Bedtime Scoop and Easy Lay

In the spring of last year, a 21-year-old college student from Wisconsin named Julia Sumnicht decided that she needed to thaw out after a Midwestern winter. She flew to Miami, Florida, dreaming, I imagine, like so many of her peers, of sun and sand and drinks all the colors of confetti. But not for long.

Sumnicht died in Miami of an overdose of GHB, the shorthand name for gamma-hydroxybutyric acid.  There are plenty of other names for GHB, ugly ones like Bedtime Scoop, Easy Lay, Grievous Bodily Harm.  Because GHB - colorless, odorless, slightly salty but easily disguised by a fruity cocktail, a potent sedative with memory-damaging side effects – is one of today’s more popular date rape drugs.

According to an analysis done through the non-profit Project GHB, more than 20 people (mostly male) were killed every year between 1995 and 2005 by GHB overdoses. The researchers suggested, however, that their findings underestimated the problem because at many smaller hospitals the routine toxicology screen is not designed to detect the compound. At least it wasn’t back then.

Today, medical examiners are giving GHB and its ilk (Rohypnol, Lorazepam, Ketamine) more poisoning priority because, as a newly released national study warns, the practice of mixing date-rape drugs into drinks seems to be on rise in the United States. In the single year of 2009, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 14,720 emergency room visits resulted from intentional poisonings and many resulted, apparently, from evenings at bars, clubs and parties.

“Approximately three in five (60 percent) drug-related ED visits attributed to intentional poisoning involved alcohol in combination with other drugs ,” the report notes. In other words, the classic date-rape drug scenario, the drug slipped into that sweet-colored drink.  Or as SAMSHA administrator Peter Delany told CBS News:   “These are people that are being given drugs that they don’t know about.”

The report is the first such survey of intentional poisoning related emergency room visits from the Rockville, Maryland based agency. But unpublished data from the previous year, 2008, clocked only 7,609 such emergency room visits. The sharp increase suggests radically  improved reporting measures, a rather alarming upward trend in criminal behavior, or most probably, a combination of these and other factors. A few more years of such reports are likely to give us a more accurate – and possibly even more depressing -  picture of the problem.

But if you don’t hear the siren-loud “beware” message already blaring from the SAMSHA report then you weren’t really listening.  Setting aside the body count for a minute, by some accounts, GHB and other such “club drugs” are linked to some 3 million rapes over the last few decades. And this isn’t just about fun-and-sun spring breaks. In September, I gave a talk at the University of Oklahoma. Even at that middle of the country campus, on a cloudy fall day,  students were talking about the use of the sedative Lorazepam as a date-rate drug.

The beware message is all about level-headed common sense. Don’t take drinks from strangers. Don’t leave your drink unwatched on a table. Don’t be a target. Easy to say, I know, from the tidy safety of a government agency office. Hard to remember in the buzz of a really good party, the blur of yet another round of drinks all the colors of confetti.

But try, okay? Think of the warning message as simply as this: come home safe tonight.

As

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Remembering Christina

Christina Scott, courtesy South African Science Journalists Association

Some half-dozen or so years ago, a friend volunteered me to  work with the World Federation of Science Journalists. I had just stepped down as president of the National Association of Science Writers (USA) and I took on the responsibility with a slight feeling of resentment.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d been an idiot. That it wasn’t only that I was working with science journalists from Africa and Asia, Europe and Latin America but that I was learning from them. I learned how much I’d taken for granted in terms of resources and access to information in my own country. I was reminded of  how much one  journalist could accomplish with a threadbare budget, a shared office computer, and a passion to make a difference.

No one could get that point across better than Christina Scott, the managing editor of Research Africa,  one of South Africa’s most influential science journalists, who once illustrated it by walking onto a darkened conference stage holding up the faint glow of a cigarette lighter and reminding the audience that in the corners of Africa, some journalists did their jobs with no more than a spark of light or power in the room. And still did great work.

Christina was  49 years old when she died in an automobile accident just over a week ago.  She was, typically, helping someone else at the time, teaching an intern how to drive, in the wrong place when the young woman  lost control of the car. It was so sad for everyone concerned and it was such a shock.

