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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

An Interview with The Hexagon of Alpha Chi Sigma

Alpha Chi Sigma is a professional society for chemists. One thing that I like about them is that they honor chemistry’s alchemical roots. They even have a cool coat of arms.

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Do I consider myself part alchemist? Of course I do! Alchemists developed many of the “wet” chemistry techniques we use today including precipitation, sublimation, and distillation. Yes they added prayers and chants to their formulas but I’m sure many students today do likewise. Possibly the chants might include curse words. The truth about chemistry is that it is a discipline that requires some seasoning, some experiences, some sort of unmeasurable history with the techniques. Chemistry honors the ancients. The more time you spend with it, the easier it becomes.

I was recently interviewed for the AXE magazine, The Hexagon. I appreciated the opportunity to share my experiences as a scientist and an author. In fact, I thank everyone who has read my writing, everyone who has encouraged me, and all who have left positive reviews.

Here’s a transcript:

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(1) Describe your projects. I have two novels published by small presses. Natural Attraction came out in 2015. It’s a comedy about Clementine, who longs to be a scientist in 1871. She drinks a tonic which helps her partially transform into a man and takes part in a prospecting expedition as a naturalist. Mixed In—a comic dystopia– just came out this month. It features Catrina, a chemist in the agricultural industry, who gets mixed up with a man on the wrong side of the law.

(2) Describe your motivations. Besides wanting to entertain people, I’m responding to a lack of interesting scientific characters in fiction. Must scientists always be anti-social side characters obsessed only with their work? Can’t the female scientist be adventurous, flawed, and get the guy now and then?

(3) Why do you think these topics are important? Science has enriched our lives and yet people have this fear of it and even a disregard of scientists, seeing them as walking brains and not as real people with normal wants and needs. I admit that my characters are quirky and maybe even nerdy at times but they have the same desires and the same problems at work as many people along with loads of passion and curiosity. They even have friends and care about humanity.

(4) What sort of distinctive twist do you bring to the discourse? I don’t shy away from having my protagonists deeply involved in plausible science. I also bring in social issues that scientists and women in particular face as they struggle to balance all of their desires. I must admit that the novels are also a little naughty. They’re not erotic but they are aimed at an adult audience. To add to the mix, I’ve made them comedies because science plus tragedy was done well-enough in 1816 with Frankenstein. Of course things go wrong in my novels but I’m hoping to demystify science, not make it dreadful.

(5) Any connections to your AXE experiences? In Natural Attraction Clementine gets her tonic from and later becomes close friends with chemist Theophrastus. Yes, there is a chemical basis for all that happens with that tonic but maybe a little romantic alchemy was involved as well.

(6) Other reflections on AXE to share. One of the first things I ever published was a monologue called I the Great Paracelsus based on the writings of Paracelsus. It was even performed at a conclave. I am a lot richer as a chemist due to my understanding of chemical history and I still have connections with Alpha Theta. My publishers are small and I’m not on the New York Times best seller list but if any brothers want more information on fiction writing or publishing I’d be happy to offer my advice. They can contact me at hausteinc@gmail.com or through my blog at catherinehaustein.com.

 

 

 

 

 

In which I face a crisis of lifestyle

Nobody gives out Nobel prizes for housecleaning–that’s long been my motto. This week my motto got a challenge, a setback, and today you’ll find me–gasp–cleaning up!

Being a chemist can have some serious drawbacks–such as the weekly news we get from the American Chemical Society. You think politics is un-nerving? Add to that a steady dose of news about the hidden life of chemicals. This week there was an excellent, but of course scary piece about house dust. To quote author Janet Pelley“More than just dirt, house dust is a mix of sloughed-off skin cells, hair, clothing fibers, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, pollen, and microscopic specks of plastic. It’s our detritus and, it turns out, has a lot to reveal about our lifestyle.”

Believe it or not, scientists study dust to learn about the lives and chemical exposure of the residents of a house. Dust can hold tiny particles of the solids that make up our lives. It also contains substances that stick to the surface of these particles. Sometimes these might be things you’d expect to blow away in the wind or wash away with water. Instead, they cling to the dust. They are what chemists would call sorbed or adsorbed.

