The Protochemists Among Us

So, the term “chemist”? When did we first start using it? And does the label  artificially separate scientists from the rest of us? After all, don’t all of us daily practice chemistry? In countless moments, like the one in which we light the CH4-rich gas on our stoves and put on a pan of H2O to boil.

I’ve been mulling over the disconnect – our chemical lives, our lack of awareness of them –  since the World Chemistry Congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico earlier this month.  While there,  I was part of a symposium on chemistry and culture and that lost connection – between life and science – visibly troubled the scientists also in the program.

“Chemistry is not only at the school or the laboratory,” said Liliana Mammino, a chemistry professor at South Africa’s University of Vanda. “It’s around us everywhere. If we can’t relate the information at school to everyday life, there’s a danger that the people we think are learning don’t really understand at all.”

The precise origin of the word “chemistry” arose from a tangle of ancient civilizations, from Egyptian to Greek to Arabic, an idea that evolved into the word “alchemia” and then became “chemia” in the 16th century. By the late 1500s,  the idea of a specialized science of chemistry was just starting to flicker in English texts.

But Mammino pointed out that people had been making use of chemistry long before even the spark of a word arose. Our ancestors built fires, cooked food, used dyes and paints, made pottery, smelted metals – every one of those activities making use of chemical reactions.  “Our everyday chemists never rejected any material,” she said. “Dung and urine were used to bind dyes in ancient Egypt.”

Chemistry Nobel-Laureate Roald Hoffmann, another speaker at the symposium, referred to such practices as “protochemistry”. Like Mammino, he cited the use of urine in fixing dyes, notably the indigo blues beloved by the Roman civilization. Most of those gorgeous hues came from Mediterranean molluscs and from the fluffy looking woad plant. They tended to fade out of cloth after about three washes, Hoffmann noted, until the dye craftsman adopted the use of urine as a fixing agent.

Long before the word “chemistry” arrived, Hoffmann continued, the Incas of Peru were using a sophisticated mixture of salts in order to gold-plate some of their jewelry and statues.  African tribes were smelting copper, had learned that the metal reliably dripped out of malachite ore when the smoke turned greenish. And the Romans had begun smelting iron lead ore on a major scale, making the pipes that fed their waterworks.

Roman lead pipe, Bath, England

“Ice cores in Greenland show evidence of lead from Greek and Roman smelting,” Hoffmann said. “Pollution is nothing new. We’ve just found more efficient ways today of fouling our own nests.” But both he and Mammino proposed that our protochemical history is also a fascinating way to remind people today that they too are everyday chemists. “It’s important that chemistry is not perceived as coming from somewhere else,” Mammino said. “It’s not something alien.”

And that really, as symposium organizer Bassam Shakashiri said was the primary message. That chemistry isn’t purely academic, something separate, something unknown to those of us who don’t work under that label.

And that professional chemists should take pleasure in sharing that message. “We now live in the most advanced scientific society in the history of humankind,”  he said. “But the science-rich and science-poor sectors gap is widening at a very big rate with poor consequences for the rest of society.

Shakashiri, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, is also president-elect of the American Chemical Society. And a profound believer in sharing science with the public. “Science literacy is something we should all be concerned about. Science literacy is an attitude. We are responsible for the communication of our values and our virtues.”

And we, the everyday chemists out there, the descendents of those protochemists, we should remember our side of this bargain as well. And as our H2O boils, as we watch a classic phase change of liquid to vapor, water to steam, we should remember that we’re actually naturals at this particular job.

Category: chemistry, science history, Speakeasy Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

An Almost Perfect Murder

In the fall of 1923,  an out-of-work painter in New York City named Harry Freindlich took out a $1,000 life insurance policy on his 28-year-old wife Leah and then smothered her in bed.

It’s not a particularly notable homicide. It vanishes in the Prohibition-fueled era of spectacular crimes.  But it’s a personal favorite. I discovered it while researching my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook,  and to me it’s a still compelling tragedy. But I see it also an almost perfect murder, one barely caught by some trace clues found in a scene carefully set to evoke accidental death.

