The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2016

2016 is limping to its painful conclusion, still tossing out last-minute nasty surprises like upturned thumb tacks in the last few metres of a marathon. But the year hasn’t been ALL bad. Some fun, and certainly interesting, things happened too. No, really, they did, honestly.

So with that in mind, let’s have a look back at 2016 for the Chronicle Flask….

January kicked off with a particularly egregious news headline in a well-known broadsheet newspaper: Sugar found in ketchup and Coke linked to breast cancer. Turns out that the sugar in question was fructose. Yes, the sugar that’s in practically everything, and certainly everything that’s come from a plant. So why did the newspaper in question choose ketchup and Coke for their headline instead of, oh, say, fruit juice or honey? Surely not just in an effort to sell a few more newspapers after the overindulgent New Year celebrations. Surely.

octarineThere was something more lighthearted to follow when IUPAC  verified the discoveries of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. This kicked off lots of speculation about the elements’ eventual names, and the Chronicle Flask suggested that one of them should be named Octarine in honour of the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Amazingly, this suggestion really caught everyone’s imagination. It was picked up in the national press, and the associated petition got over 51 thousand signatures!

In February I wrote a post about the science of statues, following the news that a statue to commemorate Sir Terry Pratchett and his work had been approved by Salisbury City Council. Did you know that there was science in statues? Well there is, lots. Fun fact: the God of metalworking was called Hephaestus, and the Greeks placed dwarf-like statues of him near their Hearths – could this be where the fantasy trope of dwarves as blacksmiths originates?

MCl and MI are common preservatives in cosmetic products

MCl and MI are common preservatives in cosmetic products

My skeptical side returned with a vengeance in March after I read some online reviews criticising a particular shampoo for containing a substance known as methylchloroisothiazolinone. So should you be scared of your shampoo? In short, no. Not unless you have a known allergy or particularly sensitive skin. Otherwise, feel free to the pick your shampoo based on the nicest bottle, the best smell, or the forlorn hope that it will actually thicken/straighten/brighten your hair as promised, even though they never, ever, ever do.

Nature Chemistry published Another Four Bricks in the Wall in April – a piece all about the potential names of new elements, partly written by yours truly. The month also brought a sinus infection. I made the most of this opportunity by writing about the cold cure that’s 5000 years old. See how I suffer for my lovely readers? You’re welcome.

In May I weighed in on all the nonsense out there about glyphosate (and, consequently, learned how to spell and pronounce glyphosate – turns out I’d been getting it wrong for ages). Is it dangerous? Nope, not really. The evidence suggests it’s pretty harmless and certainly a lot safer than most of its alternatives.

may-facebook-postSomething else happened in May: the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page received this message in which one of my followers told me that my post on apricot kernels had deterred his mother from consuming them. This sort of thing makes it all worthwhile.

In June the names of the new elements were announced. Sadly, but not really very surprisingly, octarine was not among them. But element 118 was named oganesson and given the symbol Og. Now, officially, this was in recognition of the work of Professor Yuri Oganessian, but I for one couldn’t help but see a different reference. Mere coincidence? Surely not.

July brought another return to skepticism. This time, baby wipes, and in particular a brand that promise to be “chemical-free”. They’re not chemical-free. Nothing is chemical-free. This is a ridiculous label which shouldn’t be allowed (and yet, inexplicably, is still in use). It’s all made worse by the fact that Water Wipes contain a ‘natural preservative’ called grapefruit seed extract which, experiments have shown, only actually acts as a preservative when it’s contaminated with synthetic substances. Yep. Turns out some of Water Wipes claims are as stinky as the stuff they’re designed to clean up.

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

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

August brought the Olympics, and speculation was rife about what, exactly, was causing the swimming pools to turn such strange shades of green. Of course, the Chronicle Flask knew the correct solution…

August also saw MMS and CD reared their ugly heads on social media again. CD (chlorine dioxide) is, lest we forget, a type of bleach solution which certain individuals believe autistic children should be made to drink to ‘cure’ them. Worse, they believe such children should be forced to undergo daily enemas using CD solutions. I wrote a summary page on MMS (master mineral solution) and CD, as straight-up science companion to the commentary piece I wrote in 2015.

mugsSeptember took us back to pesticides, but this time with a more lighthearted feel. Did you know that 99.99% of all the pesticides you consume are naturally-occurring? Well, you do if you regularly read this blog. The Chronicle Flask, along with MugWow, also produced a lovely mug. It’s still for sale here, if you need a late Christmas present… (and if you use the code flask15 you’ll even get a discount!)

