A burning look at P (phosphorus) and its history

I swear, I’m not obsessed with urine, but we do need to talk about P, and by that I mean, the element phosphorus. It’s been in the news lately, allegedly used as a chemical weapon against children and civilians in Syria.

The story of phosphorus begins, ironically, with urine. Urine was a well-used chemical in ancient days, staring possibly with the Romans. It’s s source of ammonia and phosphorus which can be used for cleaning, tanning leather, and fertilizing crops. It was used to make tooth whitener and gunpowder and in the dye industry.

It makes sense in a strange way, that urine, plentiful and golden, would be used in experiments and alchemist Henning Brand used it in his quest to create gold in his lab. In 1660 he boiled urine and heated it in a furnace with plenty of stirring. The 1,500 gallons of urine transformed not into gold, but into a glowing, waxy substance. Although he was not sure of a use for it, other chemists soon noted it could catch on fire and produced burns that were slow to heal.

Once something is discovered, it has to be used and even exploited. What does a good alchemist do with a new material? Makes it into a tonic. Phosphorous works in conjunction with calcium to form bones. It’s the backbone of DNA. We need phosphorus to live. Our bones, teeth, and brain contain much phosphorus. The tonics were various amounts of phosphorus in water, cod liver oil, and phosphorus salts in pills. Cures for tuberculosis and mental instability were reported. It was also known to be a poison in high doses and used as such for killing rats, spouses, unwanted children, and inducing abortion. It’s very soluble in alcohol and rum disguised its garlic smell and flavor. Symptoms of phosphorus poisoning include jaundice, vomiting, and thirst–common with liver failure. Phosphorus poisonings were popular through the 1950s. Phosphorus remains in the intestines and can be extracted during an autopsy and detected by its tell-tale glow.

Today the element in phosphate form (combined with oxygen) can be found in all sorts of products: chicken nuggets, hotdogs, processed and spreadable cheeses, instant puddings and sauces, refrigerated bakery products, and beverages. It occurs naturally in eggs, diary products, meat, and chocolate. I found it on the label of several products in my kitchen including kids’ cereal, evaporated milk, Velveeta mac and cheese, BelVita bars, canned clam chowder, and muffin mix from the Amish Store near Chariton. It’s used to adjust pH and enhance flavor.

Count Chocula, anyone?
Evaporated milk: Not just milk

Although miracle cures were reported, the efficacy of phosphate tonics was never proven in the past, but today, people consume too much phosphorus. The excess is damaging to our bones, kidneys, thyroid, and cardiovascular systems.

What about matches? Before the discovery of phosphorus, they were made of sulfur dipped sticks and were unreliable. The white phosphorus friction “strike anywhere” match was invented around 1830. It was a striking success thanks to a tip made from white phosphorus. The new matches were called congreves or more commonly lucifers. They were 20% white phosphorus, 30% potassium chlorate (an oxidant), 15% sulfur, 10% chalk, and 25% glue. Rumors were that battlefields were raided for bones of men and horses–a rich source of phosphorus. Match boxes were works of art. However, the toxicity of white phosphorus became horribly apparent. Workers in match factories began experiencing bone degradation and sores, especially in their jaws! The condition called Phossy jaw was understandably painful and irreversible. Click here to see and read more about phossy jaw. In the 1870, people ate matches to commit suicide. Lucifers caught on fire when stepped on. Archduchess Matilda might have burned to death due to a dropped match. Boxes of matches caught fire when shaken.

Heating white phosphorus converts it to red phosphorus. It’s much less toxic but can’t be ignited by striking anywhere. The red phosphorus is on the striking pad and the match head is a mixture of phosphates, ignitable materials, and wax.

Give humanity credit– the last use developed for white phosphorus was as a weapon. White phosphorus has been used in warfare only since WWI. It’s incendiary, meaning it catches on fire when it contacts air. (It must be stored under an air resistant material such as oil.) It creates billows of smoke. It burns. It burns to the bone. It’s poisonous. The disfiguring effects include lowered immunity and last long after the burns heal. Thus, it’s banned as a weapon. The trouble is, no one cares to enforce the ban.