Freindlich was desperate for money during that chilly fall of 1923, just desperate really: jobless, unable to pay the rent, scraping for food for his family of six, afraid of being out on the street.  And their home was a bare step above living on the street anyway, a battered tenement on Manhattan’s lower East side. The paint was peeling off the walls; the floors were splintered. They’d been patching the appliances together with cardboard, glue, solder, anything.

Ruined Apartment/Tenement Museum, New York City

It was these one of these cracked appliances that gave him the idea, – a gas light in the bedroom with a troublesome broken fitting that he had soldered back together more than once.

During the 1920s, many homes – especially those in tenements and in the poorer neighborhoods – had yet to be wired for electricity. The lights and the stove were fed by illuminating gas, another name for a mixture rich in carbon monoxide, hydrogen, methane, and other gases which, far too often, leaked from poorly joined fittings and cheap fixtures.

In a single year, chief medical examiner Charles Norris had recorded 618 accidental carbon monoxide deaths. There were also 388 suicides, and three homicides, the most inventive of which involved a man killed by having a gas tube forced in his mouth until the carbon monoxide killed him. The killer than put the dead man into a water-filled bath tub and reported his death as an accidental drowning. Unfortunately for the murderer, an autopsy revealed a curious lack of water in his lungs and a chemical analysis of the dead man’s blood showed it saturated with the poisonous gas.

Freindlich’s plan followed those lines. He put a pillow over his wife’s face, pressing it tight until she quit breathing. He then tossed the pillow aside and wrenched apart the soldered light. When he heard the hiss of the gas, he fled the room, closing the door sharply behind him,  leaving his dead wife lying beside the baby son she’d brought to bed with her.

As the police pieced it together, he then walked out of the apartment, not trying to save the baby or any of other children sleeping there. He planned a new life, apparently, and he wanted no claims left from the old one.

But that tossed-aside pillow had dropped right on top of the sleeping infant.  The little boy abruptly woke and began crying, struggling to get free. The Freindlich’s oldest child, a ten-year-old boy, heard his baby brother wailing and ran in to see what was wrong. He tried to shake his mother awake.  She didn’t respond no matter how hard he shook her.

Now sobbing, he grabbed the baby and ran to the apartment next door.  The neighbor grabbed a candle and hurried to check the darkened apartment.  When she saw the dead woman in the bed, she ran to the grocer’s place downstairs to call the police.

Old Staircase, Tenement Museum, New York City

At first, it easily looked like just another accident, maybe a suicide. Leah had been a sweet woman, the neighbors told the police, but worn down, just tired out.  Yet there was something about the neighbor’s story that started to bother the beat cops. If there was a lethal amount of illuminating gas in a room, it tended to ignite in the presence of fire.

That was due not only to the flammable carbon monoxide and methane but the of the highly explosive hydrogen.  Apartments in the city blew up on a semi-regular basis when someone unwittingly struck a match in a gas filled room. Norris’s office kept a file full of pictures showing blackened walls and fragmented furniture.

If gas poisoning had killed Leah Freindlich, there should have been enough carbon monoxide to flash to fire when the Good Samaritan ran in with her candle.

Back at the Bellevue morgue, the pathologist was suffering from a similar sense of disbelief. The dead woman was sheet pale, all wrong for carbon monoxide poisoning. As the gas saturated the blood, the resulting chemical reaction tended to flush the skin pink. But Leah Freindlich showed none of that rosy coloring.

Before even beginning an autopsy, he drew blood samples from her body and asked the city’s acclaimed forensic chemist, Alexander Gettler, to run an analysis of the blood. The lab report confirmed everyone’s doubts: the blood was loaded with carbon dioxide, a typical result of forced suffocation. But there was no evidence of carbon monoxide.  When the pathologist looked more closely at the body, hidden in the hair at the back of her neck, he found a black bruising of fingerprints where someone had pressed, desperately tight.

Freindlich broke into sobs when he was arrested, begged the police to take him to the roof so that he could throw himself off. He couldn’t have killed his wife, he said, no one could have wished her harm. He couldn’t go to jail; what would happen to his children?

