Hazardous homeopathy: ‘ingredients’ that ought to make you think twice

Would you take a medicine made with arsenic? Or deadly nightshade? Lead? Poison ivy?

You’d ask some serious questions first, at least, wouldn’t you? Is it definitely safe? Or, more accurately, are the odds better than even that it will make me better without causing horrible side-effects? Or, you know, killing me?

There ARE medicines that are legitimately made from highly toxic compounds. For example, the poison beloved of crime writers such as Agatha Christie, arsenic trioxide, is used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia in patients who haven’t responded to other treatments. Unsurprisingly, it’s not without risks. Side-effects are unpleasant and common, affecting about a third of patients who take it. On the other hand, acute promyelocytic leukemia is fatal if untreated. A good doctor would talk this through with a patient, explain both sides, and leave the final choice in his or her properly-informed hands. As always in medicine, it’s a question of balancing risks and benefits.

Would you trust something with no proven benefit and a lot of potential risk? There are, it turns out, a swathe of entirely unregulated mixtures currently being sold in shops and online which clearly feature the substances I listed at the beginning. And more. Because they are all, supposedly, the starting materials in certain homeopathic remedies.

Homeopaths like to use unfamiliar, usually Latin-based, names which somewhat disguise the true nature of their ingredients. Here’s a short, but by no means comprehensive, list. (You might find remedies labelled differently but these are, as far as I can tell, the most common names given to these substances.)

If you haven’t heard of some of these, I do urge you to follow the links above, which will largely take you pages detailing their toxicology. Spoiler: the words “poison”, “deadly” and “fatal” feature heavily. These are nasty substances.

There are some big ironies here, and I’m not referring to the metal. For example, a common cry of anti-vaccinationists is that vaccines contain animal tissues – anything and everything from monkey DNA to dog livers. But many also seem to be keen to recommend homeopaths and courses of homeoprophylaxis – so-called “homeopathic vaccines” – which use bodily fluids such as pus and blood as starting materials.

Now, at this point I’m sure some of you are thinking, hang on a minute: aren’t you always telling us that “the dose makes the poison“? And aren’t homeopathic remedies diluted so much that none of the original substance remains, so they’re just placebos?

Yes, I am, and yes, they are.

Does anyone test homeopathic remedies to make sure there’s nothing in them….?

In THEORY. But here’s the problem: who’s testing these mixtures to make sure that the dilutions are done properly? And how exactly are they doing that (if they are)?

One technique that chemists use to identify tiny quantities of substance is gas chromatography (GC). This is essentially a high-tech version of that experiment you did at school, where you put some dots of different coloured ink on a piece of filter paper and watched them spread up the paper when you put it in some water.

GC analysis is brilliant at identifying tiny quantities of stuff. 10 parts per million is no problem for most detectors, and the most sensitive equipment can detect substances in the parts per billion range. Homeopathy dilutions are many orders of magnitude higher than this (30c, for example, means a dilution factor of 1060), but this doesn’t matter – once you get past 12c (a factor of 1024) you pass the Avogadro limit.

This is because Avogadro’s number, which describes the number of molecules in what chemists call a “mole” of a substance, is 6×1023. For example, if you had 18 ml of water in a glass, you’d have 6×1023 molecules of H2O. So you can see, if you’ve diluted a small sample by a factor of 1024 – more than the total number of molecules of water you had in the first place – the chances are very good that all you have is water. There will be none of the original substance left. (This, by the way, is of no concern to most homeopaths, who believe that larger dilutions magically produce a stronger healing effect.)

What if the sample ISN’T pure water after it’s been diluted?

If you carried out GC analysis of such a sample, you should find just pure water. Indeed, if you DIDN’T find pure water, it should be cause for concern. Potassium cyanide, for example, is toxic at very low levels. The lethal dose is is only 0.2-0.3 grams, and you’d suffer unpleasant symptoms long before you were exposed to that much.

So what if the dilutions somehow go wrong? What if some sample gets stuck in the bottle? Or on the pipette? Or a few dilution steps get skipped for some reason?

Are these largely unregulated companies rigorously quality-checking their remedies?

Well, maybe. It’s possible some producers are testing their raw materials for purity (ah yes, another question: they CLAIM they’re starting with, say, arsenic, but can we be certain?), and perhaps testing the “stability” of their products after certain periods of time (i.e. checking for bacterial growth), but are they running tests on the final product and checking that, well, there’s nothing in it?

And actually, isn’t this a bit of a conflict? If the water somehow “remembers” the chemical that was added and acquires some sort of “vibrational energy”, shouldn’t that show up somehow in GC analysis or other tests? If your tests prove it’s pure water, indistinguishable from any other sample of pure water, then… (at this point homeopaths will fall back on arguments such as “you can’t test homeopathy” and “it doesn’t work like that”. The name for this is special pleading.)