In October, fed up with endless arguments about the definition of the word ‘chemical’ I decided to settle the matter once and for all. Kind of. And following that theme I also wrote 8 Things Everyone Gets Wong About ‘Scary’ Chemicals for WhatCulture Science.

Just in case that wasn’t enough, I also wrote a chapter of a book on the missing science of superheroes in October. Hopefully we should see it in print in 2017.

Sparklers are most dangerous once they've gone out.

Sparklers are most dangerous once they’ve gone out.

I decided to mark Fireworks Night in November by writing about glow sticks and sparklers. Which is riskier? The question may not be as straightforward as you’d imagine. This was followed by another WhatCulture Science piece, featuring some genuinely frightening substances: 10 Chemicals You Really Should Be Scared Of.

And that brings us to December, and this little summary. I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog this year – do tell your friends about it! Remember to follow @ChronicleFlask on Twitter and like on Facebook – both get updated more or less daily.

Here’s wishing all my lovely readers a very Happy New Year – enjoy a drop of bubbly ethanol solution and be careful with the Armstrong’s mixture…. 

See you on the other side!


10 Chemicals You Really SHOULD Be Scared Of

Some chemicals really ARE scary...

Some chemicals really ARE scary…

People are increasingly worried about chemicals these days (even if they don’t quite know what the word means), but most of that fear is unfounded. The ingredients in cosmetics and foods are actually pretty harmless on the whole, certainly in the quantities you usually meet them.

This is because we’ve had decades of extensive testing and health and safety regulations – the truly nasty stuff simply isn’t allowed anymore. Even, sometimes, in fairly-obviously dangerous things like rat poison.

But the nasty stuff exists. Oh yes it does. You might be unlikely to come across it, but it’s still out there. Locked away. (Or not.)

So, come with me as I take you on a tour of 10 chemicals you really SHOULD be scared of…

Click to continue reading this article at WhatCulture Science

8 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About ‘Scary’ Chemicals

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

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

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

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

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What’s all the fuss about glyphosate?

Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weedkiller Roundup, has been in the news recently. A few weeks ago it was widely reported that a UN/WHO study had shown it was ‘unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans‘. But it then emerged that the chairman of the UN’s joint meeting on pesticide residues (who, incidentally, has the fabulous name of Professor Boobis) also runs the International Life Science Institute (ILSI). Which had received a $500,000 donation from Monsanto, and $528,500 from an industry group which represents Monsanto among others.

And then it transpired that there was going to be an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate two days after the (since postponed) UN/WHO report was released, which resulted in another outcry.

Glyphosate molecule

A molecule of glyphosate

So what is glyphosate, and why all the fuss?

It was first synthesized in 1950 by Swiss chemist Henry Martin. It was later, independently, discovered at Monsanto. Chemists there were looking at water-softening agents, and found that some of them also killed certain plants. A chemist called John E. Franz was asked to investigate further, and he went on to discover glyphosate. He famously received $5 for the patent.

Chemically, glyphosate is a fairly simple molecule. It’s similar in structure to amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins, in that it contains a carboxylic acid group (the COOH on the far right) and an amine group (the NH in the middle). In fact, glyphosate is most similar to the smallest of all amino acids, glycine. Where it deviates is the phosphonic group (PO(OH2)) on the left. This makes it a (deep breath) aminophosphonic analogue of glycine. Try saying that when you’ve had a couple of beers.

As is usually the way in chemistry, changing (or indeed adding) a few atoms makes a dramatic difference to the way the molecule interacts with living systems. While glycine is more or less harmless, and is in fact a key component of proteins, glyphosate is a herbicide.

This probably bears stressing. It’s a herbicide. Not an insecticide. A herbicide.

Crop spraying

Glyphosate is a herbicide, not an insecticide.

I say this because people often conflate the two – after all, they’re both chemicals you spray on plants, right? – but they are rather different beasts. Insecticides, as the name suggests, are designed to kill insects. The potential problem being that other things eat those creatures, and if we’re not careful, the insecticide can end up in places it wasn’t expected to end up, and do things it wasn’t expected to do. This famously happened with DDT, a very effective pesticide which unfortunately also had catastrophic effects on certain predatory birds when they ate the animals that had eaten the slightly smaller animals which had eaten the insects that had eaten the other insects (and so on) that had been exposed to the DDT.