He wanted his old life back.

(I’ve used a couple of evocative photographs from the wonderful Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side.  I gave a talk there earlier this year and took a tour. There are also beautifully finished recreations of old tenement apartments there and I highly recommend a visit.)

Category: carbon monoxide, methane, Speakeasy Science, The Poisoner's Handbook | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Chemistry Day (and shouldn’t it be everyday?)

I’m honored to be part of Chemistry Day, at the terrific science blogging network at the Scientific American.

Blog super editor Bora Zivkovic decided to dedicate today to my favorite field of science.  Not because of me (although, yes, totally, it should be about me).  Or possibly, Chemistry Day – as Bora suggests- should be to honor the International Year of Chemistry and the ongoing World Chemistry Congress in San Juan, Puerto Ric0.

My own post is about carbon dioxide, as a murder weapon in small (long shoremen) and large scale (planetary) experiments. But my purpose here is to celebrate the incredible range of smart writing about chemistry across the network. From Jennifer’s Oullette’s Teetering on the Edge of Chaos to Matt Hartings’ Cooking up Some Chemistry Inside a Cell to Carmen Drahl’s What’s in a Name? For Chemists, Their Field’s Soul to David Kroll’s Drugs From the Crucible of Nature to…well, you get the idea.

To paraphrase an old DuPont saying (and, I think, improve it) – it’s better reading through chemistry.

Category: Speakeasy Science | 3 Comments

Floating in the Dark

As night washes in, I stand shoulder deep in a sliver of the Atlantic Ocean. A wave lifts me off my feet. I glance toward my teenage son, who is drifting a little farther out, floating where the water deepens and darkens.

I should – and I know it – be thinking about what a lovely moment this is. But, no, my mind is cuing up instead the opening sequence of the movie, Jaws. You know, the one where the girl plunges into the ocean at night and things definitively go bump in the night.

Cue scary theme some from Jaws: Nuh-nuh-Nuh-nuh. You are seriously way too stressed,” I mumble to myself.  I’ve brought him with me during a brief stay in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I’m part of a symposium at the World Chemistry Congress.  I’m part of a symposium on chemistry and culture and my talk, scheduled Monday,  is about the poisonous alcohol of Prohibition.

Okay, not a relaxing topic. But fascinating. I’m honored to be talking it here.  And I remind myself that the water in this little beach in San Juan Puerto Rico is glass clear, glowing with lights from the hotel. I can see no shark-shadows approaching, only the tumble of rocks and broken shell over my feet.

“Why don’t you come in a little?” I say to my son. Okay, okay, I’m a little antsy. I spent much of the year set on vibrate while I helped organize the World Conference of Science Journalists.  Yes, it happened a month ago in Qatar, but I’m still relearning the ability to just sit, relax, write for the pure joy of it, float on,

My 17-year-old gives me the look and drifts a little farther into the darkness.   We’re the only two people in the water here. The combination of the lapping waves and the glorious buoyancy of sea water makes me feel weightless. Is it the salt, I wonder?

Nuh-nuh-Nuh-nuh: the song still thumps in my head.

“Um, there could be a rip-tide,” I say to him. Once, years ago, at a family reunion at Amelia Island, Florida, his older brother and I were briefly caught in an outgoing slip of tide, a strong invisible thread running out beneath the foaming waves. The moment is still so real to me that, in a heartbeat,  I can still see the walls of gray-green water and smell the sting of salt in the air.

He rocks in the gentle slosh of water around him.

Goes on to tell me some story, horrifying to me, hilarious to him, about how, when I wasn’t looking, he, his brother and their cousins like to compete to see how far the waves and tides would wash them out from shore. “Dad knew,” he adds. I can feel my eyes start to narrow toward wherever my hapless husband stands.

I tell myself to get over it. He’s here isn’t it? Obviously they bobbed around like corks in those waves. Later, when he’s not looking, I lok up the I spend a little time looking the buoyancy thing, find those the old make-an-egg-float science fair projects.  Of course, that’s table salt (NaCl) and water. So I  look it up too and discover that this isn’t so different from seawater: the chlorine (Cl-) ion makes up some 55 percent of the salt in seawater, followed by about 30 percent sodium (Na).