A warning was issued in the U.S. after several children became ill.

Am I scaremongering? Not really. There’s at least one published case study describing patients who suffered from arsenic poisoning after using homeopathic preparations. In January this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about elevated levels of belladonna (aka deadly nightshade) in some homeopathic teething products. Yes, teething products. For babies. This warning was issued following several reports of children becoming ill after using the products. The FDA said that its “laboratory analysis found inconsistent amounts of belladonna, a toxic substance, in certain homeopathic teething tablets, sometimes far exceeding the amount claimed on the label.”

Now, admittedly, I’m based in the U.K. and these particular teething remedies were never readily available here. But let’s just type “homeopathy” into the Boots.com (the British high-street pharmacy) website and see what pops up… ah yes. Aconite Pillules, 30c, £6.25 for 84.

What happens if you search for “homeopathy” on the Boots.com website?

Have you been paying attention lovely readers? Aconite is…. yes! Monkshood! One of the most poisonous plants in the garden. Large doses cause instant death. Smaller doses cause nausea and diarrhea, followed by a burning and tingling sensation in the mouth and abdomen, possibly muscle weakness, low blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.

I must stress at this point that there is no suggestion, absolutely none whatsoever, that any of the products for sale at Boots.com has ever caused such symptoms. I’m sure the manufacturers check their preparations extremely carefully to ensure that there’s absolutely NO aconite left and that they really are just very small, very expensive, sugar pills.

Well, fairly sure.

In summary, we seem to be in a situation where people who proclaim that rigorously-tested and quality-controlled pharmaceuticals are “toxic” also seem to be happy to use unregulated homeopathic remedies made with ACTUALLY toxic starting materials.

I wonder if the new “documentary” about homeopathy, Just One Drop, which is being screened in London on the 6th of April will clarify this awkward little issue? Somehow, I doubt it. Having watched the trailer, I think it’s quite clear which way this particular piece of film is going to lean.

One last thing. Some homeopathic mixtures include large quantities of alcohol. For example, the Bach Original Flower Remedies are diluted with brandy and contain approximately 27% alcohol (in the interests of fairness, they do also make alcohol-free versions of some of their products and, as I’ve recently learned, they may not be technically homeopathic). Alcohol is a proven carcinogen. Yes, I know, lots of adults drink moderate quantities of alcohol regularly and are perfectly healthy, and the dose from a flower remedy is minuscule, but still, toxins and hypocrisy and all that.

There are cheaper ways to buy brandy than Bach Flower Remedies.

Amusingly, the alcohol in these remedies is described an “inactive” ingredient. It’s more likely to be the only ACTIVE ingredient. And since Flower Remedies retail for about £7 for 20 ml (a mighty £350 a litre, and they’re not even pure brandy) may I suggest that if you’re looking for that particular “medicine” you might more wisely spend your money on a decent bottle of Rémy Martin?


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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 fb.com/chronicleflask 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!

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How to win an argument about homeopathy

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Jeremy Corbyn appeared to support homeopathy, five years ago.

Homeopathy has been in the news (again) lately. Someone managed to dig up a 2010 tweet by Jeremy Corbyn where he appeared to express support for it (so far he doesn’t seem to have commented again so let’s be generous: maybe he’s re-evaluated in the last five years). A few days ago The Express newspaper printed an article pointing out that in these times of austerity, the NHS is spending £5 million a year on ineffective homeopathic remedies, and then, of course, there was that really weird incident earlier in the month where a number of delegates apparently fell ill with hallucinations and cramps during a homeopathy conference in Germany (if an ‘LSD-type drug’ was involved, we can be certain of one thing: it wasn’t homeopathic).

I’m not going to go into the ‘science’ of homeopathy again, because I’ve done that before (seriously, if you don’t know what it is, follow that link back there). And besides, I’m starting to think the science angle is a bit (haha) pointless. Not because it’s wrong, but because it boils down to an un-winnable argument that goes something like this:

“Homeopathy can’t work because…. dilutions…. molecules… there’s nothing in it…. (etc)”
“AHHH but there are things science doesn’t understand… water memory… quantum (etc)”
“Ok, but many, many controlled trials have shown it doesn’t work.
“Those trials are all carried out by the Big Pharma, I don’t trust them.”
“Well, actually, not all of them….
“You can’t test homeopathy in the lab. It doesn’t work like that.”
“But it should, shouldn’t it? If it works? Legitimate pharmaceuticals have to pass those tests.”
“The tests are flawed.The whole peer-review system is corrupt.”
“Well, it may have a few problems, yes, but it’s the best thing we have right now.”
“Anyway, homeopathy cured by my brother’s milkman’s aunt’s dog’s arthritis.”
“Anecdotes really aren’t evidence.”
“Look, it doesn’t matter, I believe it works.”

