Curious Rebels

Science is a new endeavor, being around 400 years old. It’s assumptions are simple, but limited.

1. Nature can be understood. 2. Science can be verified.  Under the same circumstances, nature can be perceived in the same way by all observers. Repeatability is important to science. Measurement allows for duplication of results. 3. Human reason is adequate to understand nature. 4. Every effect has a natural cause.

The word “science” is based on the Latin word for “knowledge”. Science searches for order in nature.Science is a body of knowledge based on OBSERVATION. It’s dynamic, meaning that it is ever changing in content. It is a quest for understanding requiring Curiosity—asking questions, Creativity—ability to solve new problems, reasoning ability, and more recently Team work.

It’s certainly changed the world and killed superstition. However, Stripped of its glamor, day to day science can be routine and even boring. Or perhaps, at the best of days, familiar. Why does a person undertake being a scientist? Scientists are often driven by having outsider status.

In the book The Scientist as Rebel (2006) Freeman Dyson makes this statement.  “There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision.  Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions.  But there is one common element in these visions.  The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture.”

Michael Strevens, a philosopher at New York University, supports this notion. He aimed to identify that special something that drives people to collect data. The something special, he says, is that they want to produce new evidence to argue with. He maintains, it is “the key to science’s success,” because it “channels hope, anger, envy, ambition, resentment—all the fires fuming in the human heart—to one end: the production of empirical evidence.”

I was a curious little girl, always asking why and what if. And science suits me. The routine is a comfort and the new is a thrill.But I might not have become a scientist at all if I hadn’t been told I couldn’t do it.

Thus,it should come as no surprise that the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry are two women. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. The two are noted for their development of a bacteria based gene editing technique known as CRISPR.

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPRs, are repeating sequences found in the genetic code of bacteria. Bacteria use specific CRISPR associated genes as a defense mechanism against viruses. Viruses are as dangerous to bacteria as they are to us. In the CRISPR process, a protein is produced. It cuts viral genetic material, and the bacteria pockets it as a mug shot to use to identify the virus. Thus, the technique can cut and store bits of DNA in a cell’s strand.

For more information, watch this.

Fanciful Illustration of crispr gene engineering

Scientists are curious rebels. They don’t accept the limitations of society and those with something to prove are among the most successful. It can be argued that to teach conformity and acceptance is to snuff out the scientific spirit.

Freeman Dyson warns, “If science ceases to be a rebellion against authority, then it does not deserve the talents of our brightest children…We should try to introduce our children to science today as rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and injustice.”

Scientists are inherently skeptical and require a lot of proof for a new idea.  They are also curious and like new ideas. This creates a tension. Most scientists enjoy and celebrate this tension.

And with this new Nobel, I have something to celebrate, since the CRISPR technique is used in my latest novel Lost in Waste. Catch the Crispr fever! For a copy click here, or comment.

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And thanks to Curious Rebels forty years ago, the default for scientist is no longer a man.

What’s the spread?

The pandemic brought out the urge for comfort foods and panic eating in many people, including me. One thing I indulged in was butter on homemade bread. But with all of the discussion on the relationships between fat, covid complications and obesity, I grow concerned about my new eating habits. I asked myself, how bad is butter?

Some studies have said that butter isn’t all that bad for you.

The alternative, margerine, is syntheic and at one time was made from laboratory created trans fats. Trans fats, along wih their identical twin saturated fats, in simple terms, are solid at room temperature as opposed to unsaturated fats, which are liquid. Trans fats are hard on blood vessels and can damage the inner lining.

We all need some fat. Fat is needed for brain function. It’s needed for hormones and reproduction. (although too much is detriental to fertility). In fact, fat and cholesterol are important starting materials in making sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. However, too much of some fats can increase the damaging LDL (Low-density lipoproteins ) form of cholesterol. This type of cholesterol packs a choleresterol punch and provides an excess and even worse, it doesn’t move around in your body easily. It plugs up your arteries instead of doing much good. HDL, however, contains more protein, which is used to help move cholesterol to the proper spots.

With this in mind, I read an interesting study from the Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine published in March 2018. Men and women between 50-75 years old were divided into three groups and given 50 g of one source of fat to eat as a suppliment or use instead of other fat in their normal diets. Their blood serum chloresterol, weight, and body measurements were taken before the study and after four weeks.

The three fats were

butter- an animal derived saturated fat (solid at room temperature)

coconut oil -a plant derived saturated fat (solid at room temperature)

olive oil -a plant derived unsaturated fat liquid (although it also is high in saturated fats as well).

All of the fats were organic.