Although seawater also contains a reasonable additional dose of sulfur (S), calcium (Ca), potassium (K), some natural traces of this and that (technically speaking) and, of course, whatever chemicals we happen to throw into the mix from our cities, our farms, and the rest of of our lives. I find a study that follows the way the chemistry of seawater may have changed with the shifting geology of the planet itself. It suggests that the calcium compounds in seawater – essential for the formation of everything from corals to seashells – rose slowly over time, helping to build the fantastical underwater architecture of the marine world.

I’m still floating in the dark and I’m humming the Ben Lee version of Float On. My kids hate it when I hum. My son starts splashing toward shore. I follow him out to the sandy curve of land, where water meets shore. The next morning we visit a 17th century fort, formidable walls curved high above the blue glitter of the Atlantic.

“Don’t sit too close to the edge,” I say.

“Oh, that’s right,” he answers. “The current might get me.”

Are we ever as buoyant as when we are seventeen?  I laugh, laughing at myself. Remembering Ben Lee’s voice, soft as the night waves, reminding me to let go:  “And we’ll all float on okay.”

Category: Speakeasy Science | 2 Comments

Notes to Self

  1. Before you leave for Doha, Qatar and the World Conference of Science Journalists, don’t forget:

2. To let Matt Hartings know how much you admire his recent post, My Chemically Fueled Life –   which does a wonderful job of illuminating the ways we understand – and fail to understand – our chemical-based world.

3. To send further fan mail to Mary Carmichael for her funny and smart blog, “F No, Chemical Free!” and tell her how glad I am to see an organized push back against our very careless use of that very meaningless phrase. Oh, yes, and more fan mail to Julia Diebol at Risk Science Blog and as ever to David Ropeik for his exceptional efforts to educate the rest of us about the oddities of human risk perception, chemical and otherwise.

4. To remind visitors to my blog to check out the comment section on my own recent post on the subject, Chemical Free Crazies. Also to figure out a way to thank blog readers for the above discussion, which was so smart that you ( the blog author herself) felt privileged to read it.

5. Also remember to reassure the writer of one of those comments, Dr. Isis, about the brilliance and dedication of  science journalists who are so NOT in a lesser profession. And remember that the 600 members of said profession planning to attend the World Conference of Science Journalists would agree with me.

6. Congratulate yourself (two years as program chair!) – and all your colleagues – on accomplishing something else though – a truly international program. When we say “world” conference, we journalists really mean it.

7.   Wonder how you can thank them all – everyone who’s worked so hard and contributed so much, with special gratitude to my fellow science writers at the National Association of Science Writers, and the Arab Science Journalists Association, co-hosts of the conference. Not to forget  the amazing support of the World Federation of Science Journalists and the Qatar Foundation.

8. Start thinking about life after WCSJ.  That would start in July, you know. Remember the book proposal you’ve promised to finish. The magazine articles you’ve agreed to write. The blog posts just buzzing to be written. More chemical-free wars to be fought!

11. But – and let’s get real, this one should be first on the list –  when you get home, go home and stay there for a while.  Your family will be very happy to see you   Assuming, of course, that they haven’t already changed the locks on the house.

Category: Speakeasy Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Chemical Free Crazies

“Did you just hit yourself in the face with the newspaper?” my husband asked me.

We were sharing a quiet moment (teenage sons yet asleep) with coffee, a dozing labrador, and the Sunday New York Times.  Quiet, anyway, until the thwacking sound.

I was idly browsing a story about a trendy cosmetics company when – in the very first paragraph – I read this phrase: “a line of chemical-free mineral powders.” Whereupon, I smacked myself in the face with the Style section.

“Can you believe this?” I demanded. “How can anyone use chemical-free and mineral in the same sentence? Can you believe…”

I don’t know why it is but he suddenly felt the need to leave the room for another cup of coffee. Of course, everyone in my family has heard me out before (okay, maybe, many times) on the complete wrongness of the term chemical-free.