You know those sparklers that children play with on July 4 and other firecracker holidays? Tiny wands of fizzing light? Christina was just like that – energy and sizzle, humor and glow. She liked people and her first instinct was to help them. She was, in fact, the kind of person that you could hope would light things up for a very long time. You can get a sense of that on the Remembering Christina Facebook page established by the South African Science Journalists Association.

Among the things posted there are a series of tips she wrote for SciDev, the science news service for developing countries. They’re tips to help scientists better communicate with journalists. And they’re Christina to a perfect fit in their dancing humor and lovely use of language. But they’re also thought-provoking and smart. Which is, I think, another wonderful way to remember Christina:


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A Colorful Little Tale of Halloween Poison

I grew up on a dead-end street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where remnants of swampy forest surrounded the old wood-frame homes. Live oaks lined the streets. Spanish moss dripped from their branches.  Snakes coiled under the ancient azaleas that edged the yards.

It was, in fact, the perfect setting for a haunted Halloween night. And there was this one house, you know, where the yard was so dense with bush and tree that it could barely be seen through its thicket of shadow. To trick-or-treat, you walked up the dark sidewalk toward a faint glow on the front porch, just the one lit window. The air hummed with passing insects and the porch creaked like Dracula’s coffin under your feet, the slow, dry eek of old wood.

Reader, you had to beware on Halloween night. Just a block over lived a maniacal dentist who liked to dress up like a werewolf on October 31 and fill his front hall with clouds of drifting fog created by dropping dry ice (super-chilled chunks of carbon dioxide) into water. Bwa-ha-ha, he would chortle as he opened the door, as the chilly wisps of fog drifted out around him.

But this silent house, dressed in darkness, was so much scarier. We children would gather in front of the gate, unable to walk alone through those prowling shadows.  The crowd would form on the sidewalk: tiny pillowcase ghosts and jeweled princesses, small pirates and glittery fairies. When someone decided we’d achieved a safe number, we’d start edging toward the green door at the top of the porch steps. Whispering about what the old man who lived there would hand out – what dangerous treats might wait for us there.


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A (slightly belated) science blog celebration

About a year ago, in this very blog, I wrote a response to a journal editor’s complaint about science bloggers. My post was both a defense of science blogging and a critique of long-standing scientific reluctance to engage with the public.

This year, my post, “The Trouble with Scientists”, was selected for the anthology, Best American Science Writing 2011, edited by Rebecca Skloot (author of the terrific best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and her father,  Floyd Skloot, another acclaimed writer.

This isn’t exactly news. The anthology was published in September. And yet is is news – or at least news that should be celebrated, because this was the first edition of that anthology to include blog posts, not only from me but from Ed Yong, of Not Exactly Rocket Science, and Carl Zimmer, of The Loom.*

And that probably makes the point as well as my original defense of science blogging. But in celebration, and in case you missed it, here’s my post that made the anthology:

The Trouble with Scientists

When I first started in journalism I worked as a general assignment reporter. After a few years, I decided to become a science journalist. I thought it made sense, to focus on a subject that fascinated me rather than continue to rattle around assorted news beats. But I still remember the look of frozen horror on my father’s face when I announced the decision.

As you may deduce, my father is a scientist. He received his PhD in 1955 from the University of Illinois, where in addition to studying entomology he learned the essential lesson that “real” scientists shared their work only with each other and did not attempt to become “popularizers” because that would lead to “dumbing down” the research.

He emerged from paralysis to say: “I hope you’re not planning to interview my friends.” A science historian at the California Institute of Technology once told me that this disdain is rooted in the way we teach science. In particular, he said, K-12 science classes in the United States are essentially designed as a filtration system, separating whose fit for what he called “the priesthood of science” from the unfit rest of us.

“Why would I want to interview boring old entomologists?” I naturally replied. This conversation was in my parents’ living room (father in armchair, daughter pacing) but variations on this theme occur any time, any place. Scientists won’t talk to journalists; they don’t want to waste their time “dumbing it down”; they don’t see it as “making us smarter.” So many of the good stories in science don’t get covered at all. Or the stories get covered only for an already science-literate audience – explored in publications like Discover or Science News – rather than for that far larger group, the science disenfranchised.

Last week’s editorial by Royce Murray, the editor of Analytical Chemistry, “Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor” brought home the point that while the medium may change, the dilemma remains the same. My PLoS colleague David Kroll, has done a brilliant job of blogger defense, pointing out that many are scientists (like Kroll himself) or award-winning science writers, emphasizing the rise of smart science blog networks. He demonstrates perfectly that Royce’s broadbrush declaration “the current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists” shows that the editor failed to do his homework.