Phosphorous is also used in fertilizers since it’s essential for plant growth. However, humans use way too much of it, causing algae growth in natural waters. Believe it or not, we are mining so much phosphorous for fertilizer that we are depleting natural sources. If we deplete our mineral sources, such as apatite, we might have to go back to grinding bones and urinating as sources of P.

White phosphorus hazards diamond–highly toxic and flammable.

What is Enriched Uranium?

You many have heard of a consequence of the US dumping the Iran-nuclear deal. Iran has made enriched uranium.What is that and why should anyone care?

Uranium is a dense heavy metal that decays–meaning it’s radioactive and gives off particles and energy and transforms into a slightly lighter metal, thorium, which is also radioactive. It emits an alpha particle, the Mac truck of subatomic particles, which is also a helium nucleus. This is where earthly helium comes from! All forms of uranium are radioactive..but not the helium it emits. Don’t worry, your party balloons are safe. Uranium is unstable and thus radioactive. The word radioactive was coined by the Curies in 1898, with radio being related to ray as in a ray of light Many radioactive elements and nuclear reactions cause their surrounding to glow due to their energy. It’s slowly radioactive with all isotopes having long half-lives. It can be found in deposits across the globe.

Uranium can be made into a source of power when it undergoes fission. During fission, the core of the atom (the nucleus) is hit with a neutron and split into smaller pieces and new lighter elements are made. The lighter elements are more stable and the energy needed to hold the large unstable uranium together is released. The process is shown in the figure below. You can see that more neutrons fly out and if enough atoms of the right isotope of uranium are nearby, they split other uranium atoms. A chain reaction ensues and this keeps the energy release going. If the reaction is fast enough, a bomb is created.

Illustration showing a nuclear fission

Here’s the catch, not all forms of uranium undergo fission. Only the isotope with 92 protons and 143 neutrons in the nucleus, uranium 235 or U-235, is unstable enough to be broken in this fashion. And it’s not very plentiful. Only 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium is this isotope. And to allow for the chain reaction to occur, you need to concentrate this form of the metal. This is needed for both weapons grade and power reactor uranium but weapons grade uranium needs more concentration aka enrichment. This is not easy. Why does it take so much work? Chemical reactions occur with the outside of the atom–the electron cloud. This is an easy way to separate chemicals–by their different reactivities due to different electron clouds surrounding them.

All isotopes of uranium have the same cloud of 92 electrons. This means the isotopes have to be separated by mass. The uranium is reacted with fluoride and forms a gas, then is passed through a porous membrane which only lets the smaller 235 isotope through. Alternately, it might be centrifuged. There are a few other less efficient methods of enrichment. This process demands lots of energy. Monitoring the energy use of enrichment facilities is one way to watch to see if a country is working on producing weapons grade U-235.

What’s going on in Iran? They have used centrifuge technology to enrich uranium to a concentration of 4.5%. The allowed limit with the Nuclear Deal was 3.67%. However, it takes 90% enrichment to make a bomb because a bomb reaction must go faster with more U-235 atoms close to each other. Getting to this level is a huge challenge needing a high tech centrifuge. Yes, Iran get there if the nuclear deal remains sour for years.

Right now, the world has a surplus of enriched uranium because of the many enrichment plants world wide. What country has a surplus of weapons grade uranium? The United States. Scientists worked hard to create the bomb. Some did it unknowingly and other suffered remorse at how it was used. Scientists approved the Nuclear Deal, they supported it, and scientific collaboration is suffering at its end.

1919: Yo-ho-ho

In many areas of the globe, before there was sugar on the table there was honey and/or maple syrup. Sugarcane was only found  in New Guinea and Southeast Asia. A clever chemist in India figured out how to boil the canes and evaporate the liquid until the sucrose crystallized. This made it easy to transport and sell. Sugar made its way to Europe around 700 AD. It was an expensive luxury. It wasn’t until Europeans took over the Caribbean region in the 1600s and turned it into sugarcane plantations with slave labor that it became widely used in the North–as a food and fuel commodity.

