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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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

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: microbeworld.org)

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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Are you ok? You look a little flushed.

PrintYesterday was World Toilet Day (yes, really). This is actually an admirable campaign by WaterAid to raise awareness of the fact that one in three people around the world don’t have access to a safe and private toilet. This, of course, leads to unsanitary conditions which results in the spread of infection and disease. You’ve probably never given it a second thought, but loos literally save lives.


Has the TARDIS’ replicator function gone funny?

So, with the topic of toilets in mind, I started thinking about chemical loos. If you live in the UK, the name Portaloo ® will probably spring to mind. This has practically become a generic word for a portable toilet, but it is (like Hoover, Sellotape and others) actually a brand name. I’m told that in America they call them porta-pottys or honey-buckets, which I rather like. In any case, all the chemicals and plastic make them seem like modern inventions, surely?

Actually, not at all. The idea of a self-contained, moveable toilet that you can pick up and take from place to place may be newer, but people have been using chemical toilets for hundreds of years. For example after, ahem, ‘business’ had been completed in an an old-fashioned wooden outhouse – basically a tall box built over a hole in the ground – the user would sprinkle a little lye or lime down the hole to help with the smell.


Don’t get sodium hydroxide on the toilet seat.

Both of these are strongly basic chemicals. Lye is either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, and lime is calcium oxide. Both mix with water to form extremely corrosive, alkaline solutions and, incidentally, give out a lot of heat in the process. Both are very damaging to skin. These were the days before health and safety; whatever you did, you had to try not to spill it on the seat.

Urea, a key chemical in urine, reacts with strong alkalis in a process known as alkaline hydrolysis. This produces ammonia, which is pretty stinky (if rather tough on the lungs), so if nothing else that helped to cover up other smells. Ammonia also kills some types of bacteria (which is one reason it’s popular in cleaning products). Flies generally don’t like high concentrations of it either, so that’s another plus.

Alkalis also have another effect in that decomposition of human waste is pH dependent; it works better in acidic conditions. Adding lye or lime raises the pH and slows down this decomposition. On top of this (literally) both lime and lye are hygroscopic: they absorb water. This keeps moisture down and allows a solid ‘crust’ to form on the surface of the waste, making it difficult for any volatile, smelly chemicals to escape. Lovely.

Bleach and ammonia could result in a rocket up your...

Bleach and ammonia could result in a rocket up your…

One word of caution: it’s very, very important you don’t try to clean such an outhouse with any kind of bleach. Bleach, which contains sodium hypochlorite, reacts with ammonia to form hydrogen chloride, chlorine gas and chloramine. None of which are good for your health. Even more dramatically (if this is more dramatic than death – you decide) if there’s lots of ammonia you might get liquid hydrazine, which is used in rocket fuels because it’s explosive. Who knew that toilet chemistry could also be rocket science?

But you don’t find buckets of lye in modern chemical toilets (although, apparently, there are still some people out there using it). So what’s in there? At one time, formaldehyde, otherwise known as methanal, was common. You probably recognise it as embalming fluid; the stuff that Damien Hirst floated that shark in. It’s an extremely effective preservative. Firstly, it kills most bacteria and fungi and destroys viruses, and secondly it causes primary amino groups in proteins to cross-link with other nearby nitrogen atoms, denaturing the proteins and preventing them from breaking down.


Don’t worry, this won’t appear in your chemical toilet.

Interestingly, whilst definitely toxic in high concentrations, formaldehyde is a naturally-occuring chemical. It’s found in the bloodstream of animals, including humans, because it’s involved in normal metabolism. It also appears in fruits and vegetables, notably pears, grapes and shiitake mushrooms. The dose, as they say, makes the poison. I mention this because there are certain campaigners out there who insist it must be completely eliminated from everything, something which is entirely unecessary not to mention probably impossible (just for the hell of it, I’m also going to point out here that an average pear contains considerably more formaldehyde than a dose of vaccine).

All that said, because formaldehyde is extremely toxic in high concentrations, and because it can interfere with the breakdown processes in sewage plants (because it destroys bacteria), formaldehyde isn’t used in toilets so much anymore. In fact, many of the mixtures on sale are explicitly labelled “formaldehyde-free”. Modern formulations are enzyme-based and break down waste by biological activity. They are usually still dyed blue (if you work your way though the colour spectrum, it’s probably the least offensive colour), but usually using food-grade dye. As a result, what’s left afterwards is classed as sewage rather than chemical waste, making it easier to deal with.