After the results were reviewed four weeks later, the participants had not gained weight or body mass. All groups had slightly higher total cholesterol, with olive oil showing the least change. However, the butter group had the highest increase in cholesterol and less good cholesterol and much higher bad cholesterol. The other groups, coconut and olive oil, had mostly increased good chloresterol, with coconut oil increasing the most.

This study only examined three fats and only for a short amount of time. It was enough to jolt me back into healthier eating habits. Only four weeks of butter eating made a big impact, adding 30% more bad cholesterol. As for margarine, most no longer contains trans fats, which have been banned. However, I don’t like the taste. I for one am going switch to olive oil and when it comes to fat, I’ll read the label with an eye towards less saturated fat and no trans fat.

Which one will it be?

Is it the hand sanitizer?

You go through your day in a fog. You’re tired all day but jazzed at night. You get in the car and can barely drive. You have a headache and congestion and maybe a cough due to post nasal drip but no fever. You ask yourself, is it covid? Ask a second question: how much hand sanitizer did I use today?

In these times, I find myself drifting between normalcy and hypochondria. If I have a period of time when I can isolate, I am at peace, but if I have to go out, I might not be able to sleep afterwards. Yes, it could be anxiety. Or is it the hand sanitizer? Today, I got in the car for a grocery pick up. A delivery driver pulled up. I didn’t want to leave the package sitting on the porch. I put on a mask, got out, retrieved the package, got back into the car, and generously used hand sanitizer.

The grocery pick up involved popping the trunk for the grocery delivery, closing it, and driving away. But I felt bad, like I had stumbled in a hole. In fact, I got out of the car in the garage and I almost did stumble. Worried, I took my temperature. It was normal. Then, I thought through the chain of events and took a moment to review the hazards of the active ingredient in my hand sanitizer, ethanol. Here it is:

Do not breathe mist, spray, vapors
Wash exposed skin thoroughly after handling
Do not eat, drink or smoke when using this product

I had the sanitizer in my hot car even though another hazard reads: Store in a well-ventilated place. Keep cool.

From another site:

Inhalation: Inhalation of high concentrations may cause central nervous system effects characterized by nausea, headache, dizziness, unconsciousness and coma. Causes respiratory tract irritation. May cause narcotic effects in high concentration. Vapors may cause dizziness or suffocation. 

As a chemist, I should have known better than to use hand sanitizer in a hot car with the windows rolled up. It’s basically booze.

From a study in 2017 “Inhaled alcohol may be associated with enhanced behavioral effects including increased risk of addiction. “:

The study includes this chart:

From Alcohol Clin Exp Res
 2017 Feb;41(2):238-250.
 doi: 10.1111/acer.13291. Yale based reserch group

In other words, not much is known about inhalation of alcohol, but it does get into your blood more quickly and at a higher concentration than if you drink it. Alcohol can cause covid-like symptoms such as a headache and stuffy nose. Alcohol can make anxiety worse and cause sleep problems.

The bottom line is NOT that you should not use hand sanitizer. COVID is a dangerous virus. You must protect yourself. However: USE SPARINGLY AND IN A WELL-VENTILATED AREA!

And of course, the best protection is quarantine, followed by masking. Hand sanitizer should not be used as an excuse to allow gatherings or to force workers into dangerous situations. It’s not a panacea, only a caution, and it has its own drawbacks. A better alternative to school situations is probably to have hand washing stations with soap and water in classrooms, similar to what you find at outdoor concerts and music festivals.

In the bag: tips for the perfect coffee

Recently, the act of grinding coffee beans for the days’s cup struck me as pleasantly normal. Back when I was rushing off to an office and classroom, even something as small as grinding coffee was just one more obstacle to getting out the door. Whole bean coffee was in the “not worth it ” category, along with, at times, ironing. The semester from hell was over. Now, suddenly, I had a moment to appreciate the freshness and aroma of newly ground coffee. But what helps make coffee fresh? What keeps it fresh? And why does ground coffee smell so good?

Coffee beans undergo chemical reactions when roasted. This process creates hundreds of new chemicals.

Many of these chemicals are are good for you and and a few are bad. The good ones can “protect against gout (by lowering uric acid levels), tooth decay and gallstones… there is mounting and strong evidence for coffee providing some protection against type 2 diabetes.”  Coffee might even prevent Alzheimers disease.  Acrylamide is one of the few bad chemicals and more is found in in light roasts.

One thing that happens during roasting is the beans get lighter and more porous. The pores hold both carbon dioxide and the chemicals which give coffee its aroma. Of the many chemicals in coffee only a few are responsible for the aroma. Of these, a furan-2- methanethiol gets the most attention. Its odor has been described as a combination of nutty and burnt match. Clearly, the full range of aromas combine to give coffee its good smell. Medium roasts are most aromatic.