My first reaction to Murray’s piece was to wonder if he belonged to my father’s generation of scientists-who-hate-to-share. Sure enough, he received his PhD in 1960, reinforcing my feeling we’ll really move forward in improving public understanding of science when we approach it through Kroll’s kind of 21st century mindset.

For one thing, one of Kroll’s remedies is to suggest that more scientists became bloggers – yes, public communicators of science – themselves. I’ve always thought that my own profession of science journalism grew to fill the void created by scientists who couldn’t be bothered to “dumb down” their work. Since the mid-1950s, the National Association of Science Writers (and, yes, I’m a past-president so I like to mention it) has grown from several hundred members to nearly 3,000. At the same time, science journalism programs have sprung up at universities from UC-Berkeley to New York University.

Science writers, journalists, broadcasters and bloggers became the voice of science during a time during which too many scientists simply refused to engage. Scientists have ceded that position of power amazingly readily; ask yourselves how many research associations offer awards to journalists for communicating about science but none to their own members for doing the same. Ask yourself how the culture of science responds even today to researchers who become popular authors or bloggers, public figures. Whether young scientists are rewarding for spending time on public communication? And ask yourself how hypocritical this is, to complain that the general public doesn’t understand science while refusing to participate in changing that problem?

As it turns out, the culture of the “real” scientist who exists somehow separate from the rest of us has not been a boon for public understanding or appreciation of science. So let me make a case that it’s not too late for Prof. Murray and those who think like him to approach science communication differently. It doesn’t hurt to remember that we in the science-literate section of the bleachers aren’t the only ones who matter here. He writes that he’s worried about the anti-science voices on the Internet; the best way to counter is probably not through an inner circle editorial in Analytical Chemistry.

To end on a happy note, my father decided that he wouldn’t disown me after all, that having a science journalist daughter wasn’t quite as embarrassing as he’d anticipated. He started calling his friends to make sure they would talk to me. He went on the Today show and persuaded former host Bryant Gumbel to eat beetles on the air. Of course, he once gave an interview to the National Enquirer, under the impression that it was the National Observer. But as I keep telling him, he should congratulate himself on reaching a new audience.

* Carl Zimmer wrote (you’ll see it in comments) to remind me that his anthology piece was a magazine article. Just me anticipating – The Loom is fantastic.

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The Poisoner’s Calender (No. 2)

DENVER, Colorado – October 10, 2011 – An 80-year-old woman was hospitalized Sunday after carbon monoxide seeped into her home from an old heater. Levels of the gas were so high  that firefighters had to wear protective breathing gear to rescue her.

So I know this makes me sound a little twisted – and I have noticed that some people do tend to sidle away at parties – but for almost two years now, I’ve been tracking Google alerts on the subject of poison and poisoning. It’s a habit that began when my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, was published in 2010. As that story took place mostly in the 1920s, I found myself wondering about today – about the chemical web that we continue to navigate, about the poisons that we continue to use (and sometimes abuse). About how far we’d come, I suppose, in the 70-odd years since the the first forensic medicine program was established in the United States in 1934.

FRISCO, Texas – October 9, 2011 -  Fifteen people  from this small town north of Dallas were sent to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning Saturday after the gas seeped into a hair salon from a loose heater vent. Most of those sickened were high school girls visiting the salon to get ready for a Prom night dance.

We don’t poison in the free-handed manner of the early 20th century – thankfully. We’ve moved on from the days of confident poison killers, sure they wouldn’t get caught. We no longer have major American cities warning that “skillful poisoners can operate almost with impunity”, as New York City’s commissioner of accounts did in the winter of 1915. That doesn’t mean that we’ve left the age of homicidal poisoners entirely behind.

COAL TOWNSHIP, Pa – October 4, 2011 -  An elderly couple and their 43-year-old daughter were found dead in their apartment after co-workers began to worry when the younger woman failed to show up for work. Police said all three were killed by carbon monoxide seeping into their home from a faulty gas heater.