Why do I harangue my family, and just about anyone else who will listen, on this subject? Well – just in case you haven’t heard me say this before – I do understand that the phrase is just an advertising gimmick, implying a product’s freedom from mysterious but toxic industrial chemicals. I also understand that it’s basically ridiculous since everything, and I do mean everything including ourselves, is, in fact, composed of chemical compounds.

Photo credit: Carmen Drahl

From that perspective, consider also this picture of a sign in Princeton, N.J. kindly shared with me by Carmen Drahl, an associate editor at Chemical & Engineering News. One would think “chemical-free” bug spray couldn’t be written with a straight face, especially in a highly-educated community. But, this is after all a world, in which I get 44 million hits on Google when I type in the phrase, concerning everything from chemical-free mattresses to chemical free chicken. Not to mention the fact that one of our country’s leading newspapers just happily printed the rather hilarious phrase”chemical free minerals” in a straight-faced kind of manner.

But to finish answering my earlier question – why do I think this is an issue worth repeating to the point that my family flees the room. Because, unfortunately, our careless promotion of  “chemical-free” contributes to public misunderstanding of the chemical-everything nature of our world. It plays to overwrought fears, making “chemical” synonymous with “evil.” And by doing so, it cheats people of a real appreciation of the wonderfully complex, beautiful and fundamental chemical design by which our universe exists.

Just can’t say that often enough, actually. And so that, folks, is why I smacked myself in the face with a newspaper this morning.  And why I decided that exchanging the Style section for the comics would be a less painful way to finish off the day. In more ways than one.

Category: chemical-free, chemistry, science communication, Speakeasy Science | Tagged , , , | 31 Comments

Playing Chicken with Arsenic

If I were to pick an element that just about everyone recognizes as a poison, it would be arsenic (As).  As a crumbly compound called “white” arsenic or arsensic trioxide (AsO3) it became so popular as a 19th century homicidal weapon – think Mary Ann Cotton and her 20 or so victims –  that it eventually earned the nickname “inheritance powder.”

Its murderous qualities have given it a starring role in successful plays or movies (Arsenic and Old Lace), in best-selling stories of murder and betrayal, such as Dorothy Sayer’s 1930 crime classic, Strong Poison, or the more recent best seller, A Reliable Wife, with its wonderfully clinical descriptions of chronic poisoning symptoms.

In fact, a person can survive low-level arsenic poisoning for quite some time. But  because of the way it damages cells – breaking apart the structures that allow cellular respiration –  it turns out to be a quite dangerous carcinogen.* This has been demonstrated, especially, in countries where elemental arsenic permeates rocks at high levels and seeps into ground water. In Bangladesh, for instance, a program of well-drilling begun in the 1970s, literally created an epidemic of arsenic-related cancers.

And  yet, for more than 60 years, the federal regulators have approved arsenic additives to poultry feed in the United States, partly to control parasites and partly because they chemically improve the appearance of packaged chicken and turkey parts, pinking them up for consumer approval. Those of us who prefer less obviously toxic material in our chicken buckets – and this includes me – have been advocating that we rethink this policy. I’m linking here to a piece I wrote last fall for The Los Angeles Times in this regard.

Poultry Farm/photo credit:

At the time, I wasn’t really expecting much to change. But as it turns out, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which makes the arsenic-laced additive roxarsone, has decided to suspend its sales.  Why, you wonder, after all this time? It turns out that the industry argument for keeping the compound into chicken feed was that it was a better form of arsenic,  not the ever-evil inorganic white arsenic, but a less toxic material rather tidily bound up with carbon (so, in this version,  an organic compound) and hydrogen.

In fact, organic arsenic is  definitely less hazardous than its inorganic (carbon-free) cousin. But tests now indicate that it may convert to the more lethal inorganic form as chickens and other fowl metabolize the compound. We know this because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stepped up and ran some very nicely controlled tests showing that the bodies of birds that ate roxarsone-loaded food were consistently higher in white arsenic than those that ate feed without the additive.