The good smell is created by less than 1% of the gases in coffee beans. Most of the gas trapped in the pores of a roasted bean is carbon dioxide. It makes up 1-2% of the weight of the roasted coffee.

Fresh coffee when brewed will have a delightful white foam called crema. This is made from carbon dioxide.

The way the coffee is roasted has a large effect on the gases trapped in the beans. Dark and medium coffees are highly impacted by roasting temperature and high temperatures release more gas–which you do not want. In the case of coffee, we want gas. Darker roasts are more porous and hold more gases to begin with. But the pores break down quickly when ground.

Keeping oxygen away is an important part of keeping coffee fresh. Carbon dioxide is found in highest concentrations in freshly roasted coffee. In a bag of coffee, carbon dioxide forms a protective atmosphere to keep oxygen away. Always close up your bag or canister of coffee to keep out oxygen and keep in carbon dioxide.

Grinding coffee will release up to half of the carbon dioxide within a few minutes and the grind will slowly lose the carbon dioxide over the course of days. Course ground coffee will lose the least carbon dioxide and fine ground the most. Keeping the bag closed will help prevent further loss.

An issue to be aware of when buying and drinking coffee goes further than the bag. Many coffee plantations are human rights violators, especially in Brazil. Many large suppliers of coffee have purchased coffee grown and picked using slave labor. Although coffee is originally from Africa, it was stolen and imported to South America and Haiti, along with Africans captured to tend it. Native people, particularly the Mayans, were also enslaved to bring us coffee.

This means that besides grinding beans before use & keeping the bag closed, the ideal cup of coffee will be Fair Trade.

Bulletproof is one such brand and here’s my favorite.

This company will let you select country of origin, are Fair Trade, and send you a clip to keep the coffee closed. They also advocate putting coffee in the freezer and I agree. The gases will be lost from the coffee pores much more slowly when cold.

There are plenty more to choose from should you do a search. Like grinding my coffee, paying attention to Fair Trade has not been a priority of mine. However, it will be in the future.

Thanks to this article for information on carbon dioxide in coffee:

Time-Resolved Gravimetric Method To Assess Degassing of Roasted Coffee, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2018, 5293-5300. Corresponding author is Chahan Yeretzian

Dirty Butts

Butts can keep away parasites in a nest but also spread poison and disease

Last week, while driving, I turned the corner on Main & University and a woman going the other direction in a white car sat at the stoplight. As I passed, she flung a cigarette butt in my direction from her open window. I had to wonder: do cigarette butts carry coronavirus?

Believe it or not, cigarette butts are the most prevalent trash–4.5 trillion are discarded annually world wide. They consist of cellulose acetate, a fairly standard plastic. Seventy-five percent of smokers admit to tossing their butts onto the ground or out car windows. They persist in the environment for a long time, and what’s caught in them flows out into the wide open spaces.

Chemists have been studying the environmental impact of cigarette butts on the environment. Being the kind of chemist who might study such a thing, an analytical chemist, I’ve attended talks about butt pollution. In one study, chemists at a university tested the ground at a pristine park and at a well known smoking area near by where butts littered the ground. No surprise, nicotine was found in the soil in the smoking area. More surprisingly, other chemists found that the butts emit vaporized nicotine and other toxins for up to a week after they’ve been used. Cigarette butts give off heavy metals such as lead and arsenic (which are toxic). They contain cholesterol (also in smoke according to a 1971 study). They leach plasticizers. Butts inhibit plant growth.They sicken kids who eat them.They are almost as dangerous as cigarettes themselves. Being near an ash tray is like smoking. (Some people advocate coffee grounds in ashtrays to soak up the smell.)

Sharing a smoke spreads all sorts of things–viruses, bacteria, flu, Hepatitis A. Cigs are not well regulated and are filled with toxic mold and bacteria. Do butts carry coronavirus? I can’t find any evidence. Yet, it seems likely they do.

New York is covered with butts and they have an outbreak.

People smoke most in Southeast Asia. They haven’t been hit hard by the virus, or are underreporting.

Even tidy Singapore has coronavirus. Health officials there are looking askance at disposable items such as napkins used in outdoor markets as “mini biohazards.” They note that birds will fly around with disposable items such as tissues. Birds also pick up cigarette butts, and sometimes feed them to their babies, not only in Singapore but across the globe.

The butts create water pollution. Even if they don’t spread coronavirus, which can live on surface for days so it is a possibility, they are harmful. People are rushing to stock up on toilet paper in case of a quarantine. It would be good if other butts, along with disposable napkins, cups, etc. were cleaned up as well.

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 can 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. Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan also have plenty of the stuff. 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.
    Can there be a much better name for a shoe than Mercurial Superfly?
  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.

    Imagine of mercury accumulation from
  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.

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.