This week, for instance, a South African woman was arrested for killing her three-month-old  daughter by mixing a pesticide into her cereal. Last week, a New York state man tried to kill both himself and his daughter with ammonium chloride, a toxic compound found in household fire-extinguishers. Last month, a Utah woman was charged with trying to kill a former roommate by stirring antifreeze (which contains the poison, ethylene glycol) into a fruit smoothie. We haven’t entirely left behind our poison paranoia either. In August, a San Diego man stabbed his wife after deciding that she was trying to poison him, slashing his daughter and son-in-law as they rushed to the mother’s defense.

CAPE CORAL, Fla – September  27, 2011 – A 76-six-year old woman died and her husband was hospitalized due to carbon monoxide poisoning, after she left the car running in the garage after she returned from some late evening errands.

More often than we poison each other, though, we poison each other’s pets.  Cats. More cats. More cats. Oh, and more cats, although these just represent a scatter of the cases that jam my mailbox. Not to mention dogs.  More dogs. Way too many dogs. Not to mention wild birds, wild elephants, lions,  horses…I keep promising myself I’ll do a full post on this subject and but reading the stories always leads to the moment when I’m out the door and walking off a clouding case of depression.

CLEMENTS, California – September 20, 2011 – A grandfather and his 14-year-old granddaughter were found dead in their horse-trailer-camper this weekend, both killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Rescuers said they had been cooking inside on a charcoal grill.

I don’t mean to give you the impression that all poisonings are homicidal or deliberate. Most are accidental – an encounter with the wrong container, a malfunctioning piece of equipment, a genuine mistake. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, the accidental poisoning of children by prescription drugs rose 22 percent between 2001 and 2008. We use more of them is all; there’s more opportunities for kids to pick up a container from a bedroom dresser or kitchen counter.

We worry so much about exotic chemical exposures that I can get 44 million hits on Google if I type in the phrase “chemical free”, leading me down the path where dwells such improbable ideas as a “chemical-free bug repellent” or a “mattress that is free of chemicals” (although, um, containing latex among other materials.)  I mention this in case you feel the need here for some comic relief.

But my point is that we far too often dwell on the risks that aren’t and are careless with the risks that are.  What do we make of two teenage boys who are poisoned by anti-freeze because a family member had stored some left-over amount in a whiskey bottle? But as you may have already guessed, my real focus here is on the most routinely lethal poison in our lives.

CLARKESVILLE, Tenn. – September 19, 2011 – Five bikers at a charity event for needy children died when carbon monoxide seeped from a faulty heater into their rented camper during the night.  They were found dead in the morning by other friends gathered for the Bikers Who Care festival.

You’ll notice by the title of this post that is the second Poisoner’s Calendar post to appear on Speakeasy Science; the first appeared last fall. You’ll also find that they have a remarkably – okay – identical structure. That’s because of all the poisonous tales that come my way, carbon monoxide remains the perpetual murderous star of the story.  The U.S. government estimates that it kills about 500 people in this country annually and puts at least another 15,000 or so into the hospital. We’re hardly alone; a report released this week in the United Kingdom found a tripling of carbon monoxide related deaths over the last year.

I’ve picked a few random examples of carbon monoxide poisoings from the last few weeks, at the moment they seep in at about one or so a day. But that will change for worse as predictably as the weather chills. In winter, leaky furnaces and aging generators and the way snow seals off ventilation in houses combine to push the numbers up. Already you can find stories out there, with headlines like “Cold Weather Serves a Reminder to Check Gas-Fire Appliances.” Or at least install a carbon monoxide detector or two (above your head, by the way. Carbon monoxide is light. It rises to the ceiling, fills a room from the top down.)

And if such standard reminders don’t work, try this one:

MIAMI, Fla – January 8, 2011 – Services were held today for five teens killed when the poisonous gas carbon monoxide seeped into their hotel room, drifting from a car left running in the unit garage.

Don’t make me write this again next year.

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So, 268 chocolate chip cookies later…

Credit: verybestbaking.com

1 cup butter flavored shortening OR maybe 1 cup of butter. Or maybe, I’m thinking,  one cup of each. Yeah, that would work.

Wow, that’s a lot of fat,” a friend says to me after I confess to a baking marathon that featured one-and-half pounds of butter and one pound of butter-flavored Crisco.

“Well, the Crisco was trans-fat free,” I retort snappily. Although how snappy can one be after spending three straight weekends in front of a cookie-packed oven? “And it was all in the interests of science.”