Molasses treacle in dish: 100 years ago, molasses was a commonly used sweeter


Sugar beets were made popular by Napoleon (early 1800s) but rapidly became more expensive than sugar from cane. In 1938, mechanical cane harvesters were developed in the United States, making sugar even cheaper to produce. Today, sugar is the world’s largest crop.

Molasses (called treacle in England) is the liquid left over after sugar cane is boiled and the sugar crystals and fiber removed, It’s the most nutritious part of the sugar plant, containing calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B6. It can even de-frizz hair.

How to make molasses.

Recipes, including shoofly pie.

All of this tasty goodness is not why I am writing about molasses. One hundred years ago on January 15, a Boston accident released 2.3 million gallons of molasses across the city’s north side, home to mostly Irish and Italian families. Shorty after noon, the locals heard a crash and a wave of molasses engulfed the neighborhood. Twenty-one people and countless horses were killed. Buildings and a train trestle were destroyed. The cause: a faulty molasses storage tank.

One hundred years ago, molasses was a popular sweeter. People bought it by the gallon. It was used in baked beans, barbecue sauces, and gingerbread as it is today. It was the sweetener of choice for coffee, pancakes, and cornbread. It was added to collards and carrots. It was THE sweetener. However, the molasses in this incident wasn’t for cooking and baking. The company which owned the tank, Purity Distilling Company, was in the rum and alcohol business. Yo-ho-ho as they sang in Treasure Island. Yes, rum is basically fermented molasses. It wasn’t a great business to be in at the time, considering that Prohibition was ratified on January 16, 1919. The company had supplied industrial alcohol to the military for the war but now the war was over. Thus, Purity Distilling Company wasn’t too keen to repair their leaking molasses tank, painted brown to hide the drips. They needed to make as much rum as they could before it became illegal.

A few days prior, they had a fresh batch of molasses delivered from Puerto Rico. It was still warm as it sat in the thin steel tank. Possibly, it was already fermenting and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Molasses is a non-Newtonian fluid. It flows more easily under pressure (as does chocolate.) The molasses burst forth at a speed of about 35 mph. It crashed through buildings and knocked people and animals over. Then, as it cooled, it got sticky, trapping them like flies on fly paper. The combination made for the deadly spread of the molasses. All in all, it covered two city blocks. Click here for photos.

People stand by the busted molasses tank in 1919

The tragedy cost 100 million in today’s dollars. Although terrorism was blamed at first, the company was held responsible and fined. Residents of the neighborhood today claim they can smell the molasses on warm days. The tragedy is a reminder of why we need industrial safety regulations and is, in part, why we have them today.

Great video recounting the tragedy and adult and children’s books about the tragedy.

Mercurial Madness

I didn’t read much about it in the local or state news but  last December, a Mercury jug containing 5 kg (11 pounds) of the toxic metal was spilled in an Iowa bar.

If that isn’t bad enough, the mercury was gathered up and  put in the basement of a rental house where kids found it and played with it in the sandbox. 

Where does mercury come from?  Why is it toxic and how bad is it? 

Here are some facts about mercury:

  1. Depositphotos_140325262_l-2015Mercury is an element, meaning it can’t be broken into anything smaller. You can’t get rid of it by burning it up, for example.
  2. In fact, you do not want to burn mercury. It is a metal but with very weak bonds between atoms. It has a low vapor pressure and heating it makes it into a gas. This gas is very toxic. It is easily absorbed into the lungs. It moves to the brain where it causes central nervous system poisoning. Mercury is toxic via all routes: ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact.
  3. Mercury poisons by sticking to the sulfur in enzymes, causing them to unravel. What does this do? It harms many different enzymes–it interferes with ones that build your skeleton, it inhibits food digestion, it ruins nerve connections, and it causes hydrogen peroxide to build up in your blood.
  4. Mercury can get into the air from burning coal and oil. Forty two percent of mercury in our air comes from coal burning. Since mercury is heavy and doesn’t change into anything else, this can be breathed in, and get into our water and soil.
  5. Another source of mercury is gold mining and processing, especially in small scale operations.Peru is known for a high number of these. They rely on using a mercury amalgam to extract the gold.
  6. Mercury is a dense metallic liquid. It was once known as quicksilver. The word mercurial means flighty or fast.
    mercurial-superfly-360-elite-firm-ground-soccer-cleat-WOv7pN
    Can there be a much better name for a shoe than Mercurial Superfly? https://store.nike.com/
  7. It’s about 14 x more dense than water, meaning that a gallon of mercury would weigh 113 pounds.
  8. It has the symbol Hg meaning “liquid silver” or “hydroargyrum”.
  9. Mercury is found as the ore cinnabar, chemical name mercury (II) sulfide, HgS. Most of mercury used today comes from mines in Spain or Italy.
  10. It is commonly used in electrical switches and was once frequently used in thermometers and in dental fillings known as amalgams. An amalgam is a combination of mercury and other metals. It’s tough and easy to squeeze into small places. These are thought to be safe in adults and mercury not detected in breast milk of mothers who have mercury fillings. 
  11. Dental crowns do not contain mercury.
  12. Mercury pollution has caused Minamata disease, a birth defect harming the skeleton and a pollution related disease. Click here for more about the people who were affected.
  13. Many people think of the Mad Hatter when they think of mercury poisoning. Mercury was used in felt processing and hat-making from the 17th century up until 1941.
  14. Mercury was used to treat syphilis up through the early 1900s.
  15. A mercury salt with fluorescein, mercurochrome, is still used as an antiseptic in some places.
  16. Mercury can exist in several forms: elemental (as found in the Iowa bar) , inorganic (cinnabar), and organic (the most toxic).
  17. Mercury is water soluble. It builds up in fish and seafood–the larger the animal, the more mercury. This diagram shows that the elemental mercury becomes organic mercury and bioaccumulates in the food chain.

    MercuryFoodChain.svg
    Imagine of mercury accumulation from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_in_fish#/media/File:MercuryFoodChain.svg
  18. Fish contains more mercury than vaccines.
  19. Mercury is in some vaccines in a small amount. Consider the alternative which is getting the flu.
  20. Mercury is heavy and exists in the depths of the Earth. Besides mining and coal burning, volcanos release tons of vaporized mercury into the air, especially Pacific volcanos.
  21. Mercury poisoning continues today. “Analysis of hair samples from 1044 women of reproductive age in 37 locations across 25 countries on 6 continents revealed that 42% of women sampled had mercury levels over the US EPA limit level of 1 ppm, above which brain damage, IQ loss, and kidney damage may occur. Additionally, 53% of the global sample exceeded the level 0.58 ppm of mercury, a level now associated with the onset of fetal neurological damage. Exposures were higher and more pervasive in communities near mercury gold mining, in the Pacific Islands, and in communities near industrial contamination.”
  22. New laws will weaken our restrictions on mercury emissions. We will be dooming people to nervous system, skeletal, and blood disorders and putting poison in our oceans. Thes laws are a “major weakening’ of mercury rules. Folks, that’s madness!

Laughing Gas–a history

Laughing gas

Laughing Gas, nitrous oxide, was first created by Cornish chemist Humphry Davy in 1799…although some credit the reclusive Joeseph Priestly with this. In any case, it was Davy who brought laughing gas to the world and with it, won prestige.

Humphry Davy was born the son of a farmer and wood-worker. The athletic and garrulous Davy was not the best of students. He was, however, good at preparing remedies for a local doctor and even better at making explosions and gases intended to affect people’s health. Gases were created chemically and collected in silk or later, rubber bags and people took sucks of the bag while holding their nose to receive treatments. One use of gases Davy explored was as anesthetics.  The only anesthetics in those days were alcohol and opium. Surgeons had to operate quickly–amputating limbs in a minute or two–three at most.  The use of laughing gas as an anesthetic was slow to catch on– it wasn’t until 1844 that it became used by a dentist and not until the 1870s that use became routine. (The man who pioneered its use in dentistry later became deranged.)