Toilet twinning So, this has been brief tour around the fascinating world of toilet chemistry. You’d never have guessed there was so much to it, would you? Now, have you considered twinning your toilet?

Please don’t eat apricot kernels


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.


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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Realgar: don’t drink the AsS wine

I was planning a lesson on empirical formulas recently and, bored with the usual well-worn examples (hydrogen peroxide, ethene, ethanoic acid, yawn), went hunting for some unusual chemicals. So it was that I came across a substance with the molecular formula As4S4, which appealed to my immature side since – fellow chemists will be ahead of me here – it has the empirical formula of AsS. Heh.

Realgar crystals

Realgar crystals

Anyway, turns out this stuff is interesting for more than just spelling a word that means bottom in American English. This particular form of arsenic sulfide is more commonly known as realgar, and for starters it’s very pretty: check out those lovely red crystals. In fact its other names are ‘ruby sulfur’ and ‘ruby of arsenic’.

It often turns up in the vicinity of other mineral deposits, such as lead, silver and gold ores, and has a long list of uses. It’s a source of arsenic, which is used to make gallium arsenide (formula GaAs – not quite as good, but credit for trying), an important semiconductor used in the production of integrated circuits, solar cells, and other electronics-y stuff.

Perhaps more interestingly, realgar used to be used by firework manufacturers to produce, somewhat counterintuitively, the colour white. It’s still used to make a contact explosive (who doesn’t love substances that spontaneously explode when touched?) At least, so says Wikipedia and numerous other pages that appear to have copied Wikipedia. I actually can’t find any more information on the chemistry of this particular substance – named as ‘red explosive’ – and if anyone knows I’d love to hear more.

What else? The Romans considered realgar valuable and used to trade it for use as a red paint pigment and in medicines. Which is ironic since, as a source of arsenic, it’s toxic and carcinogenic. Medieval Spaniards used it to kill rats, as did 16th century Brits. The Chinese call it xionghuang 雄黃, which translates to ‘masculine yellow’ (the related mineral orpiment, As2S3, is called cihuang 雌黃, or ‘feminine yellow’*) and used to use it as a handy insect- and snake-repellent. It turns up in traditional Chinese medicine, which isn’t particularly reassuring. Specifically, realgar is often added to treatments to reduce fever, inflammation, treat ulcers and calm skin conditions. Beware.

Realgar wine

It’s also mixed with rice wine to make something called ‘realgar wine’ which is, rather alarmingly, still consumed during Duanwu Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, to ward off evil. And it’s not just adults: children’s foreheads and limbs are also traditionally painted with the stuff. Yikes. Apparently this practice started because Duanwu falls just before midsummer, and the hot weather used to precipitate the rampant spread of various diseases. Realgar was believed to be a universal antidote to poisons, and was great at warding off insects and other bothersome creatures: why not disease as well? It would appear that the use of realgar has declined somewhat, now that people have a better idea of the potential dangers. I hunted around and couldn’t find realgar wine explicitly available for sale anywhere, although it’s not difficult to find realgar itself. Be careful: even a one-off exposure can cause kidney failure.

So there we go: that stuff with the empirical formula AsS that’s traditionally used to ward off disease turns out to do the exact opposite, and cause illness. Still, the red crystals are very pretty. And if you do know anything about ‘red explosive’, please comment!


* Err, I hope. I’ve copy-pasted those symbols. Apologies if they actually say purple tadpole penis or something.

Bronze, humbugs, wallpaper and electronics: what’s your favourite element?

As a chemistry teacher I’m sometimes asked for my favourite element. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t really have a single favourite. That would be a terribly boring answer though, so I usually pick something to make a relevant point. Carbon, for example, for being the stuff of life, for having a whole third of chemistry – organic chemistry – devoted to its compounds, and because diamonds are fascinating and really very pretty things. Or sometimes I go for xenon, for being a noble gas, for its potential use as an anaesthetic, and just because its name starts with an X (have a go at this: name five words that start with X without googling*).

And then, if I think we’ve got time for a story, I might go for the famous and much-maligned element number 33: arsenic (As).  After all, if it weren’t one of the world’s most famous poisons you’d have to love it just for having the word ‘arse’ in its name.

arsenic poison bottle

So, a little background. It’s the 20th most common element in the Earth’s crust, and is actually one of the oldest known elements. It was officially first documented around 1250 by a Dominican friar called Alvertus Magnus but it’s been used for more than 3000 years, going back as far as the bronze age when it was added to bronze to make it harder. It’s a metalloid, which means it’s neither quite metal nor non-metal, and these days its most important use is in the electronics industry.