Herbicides, on the other hand, kill plants. Specifically, weeds. They’re designed to work on the biological systems in plants, not animals. Often, they have no place to bind in animals and so are simply excreted in urine and faeces, unchanged. Also, since plants aren’t generally known for getting up and wandering away from the field in which they’re growing, herbicide sprays tend to stay more or less where they’re put (unless there’s contamination of waterways, but this can – and should, if the correct procedures are followed – be fairly easily avoided).

Nicotine pesticide

Nicotine is an effective insecticide. It’s also extremely toxic.

Now this is not to say we should be careless with herbicides, or that they’re entirely harmless to humans and other animal species, but we can cautiously say that, in general, they’re rather less harmful than insecticides. In fact, glyphosate in particular is less harmful than a lot of everyday substances. If we simply look at LD50 values (the amount of chemical needed to provide a lethal dose to half of a test population), glyphosate has an LD50 of 4900 mg/kg whereas, for comparison, table salt has an LD50 of 3000. Paracetamol (acetaminophen) has an LD50 of 338, and nicotine (a very effective insecticide, as well as being the active ingredient in cigarettes) has an LD50 of just 9.

Of course, there’s more to toxicity than just killing things, and that’s where it gets tricky. Yes, it might take more than a third of a kilo to kill you outright, but could a smaller amount, particularly over an extended period of time, have more subtle health effects?

But before we go any further down that rabbit hole, let’s take a look at that ‘smaller amount’. Certain campaigners (they always seem to have some sort of stake in the huge business that is organic food, ahem) would have us believe that food crops are ‘drenched’ in glyphosate, and that consumers are eating significant quantities of it every day.

Here’s a great graphic, made by Sarah Shultz of the Nurse Loves Farmer blog (reproduced with her kind permission), that answers this question nice and succinctly:

How much glyphosate?

How much glyphosate is sprayed on crops? (Reproduced with permission of Sarah Shultz)

It’s about 1 can of soda’s worth per acre. Or, if you find an acre hard to visualise, roughly ten drops for every one hundred square feet – the size of a smallish bedroom.

In other words, not a lot. It’s also worth remembering that although there is some pre-harvest spraying – particularly of wheat crops – no farmer is spraying their crops five minutes before harvest. What would be the point of that? Farmers have margins, just like any other business, and chemicals cost money. If you’re going to use them, you use them in the most efficient way you can. The point of spraying pre-harvest is to kill any weeds that might be present so that they don’t get into your harvest. This takes time to happen, so it’s done seven to fourteen days before harvesting takes place. It’s also carefully timed in the growing cycle. Once wheat turns yellow, it’s effectively dead – it’s neither photosynthesising nor transporting nutrients – so if it’s sprayed at this point, glyphosate isn’t moved from the plant into the grain of the wheat. Which means it doesn’t make it into your food.

The long and short of all this is that if there IS any glyphosate in food crops, it’s in the parts per billion range. So is that likely to be harmful?

In March 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organisation – announced that glyphosate was ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, or category 2A. It needs to be pointed out that this outcome was controversial, as this post by The Risk Monger explains. But even that controversy aside, lots of things fall into category 2A, for example smoke from wood-burning fires, red meat, and even shift work. The IARC did note that the evidence mainly involved small studies and concerned people that worked with glyphosate, not the general public, and that recommendations were partly influenced by the results of animal studies (really, go and read that Risk Monger post). The one large-cohort study, following thousands of farmers, found no increased risk.

And by the way, alcohol has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it’s definitely known to cause cancer in humans. If you’re worried about glyphosate in wine and beer, I respectfully suggest you have your priorities the wrong way round.

So, the tiny traces of glyphosate that might be on food definitely aren’t going to poison you or give you cancer. Are there any other health effects?

Gut bacteria

Glyphosate isn’t interfering with your gut bacteria (image:

One thing that the health campaigners like to talk about is gut health. Their logic, such as it is, follows that glyphosate passes though our body largely unchanged. Now, you might imagine this would be a good thing, but according to these particular corners of the internet, it’s exactly the opposite. Glyphosate is known to be anti-microbial, and since it’s not changed as it passes through the body, the argument goes that it gets into our guts and starts wiping out the microbes in our digestive system, which have been increasingly linked to a number of important health conditions.