She just looks at me. “Yeah, right,” is written all over her face. I can read it clearly – it’s written in capital letters.

Obviously, she doesn’t appreciate chemistry at its finest.

3/4 cup white sugar and 3/4 cup brown sugar. Doubled, of course, so that the same amount of sugar goes into the butter recipe and the trans-fat free Crisco recipe.

In late August, I was part of a panel about communicating chemistry at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver.  I represented the poison part of the program.  Popular Science columnist Theodore Gray showed videos of his Mad Science experiments, as an example, the flaming bacon lance, and don’t miss the upcoming one in which he sets a tree on fire while trying to deep fry a turkey.  McGill University’s Joe Schwartz gave a rapid-fire tour of everyday chemistry questions – can copper bracelets treat arthritis? why can’t you use fresh pineapple to make Jell-O? – the answers to which can be found here.  There were ten of us, in all, including the session organization, ACS President-elect Bassam Shakashiri, who is so passionate about public engagement with chemistry that his website is actually titled Science Is Fun.

The last speaker was biochemist, food scientist, and cookbook author Shirley Corriher. And as you’ve probably already guessed, she talked about chocolate chip cookies. If you listen to her here, on an earlier NPR interview on the same subject, you’ll catch that same fizz of enthusiasm that sent me home, inspired to bake.

2 eggs (for each recipe). In my kitchen, these are the cage-free, humane-certified, yes, I  like chickens, kind of  eggs. Just to let you know.

And I’d been thinking about the mystery of the cookie for a while anyway. My late Kentucky grandmother made the best chocolate chip cookies known to humankind (yes, even better than your grandmother) and I’d never been able to recreate them. She claimed she just followed the recipe on the Toll House bag but I just knew there was some grandmotherly magic that she hadn’t shared.

Two teaspoons vanilla extract.

And Corriher raised three points that I thought it would be fun to explore as a kitchen chemist:

1) The chemistry of butter gives it a lower melting point than shortening. That means that cookies made with butter spread out more rapidly. They’re flatter and crisper. “If you want soft, fluffy cookies,” she said, “then you want to try shortening.”  I was on that one.

2) The amount of protein in flour affects the texture of the cookie. And all wheat flours contain protein.  When exposed to moisture and heat, the proteins break down to form a protein-composite called gluten. The more gluten the more elasticity and strength you’ll find in the dough. So if you want a chewier cookie, you want a higher protein flour. For delicate and crumbly, a lower protein flour. As a general rule, cake flours contain about 8 percent protein and all-purpose flours between 10 and 12 percent.

3) A chocolate chip cookie recipe has very little liquid in it. What’s there comes from the eggs, the water in butter or shortening, and the vanilla. So the longer the dough is left to sit, the more the liquids absorb into the flour and sugars. The dough is drier as the liquid soaks up, easier to handle, and – both chemists and professional bakers tell us - the flavors absorb more richly as well. In that earlier NPR interview, Corriher recommended up to 36 hours after mixing the dough before baking. Talking to me  – and I suspect recognizing that I wasn’t nearly patient enough to wait that long -  she suggested 24 hours instead.

2 1/4 cups flour (at Corriher’s recommendation I used a bread flour which is in the medium range of protein content)

Credit: babblebacon.com

I set up my experiment as follows:

Every Saturday morning for three weekends in a row, I made two batches of chocolate chip cookies. One was made with butter, one with butter-flavored shortening. I split each batch in two.  I baked half of the dough immediately, saved the other half in the refrigerator, baked it the next day.

1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt

And here’s where I discovered the natural limits of the home experiment. I needed a polished test kitchen surrounded by chemists with measuring cups. Instead, I had a 17-year-old son who hated dark chocolate (milk chocolate chips, Mom!) and a husband who couldn’t believe I’d consider anything but dark chocolate. (“Don’t you think they’re better with that contrast to bitter chocolate?” And back to the son (“Mom! Don’t listen to Dad!”)

Two cups of milk chocolate chips.

My son hates nuts. My husband prefers them in his cookies. They’re in my test kitchen discussing the merits of the additives. I burn a batch. Just a little. My husband likes his cookies extra crispy. My son likes them on the still doughy side. I agree to leave out the nuts since I’ve ruined this batch of cookies for the teenage control group.