And there we have it. You can’t get past that, at least, not with science. People that believe (and some of them are, worryingly, scientists and doctors) just believe. You can show them with evidence all day: they’ll tell you the science is wrong, or lacking in some way. Adding more science to that doesn’t help, it’s just – from the believer’s point of view – more science which is still wrong, or still lacking.

So recently I’ve taken another tack. I say, look for the money.

James Randi first issued his challenge in 1964.

In 1964 a stage magician and skeptic called James Randi issued a challenge, and it was this: anyone successfully demonstrating a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria would be paid a $1000 prize. Later it went up to $10,000, then $100,000 and eventually $1 million.

Since the challenge was first created by Randi over half a century ago, about a thousand people have applied, but no one has been successful. No one.

What does this have to do with homeopathy? Well, quite a lot. Because Randi has stated that homeopathy qualifies. In other words, anyone who can prove it works – under testing criteria agreed between the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and the claimant – would win the $1 million. It doesn’t have to be some sort of ‘Big Pharma’ approved trial, it just has to be a trial that both JREF and the claimant agree, between them, is valid.

Big Homeopathy (well, they do it, why not us?) is unquestionably a million dollar business, perhaps the prize has never been claimed because ‘they’ don’t care about a piddly million dollars? But what about all the small-time homeopaths practising around the country? What about academics who continue to maintain that it works? Surely not all of these people are millionaires? $1 million has got to be worth having, hasn’t it?

I repeat. The prize never been claimed (despite at least one high-profile attempt).

James Randi, who is, at time of writing, 87 years old, has now retired. But fear not, JREF have said that they will continue the million dollar challengeas a means for educating the public about paranormal claims”. 

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Boots.com are selling homeopathic ‘remedies’ right now.

So this is what I say: if you believe homeopathy works, if you think you have convincing evidence that it works, go and claim the money. Then come back to me and we’ll talk. I promise to listen.

If you find yourself talking to proponent of homeopathy, suggest this to them, see what they say. One million dollars has got to be worth a bit of effort, surely?

Call me an old cynic, but I suspect at least some of these people know it doesn’t work, but selling pills that are made of nothing more than sugar, water and fancy packaging for over £5 a pop, or consultations at £30-£125 an hour, is making plenty of money anyway. Why mess with a good thing?

Forget belief, or even science. Look for the money.

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Please don’t eat apricot kernels

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Apricot kernels do not cure cancer.

I’ll admit, I’m no huge fan of ‘alternative medicine’, particularly the ones which have been thoroughly tested and shown over and over again to be entirely ineffective (yes homoeopathy, I’m looking at you).

At best these treatments don’t work, and at worst they delay or even stop people getting the effective treatment they need. In fact, there’s an even worse possibility: they stop people from people from giving their children the treatments they need.

Ok, if you’re old enough to make decisions for yourself, and you’ve tried conventional medicine and it hasn’t worked terribly well for your particular problem, and you’ve found that, say, acupuncture somehow does make your chronic back pain a bit better, even if it is just placebo effect, then hey, it’s your money (just please don’t recommend it to anyone else who hasn’t checked out all their other options first, ok?) Also, please, please read this fantastic article which explains clearly what cancer is and what, crucially, it isn’t.

But there has surely has to be a special corner of hell reserved for people who peddle so called ‘cancer-cures’.

Medicine has moved on a lot in the last few decades. Advanced screening techniques and treatments mean that many cancers are no longer the death sentence they once were. 50% of people (in England and Wales) now survive cancer for ten years or more, which is double the figure 40 years ago. But it’s easy for a well person to say ‘cancer treatments’. They are not always quite so easy to get through. Cancer treatments – namely surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy – can be brutal and frequently come with a raft of unpleasant side-effects, particularly chemotherapy.

There are some people who decide that the cure is worse than the disease and personally, I think that’s their choice to make. They should have the right to make that choice, so long as it’s well-informed.

So long as it’s well-informed.

But there are people out there who are making money from desperate cancer sufferers. They sell them ineffective treatments, discourage them (directly or indirectly) from seeking or accepting the treatment they really need, and sometimes even encourage those people to use toxic substances that are likely to actually cause even more harm.

People like Roger Shelley, owner and director of The Vitamin Service Ltd. Who has just been given a six-month suspended prison sentence and his company fined £10,000 for selling potentially toxic ‘vitamins’ he claimed could cure and prevent cancer.

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Amygdalin. It’s not a vitamin.

In particular, he was selling apricot kernels, which he claimed contained a ‘vitamin’ called B17. There is no such vitamin. The chemical in question is something called amygdalin (sometimes also referred to as laetrile, although they are not quite the same thing). See the picture of it? See that CN group down at the bottom? That’s a nitrile group. Potassium cyanide, the poison so beloved of crime writers, has the formula KCN, which is a compound made up of K+ and CN ions. It’s the cyanide ions, CN, that do the damage, by interfering catastrophically with the way the body uses oxygen. Now, nitriles (like amygdalin) don’t usually give up their cyanide ions easily and so aren’t, generally, anywhere near as toxic as compounds like potassium cyanide.

Unfortunately one of the enzymes in your small intestine helps to speed up the breakdown of amygdalin. Eating apricot kernels can cause severe toxicity and death due to cyanide poisoning. Yes, severe toxicity and death. Eating apricot kernels can kill you.

Before I cause mass panic I should probably point out that if you accidentally swallow one on a summer picnic, do not fear. It takes more than one to do any damage. The Food Standards Agency says it’s safe to eat one apricot kernel a day (they’re not saying you should, mind you).

The Vitamin Service was recommending that adults take 35 kernels every day. That IS enough to do damage. In fact, it’s above the dose that the FSA highlights as causing severe symptoms. In this statement, they site a case (point 15) of a woman who ate 30 apricot kernels and was later found comatose.

Worse, The Vitamin Service were also recommending that children take 10 kernels a day, “to ward off cancer”. For children, who have a smaller body mass than adults, even this smaller dose could be extremely dangerous.

Patients following The Vitamin Service’s regime reported symptoms of dizziness and cogitative problems. Classic symptoms of cyanide poisoning. When they reported these symptoms they were advised to reduce the amount for a few days before increasing it again, because the symptoms were due to ‘toxins’. Indeed they were, a toxic substance in the very products The Vitamin Service were selling.

To add insult to injury, they were charging in the region of £600 for these kernels along with a raft of other supplements they were recommending.

Shelly admitted to misleading customers and failing to warn them of the risks of B17. He has been given a six month suspended prison sentence, and his company is no longer selling apricot kernels as a cancer treatment. Which you’d think would be a good thing. Problem solved, no?

Just Google “B17 cancer” or “apricot kernels”. There are dozens of sites out there promoting it as a cancer treatment, and many still selling products. I won’t link to them here, I don’t want to give them the traffic. But it’s frightening. Please don’t believe these people. Please listen to your doctors, the real ones, the ones who have studied for years to learn everything they can about medicines and illnesses, and who have sworn an oath to “do no harm”.

There isn’t an easy, painless, magical cure for the cancer that the pharmaceutical industry is hiding from us for some reason. We all wish there was, but there isn’t. Cancer is horrible, but a lot of the time these days it’s beatable with the right treatments. And for those, you need a qualified doctor.

This story was covered in detail on The One Show on BBC One, on Monday 4th February 2015. You can watch the clip here: start at about 4:30 minutes.

There is also an excellent, very easy to follow, summary of the use of laetrile on the charity Cancer Research UK’s website. Read it here.

Finally, once again, if you’re in the unfortunate position of having been diagnosed with cancer, please, please read this excellent article. It really does help to understand the importance of targeted treatment.

Update 8th June 2015

When I wrote this post I focused on the eating of actual apricot kernels, and Roger Shelley’s conviction for selling them. It is worth pointing out that although apricot kernels definitely contain amygdalin, it’s impossible to be certain exactly how much any one kernel contains. This is always a risk with any natural product like this.

This means there is a big, huge, difference between eating apricot kernels – even a known number of them – and being exposed to a small amount of amygdalin in a controlled manner, say as part of a cancer treatment trial. In the first situation you have no idea how much of the chemical you’re being exposed to, and no one is monitoring you to check for ill effects (which you might, or might not, be aware of). It is true that otherwise toxic compounds are utilised in chemotherapy. Arsenic trioxide is used to treat a particular kind of leukaemia for example, but this doesn’t mean swallowing a teaspoon of it every day ‘just in case’ would be in any way sensible or safe.

In 2010 there was a Cochrane review of all the work previously done on amygdalin and laetrile. It reported that there was no clinical data to support the use of these substances to treat cancer, that the risk benefit of using these substances was unanimously negative (the risk of severe poisoning far outweighed any possible benefit), and recommended that no further clinical research into laetrile or amygdalin be conducted on ethical grounds.

However, since I wrote this post I have been made aware that some research is still ongoing. Well, science is about finding answers after all. For example, both of the following papers have been published since the Cochrane review:

Notice that these papers are about the specific chemical amygdalin, rather than apricot kernels. Note also that the second paper contains the words in vitro, which means outside of living organisms. In a test tube in a lab basically. This might be an interesting starting point, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the same effect can be reproduced in living organisms which have inconvenient things like a digestive system to work around. Also, bear in mind that effective cancer treatments are highly targeted. Tossing unknown amounts of a substance into the general vicinity of a tumour and hoping it’ll have the effect you want is like throwing a bucket of paint at a piece of fine china and expecting to see pretty decorations appear.

Digestion is a particularly thorny problem with this substance: in the first paper I mentioned above (which is a review of the work done to date, rather than new research) the authors specifically point out that amygdalin is a lot more toxic when it’s taken orally than when it’s given intravenously (injected). The reason is that, as I mentioned in my original post, it’s broken down by enzymes in your small intestine. You’re going to have a hard time injecting apricot kernels; you pretty much have to eat them. Which is risky.

Also, while the authors do provide a lot of examples of the therapeutic benefits of amygdalin, they also point out that the (apparent) “antitumor mechanism of amygdalin is not completely clear”, that “clinical trials and large retrospective studies showed that [it] had no stable antitumor effect” and that adverse reactions have been reported, particularly following large doses.

So, while this compound might be a subject for further research, I stand by my original point. Don’t eat apricot kernels.

Further update, 20th August 2015

I’ve recently been made aware of a someone called Dr Philip Binzel and, what appears to be, a rather famous book called “Alive and Well“. In this book, Dr Binzel describes his treatment of cancer patients using dietary changes and supplements, including laetrile. I can find remarkably little information about Dr Binzel and his credentials beyond what’s described in this book. However, it is a matter of public record that he died on June 6, 2003. So take any source discussing his work in the present tense with a large pinch of salt.

Another recent post on this blog which may be of interest addresses this common complaint, “no one wants to research that; they can’t make any money from it!

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It's pure something all right...

It’s pure something all right…

Recently a friend sent me a link to this page about the ‘Hexagon H2O‘ water purification system. He knew I’d love it, and I did. Not, however, for the reasons the company supplying it would presumably hope. The ‘science’ is so ludicrous, it’s hard to believe anyone would even begin to take it seriously. Sadly, this product (which, spoiler alert, is a massive scam) seems to have made quite a bit of money by scattering vaguely sciencey-sounding terms around like confetti and sucking in anyone whose chemistry and physics knowledge is, shall we say, less than detailed.

That said, it is easy to forget about water when we talk about chemistry, since we’re usually more interested in what’s in the water than the water itself. It’s actually pretty important, especially when it comes to pH. So in the spirit of finding some good good in the bad, let’s use some of their claims to have a look at the chemistry.

We begin with the very first sentence on the very first page: “With the Hexagon Alkaline Hydrogen Water Filtration System, you can transform normal tap water into hydrogen-rich alkaline water.

First of all, what is water? Water is H2O (they did get that mostly right, apart from the times they write it as H2O). What does this familiar formula mean? It means that in pure water there are two hydrogen atoms for every one oxygen atom. These atoms are strongly bonded together, and generally like to stay that way. That said, a very small number of those bonds do break at room temperature, like this:

H2O → H+ + OH

On the right of the arrow we have hydrogen ions (H+, actually, technically, H3O+) and hydroxide ions (OH).  At room temperature, there are very roughly 600000000 water molecules for every hydrogen ion in pure water. In other words, hardly any hydrogen (and hydroxide) ions at all. This is because every time a water molecule breaks up into hydrogen ions and hydroxide ions, they just as quickly recombine to form water again.

Now this is for pure water, and pure water has a pH of 7. The reason it has a pH of 7 is because it has this ratio of hydrogen (and hydroxide) ions to water molecules. A solution with a different pH will have a different ratio. If it’s acidic, it has more hydrogen ions. If it’s alkaline, fewer. Assuming room temperature (I keep saying this because pH goes down ever so slightly at higher temperatures, although this does not exactly mean the water becomes more acidic) if the pH is not 7, the water is not pure.

By pure, I mean containing H2O only, and nothing else. It’s very difficult to get a completely pure sample of H2O, because in a single gram of water there are about 30000000000000000000000 molecules. If we’re talking about pure in the, er, purest sense, that means there can’t be even one other molecule or ion in there, and that’s highly unlikely. Not least because gases in the air dissolve in water. Still, you see my point. Pure water has a pH of 7 (at room temperature), and is neither acidic nor alkaline. End of story.

So, back to “hydrogen-rich, alkaline water”. ‘Hydrogen-rich’ could either mean it contains dissolved H2 gas (which is highly unlikely, since it’s pretty insoluble) or that it contains lots of H+ ions. Which would make the water acidic. Which would mean it can’t also be alkaline.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is no way this statement can be correct.

It gets worse from there. The site helpfully ‘explains’ some terms, and the first of these is ‘alkaline’. Apparently, this is “how water should be”. Well, no. See above. Indeed, if the water were significantly alkaline it would be a bit of a problem. It would taste bitter (yuck), probably cause stomach trouble over time and might even irritate your skin. In fact, this is quite likely, since later on they claim their water has a pH between 8 and 10. 10 is really quite high; hand soap and indigestion remedies have a pHs of about 10.

The first page also says: “The body has natural alkaline buffers against excessive acidity so it can maintain blood pH at the optimum level. However, over-acidity can often occur after a prolonged period of bad eating and stress.Now, I’ve been over this at length. Nothing you eat or drink can change your blood’s pH, which is tightly controlled at about 7.4. There is also no such thing as an ‘alkaline buffer’ (see my recent post on buffers). A very unhealthy diet will certainly have a negative impact on your health over time, for example it might have an effect on bone density. However drinking an alkaline solution is really not the way to combat that. Sadly, the answer is the usual boring stuff about eating more vegetables and perhaps cutting back a bit on meat and dairy. If you just drink an alkaline solution, your stomach acid will simply neutralise it.

We go on, “[by drinking Hexagon water] you are simply helping your natural alkaline buffers to restore pH balance and to reduce health-robbing acid in your body“. Hm. Acid is actually quite important in the body. Your stomach contains hydrochloric acid, which you need to digest food and to protect you from nasty bugs. So describing acid as health-robbing is quite misleading (although I am going to link to this article again, which is worth a read if you’re genuinely interested in actual science).

And then we get to: “Water from the Hexagon has smaller molecular clusters than normal water. This means that it can permeate the body’s cell membranes more rapidly and more efficiently to provide nutrients.”  Water molecules do form clusters, but they’re really not well understood. In fact, they’re an important area of research right now (although if you look them up you need to be careful to distinguish between genuine researchers and genuine quacks, of which there are many). How this company can claim they know anything at all about the size of the water clusters in the water their product produces is beyond me. Also, water clusters aren’t stable – the hydrogen bonds holding them together constantly break and reform, so there’s no way it can make any difference to how easily water permeates cell membranes.

It gets worse from there, with talk of “positive energy” and, my favourite, “Infus[ing] energy into water through natural spiralling movement”.

The whole thing is pure (at least something is pure) nonsense. Even Wikipedia says so. I suppose there will always be people willing to hand over their hard-earned cash for such things, but if you’ve got this far at least you won’t be one of them. Pass it on.

Homeopathy: a drop in the ocean?

HomeopathicCartoonAs a skeptical chemist I have, until now, avoided the topic of homeopathy.  It felt a bit obvious, rather like shooting fish in a barrel.  Hasn’t everyone and his sister written an article about it at some point?  There’s the brilliant 10:23 campaign on the subject, and the comedians Mitchell and Webb even wrote a fabulously funny sketch on the topic (do watch it if you haven’t, I particularly love the idea of homeopathic lager).  How much more mainstream can you get?  Surely everyone knows it’s a load of old nonsense by now?

And yet, and yet… I still meet people that don’t know what it is, or who are a bit confused about it.  Many don’t know the difference between herbal remedies and homeopathy.  Many think they know someone who’s used it and it’s worked, or have used it themselves and felt that it helped them.

Worse, the NHS, despite admitting outright that, “homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos, and that the principles on which homeopathy is based are ‘scientifically implausible” still spends money on it, going on to say on the very same web page that “there are several NHS homeopathic hospitals and some GP practices also offer homeopathic treatment.”  There are widely divergent figures on exactly how much the NHS spends on this treatment which they fully admit does not work, but there’s general agreement that it’s in the millions.  A fullfact.org article written in 2010 concluded that it was £12 million from 2005-8, which didn’t include the £20 million spent refurbishing the Royal London homeopathic hospital from 2002 to 2005.  More recently a Daily Mail article (yes, yes, I know) claimed it was £4 million a year.

In a way, does it matter?  It may be a tiny proportion of the NHS’s total £108.9 billion budget, but it’s still millions of pounds of public money.  For something that doesn’t work.

Ok, but what is it?  Well firstly let’s briefly talk about ‘mainstream’ medicine.  Also called conventional medicine, allopathic medicine, orthodox medicine or Western medicine, it’s the system by which trained professionals (doctors, nurses, pharmacists etc) treat diseases and their symptoms using tested drugs.  And make no mistake, mainstream drugs are tested.  Different countries have different regulations, but in the UK clinical trials involve at least three phases and take ten to fifteen years or even more.

Homeopathic treatments don’t have to go through this testing.  And unlike conventional doctors, who have to complete five years of study followed by further years of foundation training and yet more studying, there is no regulation of homeopathic practitioners in the UK.  Now, that ought to give anyone pause for thought.

Secondly, all drugs that actually work have side effects; effects that are secondary to the intended ones.  All of them.  There’s no avoiding it; there’s ‘no effect without side effects’.  You may not experience them personally, but someone somewhere almost certainly will.  Much of medicine is about balancing side effects against positive effects, and a lot of the time it comes down to how severe and life-threatening the disease being treated is.  If you have a bit of a cold, you’re probably happy to take some paracetamol which, when taken at the proper dose, has ‘as rash’ listed as its only side-effect.

But since the odds are very good that you’re going to recover from your cold whether you treat it or not you wouldn’t, on the other hand, want to take something that might have serious side effects like the anti-viral Tamiflu (headaches, nausea, cough, vomiting, sleeping problems, indigestion, pain, tiredness, vertigo… and that’s just some of them).  However, if you genuinely have flu (real flu, not “I’ve got a nasty cold but I’m calling it flu so that I sound like less of a skiver”) then Tamiflu might be appropriate, because real flu can be genuinely life-threatening.

HomeopathyWhy is this relevant to a discussion about homeopathy?  Because homeopathic treatments don’t have side-effects (at least, not any directly related to the pills and potions themselves).  Homeopaths are generally quite keen to tell you this.  But it means that the treatments are ineffective. There’s no getting around this I’m afraid.  You can’t have your cake and eat it, even if you dilute it by a factor of 1060.

Speaking of dilutions…  Now, I’m not about to go into a huge amount of detail about the history and reasoning behind homeopathy because, firstly, other people have already done an excellent job of that, secondly I always worry that it starts to sound alarmingly plausible if you’re not very careful and thirdly, a summary ought to be much more potent than a full description (this little witticism will make sense in a minute).

Certain substances, poisons generally, cause nasty symptoms.  Homeopaths believe that if you take very, very tiny amounts of those substances they’ll do the opposite and cure those symptoms when they’ve been caused by an illness.  For example, arsenic causes headaches, nausea and diarrhoea.  So logically (for a given value of ‘logic’) at homeopathic doses it’s used to treat digestive disorders and food poisoning.  These tiny amounts are achieved by successive dilutions: you add one drop of a substance to ninety-nine drops of water, and then you take one drop of that mixture and add it to ninety-nine more drops of water, and then you take one drop of that and….

…You keep going until you’ve done it at least six times.  Remember each dilution is a factor of one hundred.  The first time it’s done you get a solution of 0.01%.  By the time the procedure’s been followed six times, it’s 0.000 000 000 1%.  This is called 6C.  Homeopaths believe that more dilute solutions are more potent, that is they’ll be even better at treating the illness than something more concentrated.

0004908_nelsons-bryonia-30c-homeopathic-remedy_300In fact, quite a lot of remedies are sold as 30C.  That’s 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1%

Let’s attempt to put that in context.  Every year Cambridge University’s Chemistry department holds the Cambridge Chemistry Challenge (try saying that six times fast) and in 2012 there were some rather lovely questions involving homeopathy in the paper.  Here are a few choice morsels:

One question asked entrants to calculate the mass of arsenic oxide in 100 ml (a small amount, but still about four times greater than the volumes that are usually sold) of a 30C homeopathic remedy.  The answer was 2.06 x 10-30 grams.  That’s a thousand times less than the mass of a single proton.  A drop in the ocean isn’t the half of it.  Not only is there not even one molecule of the original substance in there, the dilutions have wiped out even the possibility of a sub-atomic particle.

6a00d83451df0c69e200e54f9413f98833-800wiThen they were asked to work out the amount of the remedy someone would need to take to experience a fatal dose, and express the answer as a fraction of the volume of the Earth.  The answer?  4500 times the volume of the Earth.  Probably no need for those “in case of accidental overdose contact a healthcare practitioner” warnings, then.

Finally, how many bottles of the solution would you need to buy to stand a chance of obtaining one atom of arsenic?  The answer: 285 million bottles.

So let’s be clear, homeopathic remedies have no active ingredient.  Nil.  Nothing,  Nada.

“Ah,” say the homeopaths, “we accept that.  That’s not the point.  The water ‘remembers’ the original chemical; the water molecules retain a ‘memory’ of that substance and it’s that memory that has the effect”.

At this point people who actually know some science start tearing their hair out (by the way, apparently fluoric acid, i.e. HF, is a recommended homeopathic treatment for hair loss – good job it is diluted else it might eat through the glass bottle).

Just think about it for a few seconds.  If it were true that water retains a memory of the substances that have been dissolved in it, and that memory was so powerful that it could have a real, physiological, effect on the body, then we would be constantly bombarded with ‘treatments’ every single time we drank a glass of water.  You know that water that comes out of your tap?  Well, sorry to be blunt about this, but it went through a few other people before it got to your tap, picking up all sorts of substances on the way.  Your local water company purified it, and in the process almost certainly added coagulants to precipitate out impurities.  These are then removed of course (that’s the point) but if what the homeopaths suggest is right (which it’s not) your water would ‘remember’ them.  Lead pipes would be the least of your worries.

From here the theories get increasingly outlandish.  Next stop, ‘transference’.  This is the idea that remedies can affect living organisms from a distance.  Yup.  Basically a practitioner can call someone on the phone and proceed to diagnose, and treat, them from miles away, without them having to actually swallow a thing.  Oh yes, and also water placed next to a homeopathic remedy (which is also just water, in case I need to say it again) can take on characteristics of the remedy.

Photo 13-06-2013 09 06 54 PMNow, if this were true the world simply wouldn’t work the way we know it does.  You’d be exposed every time you walked past the Alternative Remedy section in a shop.  Humans have really quite a lot of water in them; if anything like this actually happened, you could ‘catch’ antibiotics from your friend who happened to be taking them, just by standing too close.  You wouldn’t need to clean your toilet, just leave the bleach bottle next to it and it ought to work by transference (many students have tried this, it really doesn’t work).

The homeopaths will cry that I’m wilfully misunderstanding their methods, because I’ve forgotten to mention ‘potentization’.  Oh yes, allow me to explain: when you prepare a homeopathic remedy you have to shake or tap the preparation at each stage – sometimes with a particular object (a magic wand, perhaps) – otherwise it doesn’t work.  It’s not just the dilution, it’s the special tapping that does the trick, because it somehow allows the water molecules to remember the energy signature of the molecules of ‘active’ ingredient.

Next time someone claims homeopathy works, ask them if they believe in magic.  There really is very little difference.

At this point though homeopaths resort to a few final bits of misdirection and sleight of hand.  They claim that everyone who casts doubt over homeopathy is in the thrall of ‘Big Pharma‘.  They say that the big pharmaceutical companies – whom they imply control the world, possibly from a giant hollowed-out volcano somewhere – deliberately discredit homeopathy because they have a lot to lose if people use it instead of conventional (they tend to use the term ‘allopathic’) medicine.

This neatly sidesteps the fact that homeopaths have an awful lot to lose if people stop buying their pills and potions, and especially in the UK if the NHS stop funding it.  In fact, I suspect they have a lot more to lose since pharmaceutical companies, for all their faults, are required by law to prove that their drugs actually do something.

And finally homeopaths will tell you that allopathic medicines have killed millions of people, whereas homeopathy has never killed anyone.  Hm.  It’s true that people die from negative drug reactions.  It’s also true that sick people sometimes die.  Occasionally it’s difficult to say whether a person would have died sooner with or without drug intervention.  But for most people conventional drugs are far more likely to keep them safe and well than kill them.

sopHomeopathy on the other hand… well it’s true the remedies themselves won’t kill you.  A little bit of sugar and water never killed anyone.  But, sadly, there are people who don’t seek conventional treatment because they believe what a homeopath tells them.  Sometimes those people leave it too late, and sometimes they die when their life might have been saved.  Even worse, sometimes those people are parents, and they end up making bad decisions about their child’s treatment.  If you doubt me, there’s a whole list of tragic stories on the whatstheharm website.

Sometimes homeopathy does appear to work, but that’s been shown time and time again to be a placebo effect.  Now, I think that the placebo effect is cool.  I mean, it’s really awesome.  Basically, if you believe you’ll feel better, you do – at least sometimes.  People have even debated whether this can work in animals (probably not, although owners and vets might think it’s working).  Personally, I think lots of research should be going on in the area of placebo, because it’s utterly fascinating.  But.  Here’s the thing: I used the words “feel better” back there very deliberately.  The placebo effect is great for things that have a level of subjectivity, such as pain management.  When people carry out objective measures, such as lung function for an asthmatic for example, there’s usually little improvement.  The placebo effect is highly unlikely to effectively treat diseases such as asthma, or diabetes, or cancer.

And that means homeopathy cannot treat those things either.  And people absolutely shouldn’t be allowed to tell ill, vulnerable people that it can.

I know there are some people who don’t trust the government, and who think it’s all run by nine foot tall lizards, but regardless I’m going to return to the Science and Technology Committee’s report:

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 22.53.02“the evidence base shows that homeopathy is not efficacious (that is, it does not work beyond the placebo effect) and that explanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible.”

and…

“The product labelling for homeopathic products under all current licensing schemes fails to inform the public that homeopathic products are sugar pills containing no active ingredients.”

Finally, ask yourself this: at a time when disabled people are facing cuts to their much-needed benefits, with many tragic stories of people being designated ‘fit for work’ when they really aren’t, is it right that millions of pounds are available for a ‘treatment’ which, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, does not work?

And for the record, I have absolutely no affiliation whatsoever with any pharmaceutical company.  I am, however, more than happy to admit supporting campaigns such as 10:23, because there really is ‘nothing in it’.

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Late addendum: I have just been reminded (thank you @Sci_McInnes) that of course our Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (the one made famous by James Naughtie’s delightful slip of the tongue) is a supporter of homeopathy.  Yes, the person that is effectively in charge of the NHS believes that tapping water in a special way turns it into an effective medicine, despite the evidence of the Science and Technology Committee.  If you weren’t cross about it before, you really, really should be now.