Farm house dust, for example, contains a high amount of pesticides–often cancer causing ones. These can stick to carpets and even crawl down and reside in the carpet pads. OSHA scientists have found that farm house dust contains much more pesticide residue than non-farm house dust and that most of this lurks in the entry way or the laundry room. Roundup and “agent orange” are found most prevalently. OSHA suggests that removing carpet, regular vacuuming, and keeping shoes and boots outside can cut down on the levels of pollution in farm dust.

Farm houses might have an extra shot of pesticides in their dust but all homes contain plenty of worry. The most common toxic subtance in house dust is the plasticiser DEHP. This subtance can cause hormone disruption and even affect sperm. Where does it come from? Anything vinyl and also from plastic used in food coverings. Similar plasticisers found in paint and nail polish show up in household dust as do flame retardants and beauty product residues–all of which can cause reproductive system upsets. If the reproductive concerns don’t worry you consider this–the flame retardants have been implicated in weight gain.

If you live in Iowa there is even more lurking in dust as our all too common radon decays to lead and can be left in the dust.

Sadly, even cleaning products themselves are found in dust. Some of these can create a pleasant foamy cleaning power but are reproductive disruptors as well. It might be best to use these sparingly and stick to the old vinegar and baking soda.

I’m a lax housekeeper but I’m off to dust because to paraphrase Neal Young “Dust never sleeps.”

Birth control banned in the United States!

cool-must-see-black-white-historic-moments-children-saleThe idea that birth control is lewd and promotes bad behavior has a long history in the United States. Bans or partial bans were a part of our history from the 1870s to the 1960s and there is one figurehead presumed to be responsible for it all.

Morality crusader Anthony Comstock was at first assumed to be a buffoon or eccentric who was overly concerned with the morality of other people. He was from rural Connecticut but began his career in New York City because, of course, cities must be regulated and punished for they are filled with debauchery and filth. Unfortunately,while most city people laughed at this absurd notion and his antics which included chasing prostitutes with umbrellas, he was taken seriously by the country folk and by a few rich men including wealthy ultra-conservatives such as Samuel Colgate and J. Pierpont Morgan. Colgate was a prude and Morgan wanted to see banking deregulated. They decided that America needed a purity movement and politicians–who would also give them the legislation they wanted– to go with it. They hired Comstock to lead the purity movement which would help get their guys elected. It worked.

Backed by a corrupt Congress, Comstock was able to push through the Comstock Act which was the law of the land from 1873-1915. This legislation prevented the mailing, selling, teaching about, producing, or discussing any form of contraception. Comstock himself hated condoms and condom sellers in particular. He said that they had to be hunted down like rats. Fortunately, the underfunding of police and government forces allowed for home businesses creating condoms to pop up and condoms became black market items.

Noting their oppression, women took it upon themselves to give each other educational lectures about birth control and some of these educators were highly popular and experts at eluding arrest. As a nurse, Margaret Sanger became alarmed by the number of poor women dying from illegal abortions. She wrote pamphlets about birth control and became a hero to most married women of her day. It was well understood that too  many children inadequately spaced risks the health of both the mother and the child. Also, children of older, well-educated mothers have better survival rates and are healthier. Sanger became the first woman to openly run an illegal birth control clinic.

Sanger was from a large family and blamed lack of birth control for her mother’s death. She had greater fervor than Comstock did. Her work eventually overturned his laws and she helped develop and promote birth control pills. She even coined the term “birth control.” She lived to be 89–fifty years longer than her poor mother. Most of her success came in the last decades of her life. Never underestimate the power of a passionate little old lady! Sanger followed her own advice and had just two healthy sons who interestingly enough became football players and one had a career a coach. Comstock had no children–his detractors claimed he was a eunuch–but stood as an inspiration to ultra-conservatives for decades after this death. Here’s another interesting tidbit about Comstock, he praised women for trying their hardest to look good for men–their lords–but was against corsets because they might interfere with pregnancies and reduce milk supplies. Ladies, it’s all about the babies!

Today there is more data than ever that delaying and limiting childbirth produces children who are stronger, smarter, and even taller. If you are or plan to be happy with the number of children you have and look forward to an active and productive retirement, you can thank Sanger. And be on the look-out for modern day Comstocks!