Shunned as an anesthetic, the euphoric properties of nitrous oxide made it a popular party drug, sometimes administered in traveling entertainment tents bearing Davy’s picture. Davy called nitrous oxide inhalation “pleasurably thrilling.”Others have described it as “you’re all rubbery and relaxed and silly laughing usually. The rooms can seem to be collapsing and spinning but in a fun way with sort of swooshing wavy sounds.”  The nitrous oxide promotion propelled Davy into fame–it was a fad that won him a prestigious appointment to the Royal Institution in 1801 at the young age of 22. In this capacity, he lectured and popularized science to the point that he was knighted at the age of 34 and later made a baronet.Davy also discovered ether and chloroform. Although he did help his assistant Michael Faraday achieve fame, Davy clung to his superiority as if he had been born into it.

In retrospect, nitrous oxide has some harsh side effects. It can suppress vitamin B12 uptake, destroy your body’s Vitamin B12,  and cause brain damage if over-used. There have even been cases of paralysis and spinal degradation in frequent users. However, as anesthetics go, it is one of the safest. Perhaps this brain damage created his snobbish treatment of Michael Faraday later in life. Faraday attributed some of this to his high class wife, Lady Jane. (My Mom used the term”Lady Jane” to refer to a snotty attitude but it has taken new meaning these days).Lady Jane and her money can be thanked for numerous portraits of the handsome Davy in those pre-photography days. In any case, I digress.

Davy
This photo was taken from A History of Chemistry by F.J. Moore third edition 1939

 

Laughing gas is used today in dental offices where it eases the pain and anxiety that come with dental work. It’s used to aid the torment of childbirth and can create “giggly, happy women during birth.” It’s used as a whipped cream propellent and also as a recreational drug known as “whippet” and “Hippie Crack.” It can also be found in fumes from burning coal and is a greenhouse gas.

We now know that nitrous oxide keeps nerve impulses from reaching their target. It blocks the gap between the nerve endings. Ketamine acts in the same way.  It also causes the release of opioid-like hormones and increases blood flow to the brain. It should be used infrequently. It hampers both male and female fertility. Indeed, neither Davy or his pupil Faraday had children.

 

 

Chemistry of pottery

When I was a kid, the street in front of me was torn up for reconstruction, and we neighborhood hoodlums dug in the exposed clay, a novelty for Iowans, and used it to make pots. We were engaging in some of the most basic chemistry, that is, allowing something to lose water and change its chemical structure. Most of chemistry is simply rearranging things and making pottery is no exception.

Clay begins as rocks which are dissolved by rain and water. The elements within are aluminum and silicon oxides that are held together with water. When the water is removed, the rocks reform as pottery. The most useful form of clay is kaolinite in which the aluminum and silicon oxides are in equal proportions.

Handling clay by throwing it on a wheel or pressing it together removes some of the water. With the water gone, the silicon and aluminum bond through the oxygens and not through wet hydrogen bonds. The new bonds are stronger. Firing the pot will drive off more water and change the chemical structure of the kaolinite from sheets to an amorphous glass.This process removes and locks out any water that might permeate the surface. Stoneware is fired at a higher temperature and contains less (no) water and is stronger than earthenware. Containing no water, it doesn’t heat up in the microwave.

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Above: an earthenware bowl from Sunflower Pottery. http://www.sunflowerpottery.com/home.html

Glazes are made from quartz and corundum, colorless forms of silica and aluminum oxides. Transition metals which take on various colors depending on their oxidation state and bonding, are added for color, and once again, firing the glaze allows bonds to form.

Of course, none of these technicalities can describe the art that goes into making beautiful pottery. Most recently, I visited Pewabic Pottery in Detroit.

 

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I decided I deserved a little treat. How do you like it?

 

One thing I love about pottery is that you can use it. It appeals to the practical side of me and the artistic side. Even the roughest of mornings can be brightened with the right tableware. And now, it’s time for breakfast.

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Thank you to the Royal Society of Chemistry for this article

Cough, cough. Birds, pigs, people, and Influenza A

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I’d like to thank https://informationisbeautiful.net/licensing for letting me use this for free because fewer than 100,000 people visit my blog.

If I had a vivid imagination, I could conjure up some sinister reason for cutting funds to the CDC and the NIH as our recent Congress has done and create a fiction from it. Perhaps a corrupt leader wanted to kill off the type of people he didn’t like and had secret vaccination programs for his followers. His enemies would become infected and die. One way to do that would be with Influenza A.