There are many, many interesting stories associated with arsenic. One of my personal favourites, if that’s the right word, is the story of the Bradford Sweets Poisoning. Back in 1858 a Bradford confectioner known as ‘Humbug Billy’ was buying his mint humbugs from another local character called Joeseph Neal. At the time, sugar was expensive so Neal was in the habit of cutting it with something called ‘daft’, a mysterious substance that could contain anything from limestone to plaster of Paris. Neal sent his lodger to the local pharmacy to collect the daft. The druggist was ill, and somehow or other his assistant managed to sell Neal’s lodger 12 pounds of arsenic trioxide (you might imagine this was an expensive error, but arsenic was actually surprisingly cheap: half an ounce cost about the same as a cup of tea).

The mistake went undetected, despite the sweetmaker who worked for Neal suffering symptoms of illness during the sweet-making process, and despite the resulting humbugs looking so different from normal that Humbug Billy managed to buy them from Neal at a discount. Humbug Billy himself promptly became ill after eating the sweets, but nevertheless still sold 5 pounds of them from his market stall that day. Subsequently about 20 people died and a further 200 became ill. To start with the deaths were blamed on cholera, common at the time, but soon they were traced to the sweet stall. Later analysis showed that each humbug contained enough arsenic to kill two people.

This tragic tale led to The Pharmacy Act 1868 and the requirement for proper record keeping by pharmacists. Ultimately it also led to legislation preventing the adulteration of foodstuffs, such as for example, oh I don’t know, sneaking horse into something labelled beef.

Historically arsenic was also used in dyes and pigments, perhaps most famously Scheele’s Green – also known as copper arsenite and invented by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775 – produced a wonderful green colour that was used to dye wallpaper, fabrics, added to paints, children’s toys and even sweets. Many poisonings in Victorian times were linked to toxic home furnishings and clothing. In fact, this probably explains the superstition that green is an unlucky colour, especially for children’s furnishings and clothes. Arsenic poisoning being very unlucky indeed. Next time you’re near a baby store, have a look: even today (arsenic pigments now long defunct, thank goodness) you still don’t see that many green things.

One of the most famous people to die from arsenic poisoning was probably Napoleon. Originally thought to have been deliberately poisoned, analysis of his hair samples in 2008 demonstrated that his exposure had been long-term rather than sudden, and was probably due to the lovely green wallpaper and paint decorating the room in which he’d been confined.

Then there’s George III, the famously ‘mad King George’. His episodes of madness and physical symptoms were linked to the disease porphyria, and 2004 studies of samples of his hair also found very high levels of arsenic which may well have triggered his symptoms. Ironically, he may have been exposed to arsenic as part of his medical treatment.

In fact historically arsenic was used to treat many medical complaints. It’s even been used as an aphrodisiac, thanks to the fact that small doses stimulate blood flow. In 1851 it was reported that peasants in Styria, a remote region in Austria, were in the habit of swallowing solid lumps of the stuff that, fortunately, passed through their digestive system relatively intact. However they absorbed just enough to given the women a rosy glow and the men an increased libido – resulting in something of a population boom. Upon hearing about this British manufacturers immediately began selling arsenic-containing beauty products, including soap and skin treatments, with predictably tragic results.

Thanks to its toxicity arsenic is used in pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, although these uses are gradually being phased out. Despite being notoriously poisonous to most organisms, there are interestingly some species of bacteria whose metabolism relies on arsenic. Arsenic turns up naturally in groundwater and is absorbed by plants such as rice, as well turning up, in the form of arsenobetaine, in mushrooms and fish. Don’t worry though, this particular arsenic compound is virtually non-toxic.

Today gallium arsenide, with the brilliant chemical formula GaAs, is one of biggest uses of arsenic. It’s a semiconductor, used in the manufacture of many electronic devices, including solar cells. Its electronic properties are, in some ways, superior to silicon so despite its inherent dangers its important stuff.

So it definitely has one of the most fascinating histories of any of the elements, and I’ve only mentioned a tiny number of the many, many arsenic-related stories out there.  From the bronze age to the computer age, arsenic has been with us, both friend and foe, and will be with us for a lot longer yet.

So, what’s your favourite element? Tell me and maybe I’ll write about it in a future post!


* betcha said xenon (of course), xylophone, xi and xu if you play Scrabble, x-ray and maybe xylem. Am I right?