The debate continues. I continue baking cookies. The butter version goes into the red tin. The Crisco version into the blue – a completely scientific separation. Although not for long. As I said, I have a 17-year-old son. I was only grateful that he didn’t inhale the dough in his spare time.

But here’s the other problem with home test kitchen. The cook has a hidden agenda, that of recreating her grandmother’s cookies. And about 100 or so cookies into the experiment, she realizes that these are too sweet. The overnighting of the dough does create more uniformly golden batches, yeah. But they’re too sweet, too white sugary, too lacking in the faint tinge of caramel that colors my memory.

So I try:

1 cup brown sugar,  1/2 cup white sugar.

And then I try:

1 1/2 cups brown sugar.

And in the butter version of these cookies that last one comes pretty damn close.

I’m not sure I’ve discovered either the science or the art – and it’s both, as any cook knows -  of a perfect chocolate chip cookie. But chemistry of a childhood memory?  I stand by the oven, breathing the buttery chocolate air of my childhood summers.

As I said, chemistry at its finest.

Final Recipe

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups milk chocolate chips

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating with each addition, then stir in the vanilla .Combine flour, baking soda and salt; gradually stir into the creamed mixture. Finally, fold in the chocolate chips. Drop by spoonfuls onto cookie sheets.
  3. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Remove cookies from hot sheets and allow to cool on a rack or board.
Category: chemistry, science communication, Speakeasy Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Dr. Oz and the Arsenic Thing

Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t watch Dr. Mehmet Oz on television.

I did see a show the year before last while I was keeping an older relative company. I can’t tell you what it was about, though, because we weren’t that long into it before my relative suggested that  that I take myself, my twitches, and my sarcastic mumbling to another part of the house.

Consider this a full disclosure of attitude toward Dr. Oz. Consider it also an explanation of why I didn’t see his show last week on the (alleged) dangers of arsenic in apple juice. It was impossible to miss, of course,  the backwash of the critical reaction that followed, my  favorite being Steve Salzberg’s wickedly smart take, “Dr. Oz Tries to be A Scientist” in Forbes. I also enjoyed Pharyngula’s tale of the FDA’s unsuccessful efforts to educate Dr. Oz about arsenic prior to his show. The theme of  the news coverage throughout was, let’s say, unsympathetic.

The primary criticism was that for a man with a medical degree, Dr. Oz didn’t seem to know very much about arsenic. The FDA – rather testily, actually – had pointed out to him that he was testing for total arsenic load. Their objective was that this overstates risk by combining levels of  both inorganic (bad, bad) and organic (not so very bad) arsenical compounds.

On average, inorganic arsenic is considered about 500 times more poisonous that organic arsenic. So a high test number that combined the two but was mostly organic would actually indicate less risk than a lower number that involved more inorganic arsenic.  Unfortunately – for Dr. Oz and his viewers – he either didn’t get this or considered it too complicated for the audience.

As Salzberg pointed out, those combined totals weren’t necessarily reliable anyway. Dr. Oz didn’t follow the standard test practice of sending his samples to multiple labs. Instead he relied on one testing facility. When the FDA sent juice samples from the same lots to other laboratories, the arsenic levels were a fraction of what Dr. Oz reported. All of which leads us to the essential criticism here, that Dr. Oz  sensationalized a non-problem and by doing so irresponsibly frightened consumers of apple juice.

In a cranky, reluctant way, if you’re me, you have to kind of admire the way Dr. Oz responded to this concerted hiss of dismay. He continued to maintain that  arsenic exposure should always be considered a big, bad thing. And he managed to suggest that this big picture was more important than nitpicking whining about things like test accuracy and arsenic classification. He did this well enough that, for instance, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, asked the FDA to take another look at arsenic levels in apple juice.

So I’m not going to dwell further on the problems with his broadcast; I’m hardly going to mention the issues with shoddy science and the sensationalism. Hardly at all. What I would like to mention, whine about, nitpick, however, is Dr. Oz’s lost opportunity to r illuminate the actual risks. This is arsenic, after all, one of the world’s most important – and fascinating – poisons.

He could have sifted out those organic and inorganic test results, for instance, and helped his viewers to understand what they meant. Arsenic (As) is, after all, a naturally occurring metallic element (sometimes called a metalloid). It’s also one of those elements that likes to partner up, either with organic (carbon-based) compounds or with inorganic (which for these purposes pretty much means no carbon involved).