There are two main categories of Influenza viruses, A,B., and C. Type A viruses cause the most trouble and can be found in humans and animals, including whales, cats, horses, and other animals,notably birds and pigs. (Bats have their own special viruses.) Influenza B is uncomfortable to humans but not deadly. There is also a human C virus which is milder yet. Influenza A can be deadly.

Besides A and B viruses are then categorized by their H and N types of proteins that they have in their outer coatings. If you want to read more about that here is a great description.  Let’s just say that it takes a match up of the right H and N to allow a virus to invade your cells, hijack them, create “baby” viruses, and pop the cells to release moe viruses. That is how we get the designations such as H1H1 (the deadly Swine flu) and H2N3 (this year’s virulent strain.) Both of these, and all Influenzas, are zoonoses–infections that can move between people and animals.

Many Type A viruses can creep between birds, human, and pigs. If you look at charts from the CDC (why are we underfunding them by the way?) you can see that birds are a significant reservoir of these viruses. Shore birds including geese are potent carriers but other types of domestic and wild birds also carry viruses. For example N3 viruses are associated with ducks.

Most Influenza A viruses originate  in birds. However, not many of these are easily transmitted to people. They can be transmitted to pigs. Pigs are a common go-between for viruses. Pigs and humans can infect each other with influenza more easily than birds and humans can infect each other. Pig flu symptoms are much like human flu symptoms.

Domestic pigs get wild bird viruses when birds interact with water used for cleaning their housing facilities that sits on site in ponds. In my opinion, deregulation of such facilities is asking for a new flu to be created.  However, the global flu pattern is that influenzas originate in Asia.

Therefore, pigs act as mixing vessels for bird flu which is hard for people to catch and pig flu which people can catch.  They create new types of flu inside them–possibly in their snouts/respiratory tracts. 

H1, H2, and H3 viruses are common during flu season and all can infect people, birds, and pigs. These viruses begin in birds, then infect pigs, where they mix, and then move on to people. There are several other diseases that can be transmitted between pigs and people. Sick pigs are a serious thing.There are even plans in the works for the government to begin an educational program for kids who handle pigs at state fairs.

And there are/were government funded scientists working on a universal flu vaccine, which we all want but is not profitable enough for big pharma to develop. That’s why we have to rely on public funds. Or if you have a sinister mind, the people who currently are in charge here in the United States do not want the common people to have this vaccine.

There is even a professor at Iowa State who is working on a universal vaccine that can be delivered via eating corn!

Another bit of good news is that UV light can kill airborne flu viruses. and these may soo be installed in hospitals and airports.

And a Japanese company has a drug that can keep the influenza virus from entering our cells, stopping it from multiplying within a day. 

So before you vote, ask your politicians what they want to do with the meager bit of taxes they’ll be collecting. Do they want a Universal flu vaccine or something like a wall or a military parade? When you are laid low with the next flu epidemic or even pandemic, you probably aren’t going to care about all that stuff you accumulated. Consider your priorities.

 

 

Wrinkle creams–social panacea and or cover-up?

The other day I was in the grocery store and one of the employees went up to a grey haired woman and asked. “What can I help you with, young lady?” She gave him a surprised look and I had to hold myself back. What made him think that such a patronizing comment was welcome? It’s well known that older women are denigrated and rarely seen prime time. Once you can’t reproduce, you’re no good to men, only to children. Even young women dislike older women. Older and female? You might even be evil–with the exception of Hispanic culture. I suppose that’s why he thought he was doing her a favor, kind of like that boss I had who kissed all the women in a benevolent way.

My problem? I’ve sat on the sun far too long. I like to be warm. I want  my skin to make my vitamin D–it’s better that way.  But it’s like beer–no need for too much and I’m guilty of the “If a little is good, more is better” syndrome. Ultra-violet rays  break down collagen and the loss of collagen and elastin proteins forms folds of skin known as wrinkles. This is most pronounced for Caucasians. But UV light isn’t the only thing that breaks down collagen--sugar and stress can do the same. Wind and smoking will also add wrinkles. So will lack of sleep–ask any parent.