It sort of makes sense, but does it have any basis in fact? Although glyphosate can act as an antimicrobial in fairly large quantities in a petri dish in a laboratory, it doesn’t have a significant effect in the parts per billion quantities that might make their way to your gut from food. Glyphosate prevents bacteria from synthesising certain essential amino acids (it does the same thing to plants; that’s basically how it works) but in the gut these bacteria aren’t generally synthesising those amino acids, because they don’t need to. The amino acids are already there in fairly large quantities; bacteria don’t waste energy making something that’s readily available. In short, glyphosate stops bacteria doing something they weren’t doing anyway. So no, no real basis in fact.

I have so far avoided mentioning GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms. “GMO” often gets muttered in the same breath as glyphosate because certain crops have been modified to resist glyphosate. If they weren’t, it would damage them, too. So the argument goes that more glyphosate is used on those crops, and if you eat them, you’ll be exposed to more of it. But, as I said earlier, farmers don’t throw chemicals around for fun. It costs them money. Plus, not-really-surprisingly-if-you-think-about-it, farmers are usually quite environmentally-conscious. After all their livelihood relies on it! Most of them use multiple, non-chemical methods to control weeds, and then just add the smallest amount of herbicide they can possibly get away with to manage the last few stragglers.

Ah, but even a little bit is too much, you say? Why not eat organic food? Then there will be absolutely no nasty chemicals at all. Well, except for the herbicides that are approved for use in organic farming, and all the other approved chemicals, famously copper sulfate and elemental sulfur, both of which are considerably more toxic than glyphosate by anyone’s measure. And, of course, organic food is much more expensive, and simply not a feasible way of feeding over seven billion people. Perhaps, instead of giving farmers a hard time over ‘intensive’ farming, we should be supporting a mixture of sustainable methods with a little bit of, safe, chemical help where necessary?

In summary, the evidence suggests that glyphosate is pretty safe. Consuming the tiny traces that might be present in food is not going to give you cancer, won’t cause some sort of mysterious ‘leaky gut’ and it’s definitely not to poison you. There is a lot of fuss about glyphosate, but it’s really not warranted. Have another slice of toast.

EDIT 2nd June 2016

After I wrote this post, a very interesting article came my way…

  • Petaluma city suspended use of glyphosate in favour of alternatives. Notable quote:“Having used the alternative herbicides over the past two months, DeNicola said crews have needed to apply the treatments more often to achieve similar results. The plants are also likely to regrow, since the root remains alive underground.The treatments are also said to be extremely pungent during application, with several workers complaining of eye irritation and one experiencing respiratory problems, DeNicola said. Those attributes have required the use of new protective equipment, something that was not required with Roundup.“It’s frustrating being out there using something labeled as organic, but you have to be out there in a bodysuit and a respirator,” he said.”

A classic example of almost-certainly unfounded fear leading to bad decision-making.

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Elements, compounds and misleading mercury

Elemental mercury isn't the same as mercury in compounds.

Elemental mercury isn’t the same as mercury in compounds.

Today I read an interesting article about some recent research carried out at the University of Illinois where they demonstrated that the best way to convince parents to vaccinate their children might be to show them the results of the diseases the vaccines prevent. (This, by the way, contradicts some research published in 2014 which showed that this tactic didn’t work. For an excellent discussion of the two, see here.)

Then, because I am just one of those people who can’t resist poking at ulcers with my tongue (you know what I mean) I had a quick look at some of the comments regarding that article. Reassuringly, most people were weighing in on the “yeah, vaccinate!” side of the argument. But not surprisingly there was also a small group of people posting the traditional anti-vaccine arguments. And then, this appeared:

mercury ppm

This is thoroughly silly, and I’ll tell you why.

Well, it did make be go “hmmmmm”, but for the reason you might imagine.

No, you see, what I thought was: “hmmmmm, someone else who has, possibly deliberately, failed to understood the difference between elements and compounds, and how chemical bonding changes properties.”

Allow me to start at the beginning. If you went to a school in the UK (and I would hope it’s similar elsewhere in the world) you learned about elements, compounds and mixtures when you were about 13 years old – if not before. You might have forgotten it since, but I can absolutely, categorically guarantee you that lesson happened. In fact, it was probably a few lessons.

iron sulfide experiment

The much-loved reaction between iron and sulfur.