Fortunately for us, our bodies tend to break down and metabolize away most organic arsenic compounds fairly efficiently. In fact, many of these organic arsenic compounds (such as arsenobentaine, in case you wondered) form naturally in fish and shellfish. Fish-lovers thus receive get a steady low level exposure to organic arsenic, as far as we know,  without reported health effects. A few years ago, there was a suggestion that kelp-based health supplements might contain an arsenic problem, but it foundered – just as Dr. Oz’s apple juice case did – on the type-of-arsenic issue.

We humans – and, in fact, most living creatures, don’t handle inorganic arsenic nearly as well. Arsenic trioxide (AsO3) or white arsenic is one of history’s most famous homicidal poisons – so much so, that back in the 19th century, it was often referred to as the inheritance powder.  By some estimates, inorganic arsenic can be fatal in the amount of 60,000 micrograms (about 1/50th the weight of a penny).

Why is it so dangerous? And don’t we wish that Dr. Oz had used his moment to ask this very question? As it turns out, the answer lies in actually being nitpicky about the question. Inorganic arsenic toxicity has a lot to do with the number of valence bonds the compound possesses.  Valence bonds are created when atoms cling to each other because of an interaction between electrons in their outer shells.

In other words, the higher the valence bond number, the grabbier the compound, the greater its ability to insinuate itself into a living system. The two grabbiest forms of inorganic arsenic are trivalent (three bonds) and pentavalent (five). Pentavalent arsenic can, in fact, do a perfectly lethal job of disrupting cellular metabolism. But toxicologists tend to worry more about trivalent arsenic forms, which are also nasty poisons, more persistent, and much harder to remove from drinking water supplies.

And naturally occurring, inorganic arsenic in drinking water  around the world does real and physical harm. I’ve written about this myself regarding the poisoning of water supplies in countries like Bangladesh. But there’s health risks to go around even in countries like the United States.

In other words, Dr. Oz could have used this arsenic moment to have picked out a real health risk, educated people about it, maybe even saved a few lives and there. And that’s what I hold against him – the careless waste of opportunity -  and that’s why he makes me twitch. Even at this safe distance from a sofa in front of the television set.

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Et tu, Science Magazine?

Earlier this week, I gave a brilliantly titled talk – The Poisoner’s Guide to Communicating Chemistry -   at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver.

My speech was part of a symposium on communicating chemistry to the public, organized by ACS President Elect Bassam Shakashiri, a passionate crusader for science literary.

Along the way, I mentioned my own small, personal crusade against the term “chemical-free.”  Yes, I know, it refers to the notion of something being toxic-chemical-free. But first of all, our ideas about toxicity exist on an ever-shifting path of knowledge.  And second, as everything in world including the laptop I’m writing this on, the chair I sit on, and myself (as well as every other life form we know) is made of chemical compounds, the phrase chemical-free is at best ridiculous and at worst misleading. And it’s the latter issue that troubles me more – the fact that our careless use of this wrong-headed phrase contributes to a general public misunderstanding about not only chemistry but its fascinating and fundamental role in the world around us.

Or words to that effect. After my talk, one of the attending scientists, David Gottfried, of Georgia Tech’s Nanotechnology Research Center,  came over to talk about the issue. I brought up my exasperated reaction when the usually excellent newspaper, The New York Times, had used the words “chemical free” and “mineral based” in the same sentence. Oh, he said, but he had an even worse example. This summer, the research journal, Science, had – incredibly – cited a chemical free process in its News and Comment section. Specifically, in describing a method for creating fibers out of milk proteins, the July 29 story’s concluding paragraph noted: “The best part? The process uses no chemicals or pesticides….”.

How, you may wonder and I certainly did, could this appear in a science magazine? How could the writer mention casein biopolymers in one sentence and declare the product free of chemicals in the other? How could an editor miss the illogical nature of the statement?

Because, I suspect, too many people have been conditioned to equate the words “chemical” and “toxic” so that too many people don’t even register the contradiction. Do I worry about what it means for science literary when this kind of thinking even pervades science-focused publications. You bet I do.

“How do we change this?”  Gottfried asked me. He’d hoped for more of an outraged reaction to the Science piece than actually occurred. My own feeling is that we’re coming late to this issue, that we’ve got years of casual, chemical-free acceptance to overcome, years of chemistry literacy to build.  But that’s it’s never too late to push back. “I don’t know, except to keep calling attention, make an issue of the bad examples,” I answered.