As child, I thought my grandmother’s wrinkles were fascinating and beautiful. Then, society told me different. So that’s why I say, until the partriarcy falls, there’s no shame in trying out wrinkle creams.

What do you want from a skin cream? Here are some substances to consider:

Retinoids increase collagen production but take several months to work and can be irritating. The new skin is sensitive and thin so it can burn more easily, too. That’s why this product is recommended primarily for night use.

Vitamin C is an antioxidant and protects skin from UV exposure and can reduce wrinkles. It works by removing compounds that break down collagen. The beter way to get Vitamin C is to eat it rather than apply it.

Alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid exfoliate the skin and may remove wrinkles but how they work is yet unknown.

Niacin amide (B3) can also stimulate collagen production and there is some indication that riboflavin (B2) may do the same. A vitamin B analog known as DMAE could increase skin firmness but formulations that don’t harm the skin have proven tricky. These studies are preliminary.

Peptides–pentapeptides in particular–can work to stimulate collagen production.

Alpha hydroxyl acids used in skin peels have been shown to decrease blotchiness and skin roughness.

Hyaluronic acid can be applied or injected and does a good job of attracting moisture to the skin and plumping out minor wrinkles. The effects aren’t long lasting but there are few side effects.

Vitamin E. Tests about this one are inconclusive. It probably works to protect the skin but not as well as Vitamin C.

Collagen is not absorbed through the skin so its application isn’t known to reduce wrinkles. However, it might do so when paired with riboflavin.

Q-10 is produced by the skin as an antioxidant and decreases with age so it makes sense that putting it on your skin will renew it. However, no studies have shown any benefit from applying it to skin.

Most botanicals have produced inconclusive results in the lab when rubbed on human skin or rabbit ears. Aloe vera might increase collagen production. Soy might help remove fine wrinkles according to studies done with people and with hairless mice. But soy has its drawbacks. 

Moisturizers such as glycerin have shown mixed results. Some studies indicate that the skin becomes hydrated from them and others show that they act as a barrier to prevent dryness but do not increase skin hydration.

Here is a graphic highlighting the most effective substances.

One thing to remember is that looking young and feeling young are two different things. You can take a natural approach to protecting skin by eating plenty of  fruits and vegetables and getting enough sleep and exercise. It doesn’t help to produce collagen if you have weak bones for it to cling to. In fact, your wrinkles may be a sign that your bones need attention.

A toss away line in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 went like this.

“You remind me of an old lady”

“Oh, you mean wise.”

But were there any old lady characters in the movie? No.

Older women are wise, powerful, intuitive, and opinionated–this is why they are feared by the patriarchy. Nowhere is this fear more evident than the United States today. Until we put an end to this nonsense,  it never hurts to try out some skin products–because who wants to be wise and ignored or even worse, unjustly hated? However, keep in mind that your skin is an indicator of your overall well-being. Perhaps we dislike wrinkles because they are tattle-tales, telling the world of our sleepless nights and wild abandon or maybe that we had to work too hard. With that in mind, I wonder what the grocery store man should have said.

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Age before beauty? It should be the case.

 

A holiday indicator

 

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The colorful leaves of poinsettias are called bracts. 

The bracts can  be pH indicators.

To test this, I took a leaf from a stunning red poinsettia, shredded it, placed it in 20 milliliters ( 4 tsp, 1 tbsp) of rubbing alcohol, and heated it for 30 seconds, I separated it into three portions and put a splash of white vinegar in one (for the acid) and baking soda in the other to make it alkaline. I left the third untouched as a control. Here are the results:

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Poinsettia leaves in acid, alkaline, and “control” solutions.

 

It isn’t as stunning as you would see with red cabbage but if you know anyone disappointed that they aren’t getting a chemistry set for the holidays, it’s a cheap thrill. At least for nerds like me.

Poinsettia plants originated in Mexico. They are named after the botanist who introduced them to the United States, Joel Robert Poinsettia. He dug up Mexican “weeds” growing along the side of the road and brought them back to South Carolina in the mid 1800s. Poinsettias are by far the most widely sold potted plant in the United States. The most popular colors are red, white, and pink in that order.