One experiment much beloved of chemistry teachers since year dot is to take a mixture of sulfur (a yellow powder) and some iron filings (grey) and show that they can be separated with a magnet. Then heat the mixture up so that the two react, with a rather beautiful red glow, to form iron sulfide. This is a blackish solid which is in theory not magnetic (but in practice almost always is) and demonstrate that now the two elements cannot be separated.

Thus we have demonstrated that elements (the iron and the sulfur) have different properties to the compound they formed (iron sulfide), and also that mixtures can be separated fairly easily, whereas breaking compounds up into their constituent elements is much harder. Lovely. Job done.

And yet… so many people seem to have been asleep that day. Or perhaps just didn’t grasp it well enough to continue to apply the principle to other things.

pouring mercury

Elemental mercury

For example, mercury. Mercury, the element (the runny, silvery stuff that you used to find in thermometers) is a heavy metal. Like most of its compatriots, such as cadmium, lead and arsenic, it’s toxic. It can be absorbed through the skin and mercury vapour can be inhaled, so containers need to be tightly sealed. The increasing awareness of the toxicity of mercury is why older readers might remember seeing it ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, at school, whereas younger ones will not – these days it’s rarely even used in thermometers for fear of breakages.

That said, it does occur naturally in the environment, particularly as the result of volcanic eruptions – and very low levels aren’t considered harmful. The dose, as they say, makes the poison. It also occurs as the result of industrial processes, particularly coal-fired power plants and gold production, and occupational exposure is a genuine concern. In particular, chronic exposure is known to cause cogitative impairment. It might the source of the ‘mad dentist’ myth. It’s almost certainly the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter‘.

So in summary, don’t mess about with elemental mercury; it’s not good for your health.

However, as I took some pains to establish, elements and compounds are different things. So what about compounds which contain mercury?

The compound thiomersal

The compound thiomersal

This is where vaccines come in. There is a substance that used to be used as a preservative in (some) vaccines called thiomersal (or thimerosal, in the U.S). You may have heard its name; it comes up quite a lot. Incidentally, it hasn’t just been used in vaccines, but also in various other things including skin-test antigens and tattoo inks.

Now, to be clear, thiomersal IS potentially toxic, however it’s quickly metabolised in the body to ethyl mercury (C2H5Hg+) and thiosalicylate and, although ethyl mercury does, clearly, still contain atoms of mercury, it does not bioaccumulate. In other words, your body gets rid of it. At very low doses (such as those in vaccines) there is no good evidence that thiomersal is harmful.

Still, due to continuing public health concerns, thiomersal has been phased out of most U.S. and European vaccines. In the UK, thiomersal is no longer used in any of the vaccines routinely given to babies and young children in the NHS childhood immunisation programme. And at the moment, all routinely recommended vaccines for U.S. infants are available only as thimerosal-free formulations or contain only trace amounts of thimerosal (≤1 than micrograms mercury per dose).

Let me just say that again. The evidence suggests it’s safe, but it’s been removed anyway as a precaution. If you live in the UK, it’s not in your child’s vaccines, and that includes the new nasal-spray vaccine for flu which has been rolled out over the last few years. If you live in the U.S. it’s probably not, and thimerosal (thiomersal) free versions exist. It does turn up most often in flu vaccines (hence the meme image at the start) but thiomersal-free versions of those also exist in the U.S.

So chances are it’s not in your vaccines. Not in there. Got it? Ok.

ethyl vs methyl mercury

methyl mercury (left) is not the same as ethyl mercury (right)

Now, you may have heard about mercury in seafood. It is an issue, particularly for women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant or breastfeeding, and is the reason such women are advised not to eat shark and swordfish, and to keep their tuna consumption low. But here’s the thing: it’s a different kind of mercury. In this case, it’s methyl mercury (remember, thiomersal breaks down to ethyl mercury, which is not the same).

Methyl mercury is more toxic than ethyl mercury. Methyl mercury binds to parts of amino acids much more readily than its ethyl cousin, and it’s able to pass through the blood brain barrier and into nerve cells where it causes damage. In addition, ethyl mercury is much more quickly eliminated from the body than methyl mercury. Because of all this, methyl mercury does bioaccumulate (build up in the body), and that’s why large top-of-the-food-chain fish like shark and tuna can have significant levels of it, and why certain groups of people should be careful about eating them.