As a result, Pfizer – or more specifically, its subsidiary, Alpharma, will suspend sales of roxarsone in 30 days while further tests are conducted. You’ll notice that no one is acting as if this is a major health emergency – which it isn’t. These are tiny levels of arsenic. Still – there’s a common sense health issue here –  it’s always better with a metallic poison like arsenic to keep exposure to a minimum because it tends to stay in the body and could eventually add up to something more troubling. Also,  as it turns out, due to such additives poultry farms have been leaching out arsenic-contaminated wastes.  The advocacy position has not been panicky, but it has been – rightly, I think – that this represents the unnecessary addition of a famed poison to the food supply.

So it’s gratifying to see the system work – or at least start to work – toward eliminating this particular additive.  The FDA ran the appropriate tests; the pharmaceutical company responded as it should. The New York Times, however, pointed out that it could well be a rare triumph given our current political direction:  The roxarsone study is a triumph for agency scientists but one unlikely to be repeated very often. The agency asked for $183 million in additional funds for food safety efforts next year, but House Republicans have instead proposed cutting $87 million.

Not that the House Republicans have ever listened to me but my vote is for restoring those funds. Not to sound radical here but we need more research to help us navigate the world of industrial chemicals. Not less.  And my vote is also that roxarsone stays off the market. Again not to sound radical but – we need less arsenic in our diets. Not more.

*  Arsenic is so destructive that, in fact, researchers are considering several different mechanisms for the way it might cause cancer.  It may create further destruction by generating reactive oxygen molecules. There’s some suggestion that it inhibits DNA repair enzymes. There may be other damaging pathways. All of which reminds us to approach with caution.

Category: arsenic, consumer protection, Speakeasy Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Jessica Alba and the Chemistry Thing

Incredible as it seems, lawmakers have not sought out my opinion on the proposed Senate Safe Chemicals Act even though – geez – didn’t I just brilliantly blog on the subject last week?

Instead  the woman standing next to chemical bill sponsor U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg this week was film actor Jessica Alba, who turns out to be the new spokesperson for the advocacy group, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Photo credit: AP

Okay, the resulting, widely circulated photo doesn’t exactly show her at her chemical crusader best here but apparently she was reacting to a buzzer signalling a vote, not trying to explain the importance of the legislation.

Still, The Washington Post couldn’t resist poking fun at her chemical qualifications: Credentials: Pin-up, nerdfare starlet (“Sin City”, “Fantastic Four”), mom now expecting her second child. NPR health journalist and blogger, Scott Hensley, felt compelled to ask his readers how they felt about celebrities advocating for legislation. Mostly they were fine with it, especially if the stars were, you know, sincere.

Still, Henley’s  multiple choice survey and didn’t offer the option I planned to check, the  “I-like-celebrities-who-care-enough-to-crusade-and-she-does-seem-sincere- but–can-I-just-bitch-a-little-anyway?” option.

Because when I read her statements on the subject, they suggest that a) she doesn’t actually know anything about the chemicals in question b) she believes potential followers will be put off by actual, genuine, technical information c) someone else wrote them anyway.

Her post on the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Family website features a lovely picture of Ms. Alba and a heartfelt call to action. Beyond that, it tends to play “guess the compound” with the reader.   There’s a reference to “toxic chemicals in plastics used to make baby bottles”, which I deduce refers to bisphenol-A (BPA), the current poster child for evil compounds in household products. There’s another reference to “brain toxins in children’s toys,” which I puzzled over – I mean, “brain toxins?” – before concluding that she was talking about the heavy metal lead, which as I’ve also noted –  once or twice – turns up far too often in consumer products and is, indeed, a dangerously poisonous element.

On the other hand, maybe that’s not what she means by “brain toxins” at all. But then what does she mean? And – and here is my real bitch/concern/question – shouldn’t the campaign for safer chemicals be wonderfully, usefully clear instead of giving us this this rather alarmist “chemistry thing” call to action?