During the holiday season, give your poinsettia plenty of water and sun. Don’t let it sit in water. Move the pot out of the foil and onto a saucer or poke holes in the foil and let it drain into a saucer. They hate drafts and cold windows so protect yours and the blooms will last 6-8 weeks.

After the holidays, you can cut back on the watering and fertilizer and let it go dormant. Water if it gets droopy but no more. Resume fertilizing in late March. Put it outside during the summer and pinch the tips in August to encourage branching.

To get a poinsettia to reflower you have to keep it in total darkness  for at least twelve hours and if you can keep it in the dark between 5 pm and 8 am. It will take a while. “Start this around October 1st and continue until color shows on the bracts; usually around early to mid-December. Any little exposure to light can prevent flowering. Covering the plant with a light-proof bag and placing it in a closet might work.”http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/faq.cfm

They aren’t really poisonous but contain latex-like sap that can cause allergies and be irritating to pets. There’s no reason to avoid them and you can even experiment with them. Enjoy!

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New food labeling, K?

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In 2018 you’ll see a new nutrient listed on your food label, the element potassium. Potassium is known to chemists by its symbol : K (not to be confused with Vitamin K which is something different.) Potassium is one of those weird elements with a symbol that doesn’t reflect its name in English. The name comes from the word potash because it is found in plant ashes. The Latin name for plant ashes is Kalium.

Potassium is vital to life. It regulates heart beat and muscle function. Thus, low  potassium can cause muscle cramps, irregular heart beat, and fainting. Bruising and vein problems could be a symptom of low potassium. There are all sorts of reasons for these symptoms, of course, but your body struggling for potassium doesn’t need to be one of them. Potassium is also important for bone health.

On the periodic table potassium sits right below sodium. It’s sodium’s big sister and acts much like sodium in the body in that it is an electrolyte. However, we need much more potassium than sodium in our diets. We need 4,700 mg each day. You need less than half that amount of sodium.  Too much sodium with too little potassium creates hypertension aka high blood pressure.

Before high-salt processed foods came about, getting more dietary potassium than sodium was easy. Potassium is an important mineral for plants. It is the K in the NPK ratio shown on fertilizer boxes. (The other letters are for nitrogen and phosphorus.)  Plants need potassium and contain a lot of it. Therefore, a high plant diet provides enough potassium. Plants rich in potassium are found across the globe. You can find all sorts of lists of high potassium foods but here are some I’ll eat:

potatoes  (K is much lower in potato chips by the way. Fries are a little better but oh, the grease and salt!)

bananas

almonds

bran

acorn squash

soy/edamame

wild rice

corn

avocados

prunes

yogurt

molasses

cantaloupe

tomato paste

bamboo shoots

seaweed (I admit–I don’t much like this.)

It should be easy to get potassium so what’s the problem?

First of all, we need a lot so if you skimp on the vegetables and fruit, you might be lacking.

Second, it’s water soluble and can be flushed out with too much liquid–particularly alcohol. There is a phrase among health care professionals–“with booze, you loose.”

Additionally, salt (more specifically the sodium in salt) can displace it and cause more of it to be excreted. However, if you get enough potassium, salt is less dangerous to your health. Unfortunately, high salt foods will drive the potassium out of your system. It’s a tricky balance that can be thrown off with high sodium dishes. As the saying goes, the relationship is complicated.

So why isn’t potassium in more supplements? Can’t I get it from those? Supplements should be taken only with a doctor’s advice.  Too much potassium is dangerous. Some people should not consume a lot of potassium. People with kidney or other health problems need to be on low potassium diets. Drugs can change potassium levels even if the drugs do not contain potassium. Medical professionals monitor patients who take potassium supplements. For these patients, the new label can serve as a warning on what to avoid. Additionally–it’s easier for your body to regulate your potassium balance if you get it from foods throughout the day rather than taking a walloping dose all at once.

Worried about potassium? Most people shouldn’t be. Watch those labels and eat the right foods. It will be O.K.

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Foods will be labeled with potassium content beginning in 2018. You’d have to drink a lot of this eggnog to get your daily dose of potassium.