The FDA’s action level (the limit at or above which FDA will take legal action) for methyl mercury in fish is 1000 ppb (1 ppm). But remember, that’s for the much more dangerous methyl mercury, not ethyl mercury. I’ve been unable to find an equivalent figure for the UK, but I’d imagine it’s similar.

So, where does the 200 ppb mercury figure in the image at the top come from? Well the Environmental Protection Agency does indeed set a ‘maximum contaminant level goal’ for inorganic mercury of 0.002 mg/L or 2 ppb in water supplies. Methyl and ethyl mercury are not inorganic mercury; compounds that fall into this category include mercuric chloride, mercuric acetate and mercuric sulfide, which largely get into water as the result of industrial contamination.

In summary, that meme image at the start is basically comparing apples and oranges. The EPA limit isn’t relevant to vaccines, because it’s for inorganic mercury, which the substance in vaccines isn’t. While we’re about it, the levels applied to fish don’t apply either, because that’s methyl mercury, not ethyl mercury. They’re not the same thing. And all that aside, it’s highly unlikely (if you live in the UK, no chance at all) that there are 50,000 ppb of ethyl mercury in your flu vaccine anyway. AND, let’s not forget, there’s no evidence that the tiny quantities of thiomersal used in vaccines are harmful in the first place.


You may note that I’ve studiously avoided the word ‘autism’ in this post so far. But yes, that’s the big concern; that exposure to thiomersal in vaccines could cause autism. Despite multiple, huge, studies in several countries looking for possible links between vaccines and autism, none have been found. Vaccines don’t cause autism. It’s time we stopped wasting enormous amounts of time and resources on this non-link and spent it instead on finding out what does cause it. Wouldn’t that be far more useful and interesting?

Now… if you’re hardcore anti-vaccine and you’ve read this far, and you’re about to hit the comment button and tell me that all this research is just Big Pharma covering things up so they can make money from the ‘million(/billion/trillion) dollar vaccine industry’, just wait a moment.


Think about this: how much money could the medical industry make from people actually catching measles, mumps, polio, TB, whooping cough and all the others? Just think of all the money they could make selling antivirals and antibiotics, all the money to be made from painkillers, antipyretics, drugs to treat respiratory symptoms of one kind or another, and everything else? Believe me, it would be much, much more than they make from a single 2 ml dose of vaccine. Why ‘cover up’ research that’s, if anything, reducing their profits?

All these diseases are horrible, and some can be fatal or have genuinely life-changing consequences. That’s proven. Please vaccinate your children, and yourself.


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Chemical paranoia: are they really going to get you?

chemicals1There are many warnings about nasty chemicals on the internet. “Ooh, chemicals are really BAD for you!!” type these paranoid types, on their computer made largely of polymers, with a screen containing liquid crystals, running on a lithium ion battery. “We’re being POISONED by all this stuff They’re putting into our food and water!!!” They cry, whilst drinking coffee that (naturally) contains caffeine, chlorogenic acids and umpteen other chemicals, having earlier swallowed some diphenhydramine for their many allergies and popping paracetamol pills for their terrible stress headache caused by all those capital letters and exclamation marks.

A quick glance at Snopes’ wonderful ‘Toxin du jour‘ page reveals a long list of stories which Snopes, the original home of internet urban legends, has cheerfully debunked, from the notion that aspartame is responsible for a cancer epidemic (it’s not), that microwaving plastic containers leaches dangerous chemicals into the food (it doesn’t) and the bizarre story of a mixture of certain type of baby formula and dog food causing a todler’s stomach to explode (do I need to state the obvious?)

Of course in writing this I fear I’m preaching to the converted, since people that forward on emails warning of the risk of deadly poisoning from re-using plastic drinking water bottles and the like never seem to be the sort of people to actually check their facts by, say, taking three seconds to type anything at all into a well-known search engine. And I therefore suspect they wouldn’t be reading this blog, it being dangerously factual and all. But for the sake of thoroughness, chemicals are all around us. The dictionary definition is “something with a distinct chemical composition that is produced by, or used in, a chemical process”. Most things are used in a chemical process somewhere, including such mundanities as water, oxygen and nitrogen. The only way anyone could avoid chemicals all together would be to lock themselves into a hermetically sealed chamber and pump all the air out. And that’s far from being a route to a long and healthy life.