I’ve always liked this point made by the remarkable 18th century French physician René Laennec: Do not fear to repeat what has already been said. Men need (the truth) dinned into their ears many times and from all sides. the first rumor makes them prick up their ears, the second registers, and the third enters.

So, on that exalted note, here is a copy of the bad example in question. Let it register far and wide.

Category: chemical-free, chemistry, science communication, Speakeasy Science | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments

Of Dead Bodies and Dirty Streets

In the fall of 1924, five bodies from New Jersey were delivered to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. You might not expect that to cause the chief medical examiner to worry about the dirt blowing in city streets. But it did.

To understand why you need to know the story of those five dead men, or at least the story of their exposure to a then mysterious industrial poison.

The five men worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey. All of them spent their days in what plant employees nicknamed “the loony gas building”, a tidy brick structure where workers seemed to sicken as they handled a new gasoline additive. The additive’s technical name was tetraethyl lead or, in industrial shorthand, TEL.  It was developed by researchers at General Motors as an anti-knock formula.

But, as I wrote in a previous post, men working at the plant quickly gave it the “loony gas” tag because anyone who spent much time inside showed signs of mental deterioration, from stumbling memory loss to sudden twitchy bursts of rage.  In October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them died.

The problem, at that point, was that no one knew exactly why. Oh, they knew – or should have known – that tetraethyl lead was dangerous. As Charles Norris, chief medical examiner for New York City pointed out, the compound had been banned in Europe for years due to its toxic nature. But while U.S. corporations hurried TEL into production in the 1920s, they did not hurry to understand its medical or environmental effects.

Thomas Midgley, Jr. in the Laboratory: damninteresting.com

Two years earlier, the U.S. Public Health Service had asked Thomas Midgley, Jr. – the developer of the leaded gasoline process –   all research into the health consequences of tetraethyl lead (TEL).

Midgley, a scientist at General Motors,  replied then that no such research existed. Two years later, he could gave the same answer. Although GM and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline – the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation - its research had focused solely on improving the TEL formulas. The companies preferred to avoid the lead issue. They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.

In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork.  Unimpressed, the state of New Jersey ordered a halt to TEL production. And then the compound was so poorly understood,  state health officials asked the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office  to find out what had happened.


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Category: lead, science history, Speakeasy Science, The Poisoner's Handbook | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

At the Door of the Loony Gas Building

The only way to start this story is by opening a door – the door leading into the Loony Gas building.

The workers at the Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey, gave the building that name, waving goodbye to their colleagues when they entered the shadowed opening, promising to have undertakers waiting when they came out. The building was only one year old, that fall of 1924, but it had earned the nickname.

It looked harmless enough from the outside, the usual style of factory buildings on the New Jersey site, the familiar rectangle of neat red brick with narrow windows set in stone. Inside, the first impression was also of routine, noise and heat, the hiss and clank of the pipes, the grumble and clatter of the retorts.  And then the unfamiliar, a smell carried by vapors rising from the machinery, not the usual odor of gasoline, but the dull musty scent of tetraethyl lead.

Five years earlier, a chemical engineer working for General Motors had discovered that tetraethyl lead cured a stubborn knocking problem in the car engines. Even GM’s best cars,  its elegant Cadillacs, banged so loudly under the hood that customers worried that the engines were breaking apart. The noise was a natural byproduct of the engine’s design in which gasoline tended to mix with air, heat, spontaneously ignite and explode, sometimes loudly enough to startle a driver into losing control.*

Tetraethyl lead – or TEL as the industrial shorthand referred to it – solved that problem. As we know now – or, more accurately, have known for decades now – it caused many more.  But what most people don’t know – and what I didn’t learn until I started researching the toxicology of the early 20th century – is that scientists warned of, and tried to prevent, those lead-based problems back in the 1920s.   Their evidence was, in fact, so solid that that some cities, like New York, attempted to block its use. They were overruled by a federal government that preferred to ally itself with major corporations. A cautionary tale, you might say,  although not a lesson we’ve followed with any notable consistency.


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Category: consumer protection, lead, science history, Speakeasy Science, The Poisoner's Handbook | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 76 Comments