist to describe catalytic reactions – in 1794, when the more famous Berzelius was a mere teenager. Let’s remember her name.

Chemical connections: dexamethasone, hydroxychloroquine and rheumatoid arthritis (2020)
Covid hit us in 2020, and it would prompt more than one post – including this one when dexamethasone had its moment in the spotlight. Probably an unfamiliar drug to most people before this point, dexamethasone was one of the first practical treatments for rheumatoid arthritis in the mid-20th century. Unlike some other much-hyped treatments, we have solid evidence for the effectiveness of this medicine – although it is really only useful for people suffering with very severe symptoms. Still, it’s pretty cool that an old drug turned out to be such a useful tool in a modern pandemic.

There’s chemistry in your skin

Sunshine, skin chemistry, and vitamin D (2020)
To make it a nice, round ten, I’ll sneak in another 2020 post. This one is all about vitamin D. A lot of people are very critical of supplements, and while I understand their position, this particular case is slightly different. If you live in certain parts of the world, you really, really should be considering vitamin D supplementation for at least part of the year, and this post will tell you why.

Brilliant Bee Chemistry! (2021)
This one wasn’t so long ago, but I love it. Bees are fascinating creatures, and if you don’t know what the connection between bees and bananas is, you ought to have a read.


So, this is it, folks – thank you, it’s been fun! Happy New Year!

Content is © Kat Day 2022. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. You can still support my writing my buying a super-handy Pocket Chemist from Genius Lab Gear using the code FLASK15 at checkout (you’ll get a discount, too!) or by buying me a coffee – just hit this button:
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The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2020

It’s officially time to put 2020 in the bin! Hurrah! And that means it’s time for a round-up of everything on this blog from the last twelve months. It’s not all COVID-19 related, I promise…

Mystery purple crystals

January began with a mystery, about some strange, blueish-purple crystals that were found under a sink. What were they? Well, if you missed it, or you’ve just forgotten, the answer is here

I had no idea at the time, but February was the calm before the storm. I was cheerfully talking about the Pocket Chemist. Have you got one? The post has a discount code, and they’re amazingly useful things. Especially if you’re studying from home…

Everything kicked off in March, and back in those early days everyone was all about the hand-washing. It may not be the burniest or the flashiest, but soap chemistry is some of the oldest chemistry we know. Oh, yes, and wash your hands. Properly.

We were all home learning in April. Or trying to, at least. Lots of chemists started messing about with stuff at home in particular, @CrocodileChemist (aka Isobel Everest give her a follow) created some gorgeous art with home-made indicators. I wrote all about an easy version, made with the classic: red cabbage.

Red cabbage indicator with various household substances

May featured pyrotechnics. Well, everything was on fire, so it seemed apt. Also, it was the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the novel, Good Omens.

It was back to COVID-19 science in June, because everyone was talking about dexamethasone a well-known, readily available and, crucially, cheap steroid that has been shown to help patients with the most severe symptoms. Want to know more about its history? Check out the post.

By July nothing was over, but we’d definitely all had enough. So it was time to talk about something completely different. What better than a post all about sweet things, to mark national lollipop day?

In August the folks at Genius Lab Gear sent me an awesome set of Science Word Magnets. Do you need a set of these for when you finally make it back to a whiteboard? Check out this post for a discount code

September was all about skin chemistry

There’s evidence that low vitamin D levels are correlated with worse COVID-19 outcomes and, in the UK, we can’t make it in our skin in the winter months so September was all about vitamin D. Want to know more? Read all about sunshine and skin chemistry.

It’s Mole Day on the 23rd of October, so I did some ridiculous and, frankly, slightly disgusting calculations. Did you know that if we drained the blood out of every, single human on the planet, we’d only have about half a mole of red blood cells? You do now.

In November I went back to cleaning chemistry. Well, we had all been stuck at home for a while. This time, it was ovens. Why is cleaning ovens such hard work? Why do we use the chemicals we use? I explained all that. Read on!

Annnnd that brings us to December, and the STEM Heroes Colouring Book — a project I’m super proud to be a part of. So, hey, there’s been some good stuff!

Here’s to the end of 2020, and let’s hope that 2021 brings us some good things. It has to, surely? January traditionally brings a health scare, but no one’s doing that in 2021, are they? Are they? I guess we’ll find out soon… lots of love to everyone, stay safe, and stay well!


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Chemical connections: dexamethasone, hydroxychloroquine and rheumatoid arthritis

The chemical structure of dexamethasone (image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been widely reported today that a “cheap and widely-available” steroid treatment has been shown to be effective in patients suffering the most severe COVID-19 symptoms, significantly reducing the risk of death for both patients on ventilators and those on oxygen treatment.

Most of the reports have understandably focused on the medical aspects, but this is a chemistry blog (mostly) so *cracks chemistry knuckles* what is dexamethasone, exactly?