“Ah, but,” the fearful cry, “we don’t mean NATURAL chemicals. We mean ARTIFICIAL ones. The ones chemists cook up in laboratories. Not nice natural things!”

Ah yes. Lovely, naturally-occurring chemicals. Like nicotine (the deadly nerve poison found in tobacco), lily of the valley (contains a high enough concentration of cardiac glycosides that even the water the flowers are placed in could be dangerously toxic), carbon monoxide (deadly by-product of the incomplete combustion of any carbon-based fuel, including all the ones you might be using in your house, such as wood, or coal, or gas) and botulinum toxin (the most acutely toxic substance known, naturally produced by the bacterium clostridium botulinum).

In fact, sometimes the synthetically produced is safer: for example salicylic acid (naturally-occurring in willow tree bark), while not particularly deadly is certainly a lot less friendly to the human digestive system than its chemically-modified cousin acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin.

And then there are food additives. They’re bad for you, right? They cause cancer, irritable bowl syndrome, hyperactivity, asthma, headaches, obesity, bad skin, bloating, unmanageable hair, purple rashes, gymphobia and notlikeingmondayitis, amongst other things. All of them*. You should definitely always buy foods that don’t have additives in. Everyone knows that.

Actually, no. In fact a lot of food additives keep us safe. Remember that botulinum toxin I mentioned up there? The most acutely toxic substance known? The bacterium that produces it grows in meat products. In fact, the German medical writer Justinus Kerner called it a “sausage poison” for that very reason. Why don’t people die from botulism more often? Because sodium nitrite (E250) is regularly added to meat products, and it does a great job of preventing clostridium botulinum from growing. It’s true that nitrites aren’t entirely controversy-free (in particular they’ve been linked to bowel cancer) but, and it’s a big but, the risk from botulism is much, much bigger than the small, theoretical, increase in your chances of developing cancer. Eating a botulism-laden sausage will kill you. Quickly. If you’re going to eat sausages at all, E250 is a good thing.

Many, many food additives are from entirely natural sources. Take the emulsifier lecithin (E322). It’s usually extracted from eggs or soy beans. Entirely homemade mayonnaise makes use of this chemical (whether knowingly or not) to keep the fat and water in the recipe from separating into layers. Ascorbic acid (E300) is used as an acidity-regulator and anti-oxidant, and its other name is good old vitamin C. Beeswax (E901) is routinely used as a glazing agent, espeically on apples, and there are a whole raft of colourings that are totally natural in origin, including caramel (E150a), Riboflavin (vitamin B2, E101) and beetroot red (E162). And by the way, those scary E numbers? The E just means they’re substances which have been approved for use within the European Union. In other words, they’ve been tested and shown to be safe. You could argue that those E’s are actually a very good thing. Who knew?

Then of course there’s E621, monosodium glutamate, used as a flavour enhancer (it produces the meaty flavour, umami). I feel sorry for poor old MSG, it gets a bad press. Blamed for everything from migraines to obesity to asthma (really this time). It’s been used for more than 100 years to season food, and is just the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally-occurring amino acids. The MSG that’s added to food these days is mostly made by bacterial fermentation, not unlike yoghurt or vinegar. But glutamic acid turns up everywhere, or at least everywhere there’s protein, and therefore so do its salts. Lots of foods are naturally high in glutamate, including cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and walnuts. It’s the same stuff, just with less sodium. So it’s safe to say that you can cheerfully ignore anyone who tells you that MSG is horribly bad for you, especially if they’re munching on a mushroom. Not to suggest that you should live off processed foods, of course, but you may do better to worry about the salt, sugar and fat content first.

In fact a lot of synthetic chemicals make our lives easier. Where would we be without medicines for example? (Not to be too blunt, probably dead.) Without the concoction that is toothpaste, most of us wouldn’t have our own teeth. Without chlorine in water we’d probably have died of typhoid or cholera (people arguing against it usually conveniently forget about those two, which used to kill by the tens of thousands). Just have a look around at all the plastic you use, and imagine for a second what life would be like without it: no soft contact lenses, no mobile phones, computers or TVs, no waterproof jacket or shoes, no biros, no packaging to keep food fresh and protected, no nylon or other synthetic fabrics… the list goes on.

So next time someone talks disparagingly about all those ‘chemicals’, ask them about all the ones they’re using right now. Or send them to Snopes. Or order that hermetically sealed, vacuum-pumped chamber. At least it’d be quiet.


After I published this post, I came across this absolutely brilliant pic on Twitter:

*Given that I earlier claimed to be factual, I should admit that I may have made some of those up.

The acid that really does eat through everything

acid burnThanks to the big screen, many of us think of acids as dangerous, burn-through-anything substances.  Think of those scenes in the Alien movies, where the alien’s blood drips through solid metal, destroying everything in its path.

Of course the vast majority of acids are much more boring.  Vinegar (which contains ethanoic acid) and citric acid (found in, guess what, citrus fruits) are common acids that we eat all the time, and they don’t burn holes in your mouth.  There’s an even stronger acid, hydrocholoric acid (HCl), in your stomach and not only does it not burn you from the inside out (usually), it actually helps you to digest your food and keeps you safe from nasty bacteria.

But there is an acid that’s really, properly scary.  And its name is hydrofluoric acid.

Hydrofluoric acid has the chemical formula HF, but unlike HCl you won’t find this one in a school laboratory, and if it turns up in your stomach you’re in very big trouble.  In true movie-acid style it’s capable of dissolving many materials, and is particularly well-known for its ability to dissolve glass (which is mainly silicon dioxide).  It will also dissolve most ceramics (which contain aluminosilicates: compounds made of chemically-bonded aluminium, silicon and oxygen).  And, like many other acids, it also reacts with metals, so storing it is a bit tricky.  Where do you put something that eats through its container? Well, these days it’s stored in special plastic bottles, but in the 17th century when it was first discovered chemists had to use glass bottles coated inside with wax, and hope the coating was a good one.

HF has been an important industrial chemical for centuries.  It’s used to etch patterns into, and clean, glass and ceramics, and also to dissolve rock samples, for example to extract chemicals or fossils from rocks.  It’s also used to clean stainless steel and, in more recent times, to prepare silicon wafers (used to make silicon chips) in the electronics industries.

The chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (him again – he just keeps turning up doesn’t he?) was the first person to produce HF in large quantities in 1771.  Scheele is particularly famous for his bad habit of sniffing and tasting any new substances he discovered.  Cumulative exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, their compounds, hydrofluoric acid, and other substances took their toll on him and he died on 21 May 1786 at the age of just 43.  And that’s why your science teacher was endlessly telling you not to eat or drink in the laboratory.

So why is hydrogen fluoride so nasty?  For starters the gas is a severe poison that immediately and permanently damages the lungs and the corneas of the eyes – lovely. Hydrofluoric acid solution is a contact-poison that causes deep, initially painless burns which result in permanent tissue death. It also interferes with calcium metabolism, which means that exposure to it can and does cause cardiac arrest (heart attack) and death.  Contact with as little as 160 square centimeters (25 square inches) of skin can kill – that’s about the area of the palm of your hand.

And now for a gruesome and tragic tale: in 1995 a chemist working in Australia was sitting working at a fume cupboard and knocked over a small quantity (100-230 millilitres, about the equivalent of a drinking glass full of water) of hydrofluoric acid onto his lap, splashing both thighs.  He immediately washed his legs with water, jumped into a chlorinated swimming pool at the rear of the workplace, and stayed there for about 40 minutes before an ambulance arrived.  (Should you ever need to know, the proper treatment for HF exposure is calcium gluconate gel: calcium gluconate reacts very quickly with hydrofluoric acid to form non-toxic calcium fluoride, rendering it harmless.)  Sadly, his condition deteriorated in hospital and, despite having his right leg amputated 7 days after the accident, he died from multi-organ failure 15 days after hydrofluoric acid spill.  Remember, that was a spill the size of a glass of water.

Because hydrofluoric acid interferes with nerve function, burns from it often aren’t painful to begin with. Small accidental exposures can go unnoticed, which means that people don’t seek treatment straight away, making the whole thing worse.  Do a Google image search on ‘hydrogen fluoride burns’ and you’ll see some images that will really turn your stomach.

So which would you rather meet?  An alien with acid blood and a habit of laying eggs in your stomach or an invisible gas that destroys your tissues and leaves you, if not dead from multiple organ failure, then suffering with horribly disfiguring burns?  You might stand a better chance against the alien…