The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act is, in fact, woefully inadequate and it’s ridiculous that we’ve put up with it this long. And the current push for new legislation, the discussion over how we study, understand, and (thoughtfully) regulate industrial chemicals matters.  I’m glad that, as the  journal Chemical and Engineering News notes,  Alba is injecting “pizzazz” into the conversation. I’m glad that, as Hensley points out, her interest helps lift the Safe Chemicals Act out of relative obscurity.

I’d still like to argue celebrities – and more so the advocacy groups they represent – should be held to at least a minimum standard of responsibility; that we have a right to expect crusaders, famous or no, to demonstrate clear and credible knowledge of their chosen issue.

And that ends my little bitch session. Because on the larger point Alba is right there: “I was shocked to learn that it is perfectly legal to have known toxic chemicals in consumer products that are on our shelves,” she said in the D.C. press briefing with Lautenberg. “Like most people, I thought the government regulated [industrial] chemicals the way they regulate drugs. I was wrong.”

Wouldn’t it be smart to fix that situation? she asked. Isn’t it basic “common sense” to want reasonable testing and evaluation? I believe I will be checking the “yes-works-for-me” option on that one. And on her ability to remind people that these  “chemistry thing” questions that we should all be asking – count me a fan.


Category: chemistry, consumer protection, lead, Speakeasy Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

A Chemical (Battle) Cry

Last fall,  the respected magazine, Scientific American, posted an intriguing (or alarming, depending on one’s point of view) infographic titled “The Great Chemical Unknown.”

It noted that an estimated 50,000 chemical compounds are used by American industries and their customers and that about 300 have gone through rigorous safety testing and only five – a short list of notorious environmental contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins –  have been officially banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, this represents a conservative estimate of the situation. A story in Time magazine, also last year, put the numbers at 80,000 compounds circulating in the U.S. marketplace of which only 200 have been tested. In other words, whatever the exact total,  the phrase “chemical unknown” applies perfectly here.

Why is it so difficult to get accurate informal on chemical exposure here in the United States?   As it turns out, the country relies on a thirty-five year old law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, for oversight of potentially hazardous compounds. And this law is – let’s just say – timid in its approach to regulation. In point, it doesn’t actually require that chemicals be registered or proven safe before they are put to use.  There is provision to ban a compound but it must be first be shown as an extremely bad actor.  For instance PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) ended up on the short list only after it was discovered that they were poisonous, probable human carcinogens, and extremely durable – capable of remaining in the environment (or the human body) for decades. By that time, of course, they had contaminated communities across the country.

Of course, even being a known bad actor hasn’t guaranteed protective measures under the old law. “How weighted is the TSCA toward industry?” the Time piece asks. “The law didn’t even give the EPA enough power to ban asbestos, a known carcinogen that still contributes to the deaths of more than 10,000 Americans a year.” It’s worth noting that, by contrast, the European Union  banned production and use of asbestos in 1999.

Photo credit:

Why you may ask is the subject of our so-called regulation of toxic chemicals getting so much attention now? Last year,  a cadre of federal legislators moved to in replace the 1976 law, proposing the House Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 and the Senate Safe Chemicals Act of 2010.  Both of these would require manufacturers meet new and tougher safety standards, not only for new compounds but for those already on the market.

Of course, neither of these have so far inched their way into actual law. Why not, you wonder?

Continue reading »

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A lost girl, remembered

When I was researching my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, I  started by making a list of famous homicidal poisons: cyanide and strychnine, arsenic and antimony and…and…the resulting catalog quickly outgrew my plans for a book of relatively modest length. How would I decide which toxic substances belonged in my particular “handbook”?

Since my story was of two somewhat renegade scientists trying to establish – or more accurately, invent – the profession of forensic toxicology in Prohibition-era New York, I started researching poison homicides in that time period. I focused on murders from about 1918 to 1935  in that remarkable city. I wasn’t looking for famous cases – it was murder as a fact of everyday life that interested me.  Those small slipped-away  stories,  the cases that haunted me, the lives altered that I couldn’t forget,  ended up defining my poisonous history of early 20th century America.

Continue reading »

Category: arsenic, poison, The Poisoner's Handbook | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments