Neem: nice, nasty or… not sure?

A few days ago it was sunny and slightly breezy outside (yes, it’s August, but I live in the UK – this isn’t as common as you might imagine) and I thought, I should make the most of this and do something about my orchids.

Now, anyone that reads this blog regularly will know that my Dad is a horticulturist. I, however, am not. My fascination with bright colours, interesting smells and complicated naming conventions went down the chemistry route. But I am, oddly, quite good with Phalaenopsis, aka, moth orchids. I don’t really know why, or how, but I seem to have come to some sort of agreement with the ones that live on my kitchen windowsill. It goes along the lines of: I’ll water you once a week, and you make flowers a couple of times a year, and we’ll otherwise leave each other alone, okay?

Scale bugs secrete honeydew, which encourages the growth of sooty moulds

Well, this was fine for years, until we somehow acquired an infestation of scale bugs. These tiny but extremely annoying pests feed by sucking sap from leaves of plants, and they excrete a sticky substance called honeydew. Trust me, it’s not as nice as it sounds. Firstly, it really is sticky, and makes a horrible mess not just of the orchid leaves, but also the area around the plants.

Then it turns out that certain types of mould just love this stuff, so you end up with black spots on the leaves. And, not surprisingly, all this weakens the plant.

So, what’s the answer? Well, there are several. But the one I tend to default to is neem oil.

This stuff is a vegetable oil from the seeds of the Azadirachta indica, or neem, tree. It has a musty, nutty sort of smell, and is fairly easy to buy.

It’s indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and has been historically important in traditional medicine. In fact, The Sanskrit name of this evergreen tree is ‘Arishtha’, which means ‘reliever of sickness’.

So it’s a natural vegetable oil and people have been using it as a remedy for thousands of years – must be totally safe, right? Right?

Well… I’ve said it before, but some of the very best horribly toxic things are entirely natural, and neem is yet another example. Ingestion of significant quantities can cause metabolic acidosis (finally, something that really does have the potential to change blood pH! Er… but not… in a good way), kidney failure, seizures, and brain damage in children. Skin contact can cause contact dermatitis. It’s been shown to work as a contraceptive and, more problematically, it’s a known abortifacient (causes miscarriage).

Neem oil is easy to buy, but it needs to be handled with caution

All this said, as always, the dose make the poison.

One case study in the Journal of The Association of Physicians of India reported on a 36-year-old man who swallowed 30–50 ml (about three tablespoons) of neem oil, in the hope of treating the corns on his feet. As far as I can tell, it didn’t help his corns. It did cause vomiting, drowsiness, a dangerous drop in blood pH and seizures. There’s no specific antidote for neem poisoning, but the hospital managed his symptoms. Luckily, despite the hammering his kidneys undoubtedly took, he didn’t need dialysis, and was discharged from hospital after just over a week.

Now, okay, you’re unlikely to accidentally swallow three tablespoons of any oil, especially not neem which does have quite a strong, not entirely pleasant, smell and (reportedly – I haven’t tried for obvious reasons) a bitter taste. But nevertheless, it’s wise to be cautious, particularly around children who have a smaller body mass and therefore are much more likely to suffer serious effects – up to and including death. In one reported case, a mother gave a 3-month-old child a teaspoon of neem oil in the hope of curing his indigestion – fortunately he survived, but not without some seriously scary symptoms.

Nimbin, a chemical found in neem oil, is reported to have all sorts of beneficial effects [image source]

Okay, so those are the dangers. Let’s talk chemistry. The Pakistani organic chemist Salimuzzaman Siddiqui is thought to be the first scientist to formally investigate the various compounds in neem oil. In 1942 he extracted three compounds, and identified nimbidin as the main antibacterial substance in neem. He was awarded an OBE in 1946 for his discoveries.

I will confess, at this point, to running into a little bit of confusion with the nomenclature. Nimbidin is described, in some places at least, as a mixture of compounds (collectively, tetranortriterpenes) rather than a single molecule. But either way, it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties – at least in rats.

Another of the probably-mostly-good substances in neem is nimbin: a triterpenoid which is reported to have a whole range of positive properties, including acting as an anti-inflammatory, an antipyretic, a fungicide, an antiseptic and even as an antihistamine. Interestingly, I went looking for safety data on nimbin, and I couldn’t find much. That could mean it’s safe, or it could mean it just hasn’t been extensively tested.

Azadirachtin, another chemical found in neem, is a known pesticide [image source]

The substance that seems to do most of the pesticide heavy lifting is azadirachtin. This is a limonoid (compounds that are probably best known for their presence in citrus fruits). It’s what’s called an antifeedant – a substance produced by plants to deter predators from munching on them. Well, mostly. Humans have a strange habit of developing a taste for plants that produce such substances. Take, for example, odoriferous garlic, clears-out-your-sinuses horseradish, and of course the daddy of them all: nicotine.

Azadirachtin is known to affect lots of species of insects, both by acting as an antifeedant and as a growth disruptor. Handily, it’s also biodegradable – and breaks down in a few days when exposed to light and water.

That makes it appealing as a potential pesticide, and it’s also generally described as having low toxicity in mammals – its reported LD50 tends to fall into the grams per kilogram range, which makes it “moderately to slightly toxic“. Wikipedia quotes a value (without a source, as I write this) of >3,540 mg/kg in rats.

But… I did find another page quoting 13 mg/kg in mice. That’s quite dramatically different, and would make it extremely/highly toxic. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on the original source, so I haven’t been able to verify it’s not a transposition error.

Let’s assume it isn’t. It would be odd to have such a big difference between mice and rats. Things that poison mice tend to poison rats, too. There might be some confusion over pure azadirachtin vs. “neem extract” – it could be the case that the mixture of chemicals working together in neem create some sort of synergistic (toxic) effect – greater than the sum of all the individual substances. It could be an experimental error, including a contaminated neem sample, or something to do with the way the animals were exposed to the extract.

Neem soap is widely available online, but that may not be a good thing…

It’s difficult to say. Well, it’s difficult for me to say, because I don’t have access to all the primary sources. (Any toxicologists out there, please do feel free to weigh into the comments section!) But either way, as I’ve already mentioned, several case studies have fingered azadirachtin as one of the substances likely to be causing the well-reported nasty side effects.

If you’re asking this chemist? I say be careful with the stuff. If you decide to use it on your plants, keep it out of reach of children, and wear some good-quality disposable gloves while you’re handling it (I put some on after I took that photo back there). If you’re pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, the safest option is to not use it at all.

Which brings me to neem soap.

Yup. It’s sold as a “natural” treatment for skin conditions like acne. I won’t link to a specific brand, but it’s easy to find multiple retailers with a simple Google search. I looked at one selling soap bars for £6.99 a pop, containing 10% (certified organic, because of course) neem oil. Did I mention back there that neem is known to cause contact dermatitis? I’m fairly sure I did. None of the products I saw had obvious safety warnings, and I certainly found nothing about safety (or otherwise) for pregnant women.

Plus – worryingly, not least because children are more likely to get things in their mouth – you can also buy kids and babies versions, again purporting to contain 10% neem oil.

I even found neem toothpaste. Which… given people often swallow toothpaste… yikes.

My moth orchids are looking much healthier now I’ve got rid of all the scale bugs!

Now again, and for the umpteenth time, the dose makes the poison. The case studies I’ve mentioned involved, at a minimum, swallowing a teaspoon of pure neem oil, and you’re not getting that sort of quantity from smears of toothpaste. But, at the same time, when it comes to pregnancy and babies, it’s generally sensible to apply a precautionary principle, especially for things like soap and toothpaste for which alternatives with well-established safety profiles exist.

Bottom line? Would I use these products? I would not.

But I do use neem to treat the scale bugs on my orchids, and they’re doing much better than they were. Fingers crossed for more flowers!

Do you want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not take a look at my fiction blog: the fiction phial? You can also find me doing various flavours of editor-type-stuff at the horror podcast, – so head over there, too!

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Liquid calcium? Why words really matter in chemistry

dl-265_1zI happened to see an advert for Arm & Hammer toothpaste on TV a couple of days ago, in which they cheerfully proclaimed that it contained “liquid calcium”.


Calcium, on the left. With the metals.

This brought me up short.  First thing: calcium is a metal.  Now, as a famous British movie star might say (or perhaps might not say), “not many people know that”.  Ask a roomful of people if calcium is a metal and most of them will tell you it’s not.   I’ve even heard students who know what the periodic table is and what the position of elements within it means, and who can see calcium right there on the left hand side, express their doubts.  Everyone associates calcium with bones and teeth, possibly rocks at a push.  No one (other than chemists of course) hears ‘calcium’ and thinks of a silvery-grey metal.

But that is indeed what it is.  It is a metal, and although its melting point isn’t huge in the grand scheme of metals, it’s still a fairly substantial 842 oC.  The temperature in your bathroom is probably in the region of 20 oC.  In fact your kitchen oven probably only goes up to about 240 oC, so the melting point of calcium is some 600 oC hotter than the hottest setting on your oven.


Calcium and water: what you can’t see is how hot this sucker is going to get.

Temperature problems aside, pure calcium is also highly reactive.  Drop some in water and you’ll see a lot of violent bubbling followed by the solution turning white as a corrosive calcium hydroxide solution forms.  The bubbling is due to flammable, potentially explosive, hydrogen gas.  Oh, and it will get really, really hot too – this is what chemists call an exothermic reaction.  I for one will confess to once (many, many years ago, of course) dropping a red-hot boiling tube into which I’d popped just a little too much calcium metal.  After it had also bubbled up and covered my hand with the aforementioned calcium hydroxide.  Ooopsie.  (Fear not, my hand survived unscathed, after the application of copious amounts of cold water – the go-to cure for most chemical exposures).

So, at the risk of stating the obvious, there’s no liquid calcium in Arm & Hammer toothpaste.  And a jolly good thing too.

What is there?  At this point I should probably point out that Arm & Hammer are quite careful, in their literature and on their packaging, to always put a little ™ by “Liquid Calcium”.  A quick glance at their website clarifies that they’re talking something called “Liquid Calcium ™ Technology” which refers to an ingredient that contains “up to 8 times more calcium and phosphate ions than the amount found in saliva so it is able to replenish ion content in your mouth and subsequently re-mineralise and protect your teeth more efficiently.”

Ah, now we get to the truth of the matter.  It’s not liquid calcium, but calcium ions in solution.

Does this matter?  Am I being unnecessarily pedantic?  Liquid/solution, calcium metal/calcium ions, what’s the difference?


When an extra O really matters.

Well, the thing is, chemists are pedantic.  See, in chemistry, it genuinely could be a matter of life and death.  Ethanol, for example, is ‘drinking’ alcohol.  It’s the stuff in beer, and wine, and strawberry daiquiris.  It may not be exactly healthy, but most adults can consume some fairly safely.  Ethanal, on the other hand, is a toxic and probably carcinogenic substance that’s mainly used industrially as a starting point to make other chemicals.

To pick another example, chlorine is a highly toxic gas that’s been used in chemical warfare; chloride ions are found in salt and are consumed perfectly safely every day.  The difference between ions (atoms or molecules which have become charged due to the gain, or loss, of electrons) and atoms is really quite critical in chemistry, and in life in general.

potassium and water

Potassium reacting with water – pretty!

‘Everybody’ knows that bananas contain lots of potassium.  But potassium is another highly-reactive metal.  In fact it’s even more reactive than calcium.  Potassium explodes with a rather beautiful lilac flame in contact with water.  It’s pretty to watch, but you wouldn’t want it in your mouth.  Actually bananas contain potassium ions (and just to really mess with everything you thought you knew, not even that much compared to lots of other foods).

Back to the dubious labelling again, It’s interesting that Arm & Hammer have chosen to say “fluoride” – which specifically, and correctly, refers to fluoride ions – and not “liquid fluorine”.  I mean surely, in the spirit of consistency, it should be liquid fluorine and liquid calcium (argh!), or fluoride ions and calcium ions.

The word liquid has a specific meaning in chemistry.  It means a pure element or compound in its molten state.  Pure water at room temperature is a liquid.  So is ethanol, and mercury, and bromine (interestingly these last two are the only chemical elements which are liquids at room temperature).  Ethanol dissolved in water, as it is in strawberry daiquiris (more or less), isn’t a liquid.  It’s a solution.  This matters.  Liquid ethanol is pure ethanol.  Drink that and you’re looking serious alcohol poisoning in the face, and it’s about to wallop you for looking at it funny.


An Arm & Hammer chemist?

Saying, or even implying, that calcium ions in solution is ‘liquid calcium’ is like saying that seawater is liquid sodium (sodium is another highly reactive metal – orange flame this time).  It’s just nonsense.  Ok, it’s probably not going to cause anyone any actual harm, but that’s not the point.  It’s completely factually inaccurate.  I am absolutely certain that the chemists working for Arm & Hammer wanted to tear their hair out when the advertising company came up with this name for the formulation they’d spent (probably) years slaving over.  And I expect they were essentially told to shut up about it, the vast majority of our customers won’t know the difference.

And sadly this may be true.  But it shouldn’t be.  Would Arm & Hammer care if their boxes were labelled ‘tothpast’ instead of toothpaste?  I bet they’d be bothered if the boxes were priced at £250 instead of £2.50.  Why fuss over spelling and numbers but be careless over scientific literacy?  Either precision matters or it doesn’t.

Perhaps it’s time scientists starting making as much noise about this kind of thing as people who complain about stray apostrophes or the misuse of the word disinterest.  You never know, it might help levels of scientific understanding.

Mind you, perhaps the author of a blog called The Chronicle Flask shouldn’t throw stones…


After I wrote this post I tweeted something referring to “liquid phosphorous”.  It was pointed out to me, quite rightly, that I meant “liquid phosphorus”.  Phosphorus is the noun – the name of the chemical element – and phosphorous is an adjective.  As in, “phosphorous fertiliser”.  I confess I was a bit hazy on that one until made to check, which is ironic really. Consider me sent to the back of the class 😉