Its story starts a little over 60 years ago when, in 1958, a paper was published on “clinical observations with 16a-methyl corticosteroid compounds”. Bear with me, I shall explain. Firstly, corticosteroids are hormones which are naturally produced in our bodies. They do all sorts of nifty, useful things like regulate our immune response, reduce inflammation and help us to get energy from carbohydrates. Two of the most familiar names are probably cortisol and cortisone—both of which are released in response to stress.

The discovery of corticosteroids was an important one. So important, in fact, that a few years earlier, in 1950, Tadeusz ReichsteinEdward Calvin Kendall and Philip Showalter Hench had been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for “discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex”.

The adrenal glands are two small glands found above the kidneys. The outermost part of these glands is called the adrenal cortex (“cortex” from the Latin for (tree) bark and meaning, literally, an outer layer). In the mid-1930s Kendall and Reichstein managed to isolate several hormones produced by these glands. They then made preparations which, with input from Hench, were used in the 1940s to treat a number of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis.

This was hugely significant at the time, because until this point the treatments for this painful, debilitating condition were pretty limited. Aspirin was known, of course, but wasn’t particularly effective and long-term use had potentially dangerous side effects. Injectable gold compounds (literally chemical compounds containing Au atoms/ions) had also been tried, but those treatments were slow to work, if they worked at all, and were expensive. The anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine (which has also been in the news quite a lot), had been tried as a “remittive agent”—meaning it could occasionally produce remission—but it wasn’t guaranteed.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes warm, swollen, and painful joints (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Corticosteroids were a game-changer. When Hench and Kendall treated patients with what they called, at the time, “compound E” (cortisone) there was a rapid reduction in joint inflammation. It still caused side effects, and it didn’t prevent joint damage, but it did consistently provide relief from painful symptoms.

Fast-forward to the 1958 paper I mentioned earlier, and scientists had discovered that a little bit of fiddling with the molecular structure of steroid molecules caused them to have different effects in the body. The particular chemical path we’re following here started with prednisolone, which had turned out to be a useful treatment for a number of inflammatory conditions. However, placing a methyl group (—CH3) on the 16th carbon—which is, if you have a look at the diagram below, the one on the pentagon-shaped ring, roughly in the middle—changed things.

The steroid “nucleus”: each number represents a carbon atom (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1957, four different molecules with methyl groups on that 16th carbon were made available for clinical trial. One of them was 16a-methyl 9a-fluoroprednisolone, more handily known as dexamethasone.

(Quick aside to explain that on the diagram of dexamethasone at the start of this post, the methyl group on the 16th carbon is represented by a dashed wedge-shape. It’s a 2D diagram of a 3D molecule, and the dashed wedge tells us that the methyl group is pointing away from us, through the paper, or rather, screen. This matters because molecules like this have mirror image forms which usually have very different effects in the body—so it’s important to get the right one.)

Dexamethasone is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines

It turned out that dexamethasone had a much stronger anti-inflammatory action than plain prednisolone, and it was also more effective the other molecules being tested. It caused a bigger reduction in symptoms, at lower doses. A win all round. It did still have side effects—weight gain, skin problems and digestive issues—but these were no worse than other steroids, and better than some. In fact, salt and water retention were less with dexamethasone, which meant less bloating. It also seemed to have less of an effect on carbohydrate metabolism, making it potentially safer for patients with diabetes.

Skipping forward to 2020, and dexamethasone is routinely used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, as well as skin diseases, asthma, COPD and various other conditions. It is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines—a list of drugs thought to be the most important for taking care of the health needs of the population, based on their effectiveness, safety and relative cost.

In the wake of more and more evidence that COVID-19 disease was leading to autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases, scientists have been looking at anti-inflammatory drugs to see if any of them might help. The Recovery Trial at the University of Oxford was set up to investigate a few different drugs, including hydroxychloroquine (there it is again) and dexamethasone.

It’s not a miracle cure but, in the most severe cases, dexamethasone—a cheap, 60+ year old drug—might just make all the difference.

And that brings us back to today’s news: in the trial, 2104 patients were given dexamethasone once per day for ten days and compared to 4321 patients who were given standard care. The study, led by Professor Peter Horby and Professor Martin Landray, showed that dexamethasone reduced the risk of dying by one-third in ventilated patients and by one fifth in other patients receiving only oxygen.

It’s not a miracle cure by any means: it doesn’t help patients who don’t (yet) need respiratory support, and it doesn’t work for everyone, but, if you find yourself on a ventilator, there’s a chance this 60+ year-old molecule that was first developed to cure rheumatoid arthritis might, just, save your life. And that’s pretty good news.

EDIT 17th June 2020: Chemistry World published an article pointing out that “the trial results have yet to be released leading some to urge caution when interpreting them” and quoting Ayfer Ali, a specialist in drug repurposing, as saying “we have to wait for the full results to be peer reviewed and remember that it is not a cure for all, just one more tool.


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Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2020. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, and especially if you’re using information you’ve found here to write a piece for which you will be paid, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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Want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial.