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DEET Me Up: How Best to Repel a Mosquito

Recent posts from our Blog - Thu, 07/21/2016 - 12:14
When it comes to protection from mosquitoes, opinions are abuzz.  Burn citronella candles.  Wear repellant bracelets.  Douse yourself with Avon's Skin-So-Soft.  Eat garlic.  Take vitamin B1 supplements.  Use concentrated DEET.  Use dilute DEET.  People are confused.  Needlessly.  There are many questions science cannot readily answer, but the question of what is the most effective mosquito repellant is not one of them.  That's because it doesn't take rocket science to design an appropriate study.  You don't need sophisticated equipment and you don't have to extrapolate from rat studies.  All you need are some human volunteers who are willing to stick their bare arms into a cage of hungry female mosquitoes.  And that is exactly what researchers had fifteen volunteers do at the University of Florida in a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.  And now we know what works and what does not. This study was very carefully done.  Temperature, humidity, density of the mosquito population and state of hunger of the insects were all controlled.  Sixteen popular products were purchased and tested repeatedly with the time until first bite being accurately measured.  Lets' start with what doesn't work.  You can forget about any of the "repellant" wristbands.  They kept mosquitoes away for the stunning time of about twenty seconds.  Avon's "Skin-So-Soft" may make your skin feel soft but will only keep the bugs away for about twenty minutes.  After that your skin will get pretty bumpy from all the bites. Other citronella preparations fared even worse.  So unless you are willing to walk around constantly spraying yourself, forget the citronella products.  So what works?  N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide or "DEET." Read more
Categories: OSS Blog

Chaotic Seabirds

Recent posts from our Blog - Mon, 07/18/2016 - 15:34
Chaotic Seabirds In August 1961, in Capitola and Santa Cruz, California there was an invasion of what people described as "chaotic seabirds." These birds were believed to be under the influence of domoic acid, a neurotoxin that is produced by algae and accumulates in shellfish, sardines, and anchovies (aka "filter feeders") and inspired a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s feature 1963 film, "The Birds." Same Genes, Different Traits Even though identical (monozygotic) twins may have the exact same gentic make-up, it is possible that they can have different features from one another. This is thanks to differences in the womb (also known as "developmental noise", where indivudals can develop differences due to noise in signaling and signal interpretation) and differences in environments ancountered after birth. In fact, the genes - albeit identical - can actually be expressed differently, thereby leading to very different drug reactions and susceptibilities to disease. This is one reason why one identical twin may suffer from a disease like Multiple Sclerosis while the other does not. A Vegas Myth I'm sure you've heard the myth that oxygen is pumped into casinos to give people more energy and keep them awake. This is, in fact, the enduring Vegas myth of all time. There's no doubt that the casinos keep the air chilly to give that same effect, but there's no mechanim actually pumping extra oxygen into the system. If this were to be true, a major problem could ensue - since pumping oxygen into a room would increase the flammability of the air. Babies, C-Sections & Microbes Babies who are delivered by C-section don't go through the birth canal, and as a result they don't get the beneficial microbes that babies born via the birth canal receive. This might help explain why C-section babies are at a higher risk for a variety of diseases. A recent study suggests, however, that this can be mitigated by slathering babies just after birth with a gauze pad that soaked up the microbes in the mothers' birth canal right before birth. Why? Because it helps restore and normalize the baby’s microbiome. It Ain't Over Till The Fat Lady Sings...or is it? There seems to be a longstanding relationship between the opera and weight. Famous operatic tenor and pasta lover, Luciano Pavarotti, was estimated to have gained and lost more than five thousand pounds in his career and theorized that fat people were happy because their nerves were "well protected." And then there's the expression, "it ain't over until the fat lady sings", which in today's day may be no longer applicable. A few years ago, Deborah Voigt, an American soprano, was fired at London's Covent Garden for being too large to fit into the cocktail dress designed for her character in Strauss's opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. Voigt later underwent gastric bypass surgery and was then rehired for the same role at the same venue.
Categories: OSS Blog

Toxic chemicals in the environment

Recent posts from our Blog - Fri, 07/15/2016 - 21:42

Virtually no day goes by without an alert from the media about some chemical in the environment that is suspected of harming our health. It may do this by disrupting our hormones, triggering cancer, causing heart disease, affecting brain development, or any combination of these. Among numerous other substances it might be oxybenzone in sunscreens, tetrachloroethylene residue in dry cleaned clothes, caramel colouring in cola drinks, arsenic in rice or phthalates in plastics. The allegations are generally backed up by references to the scientific literature but interpreting the data in practical terms is very challenging. It has been said that our ability to collect data has outstripped our ability to analyze what the data means.

Take endocrine disruptors for example. These are chemicals that can in some way interfere with the chemical messengers we call hormones. Such interference can cause cancer, developmental issues, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, obesity and reproduction problems, especially if exposure is during the critical period of development between a fertilized egg and a full formed baby. This is the time when cells multiply quickly and take on their individual characteristics. Exposure to chemicals that would be innocuous in an adult can at this point have serious consequences. It stands to reason that effort should be made to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors particularly during pregnancy.

But here’s the rub. We are awash in endocrine disruptors, both natural and synthetic. There are dozens and dozens of chemicals that when tested on cell cultures in the lab or in animals have hormone disruptive effects. Yes, there are the usual suspects like bisphenol A, phthalates and parabens, but numerous others don’t get much play in the press because they occur in nature. Naringenin in oranges and grapefruit, genistein and daidzen in soy, hops in beer, nicotine in tobacco caffeine in coffee and indole in corn can all be shown to have the ability to disrupt hormonal activity. The same goes for resveratrol in red wine, as well as for ethanol which is the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. Of course the effects of all of these are dose dependent and route of exposure dependent. Inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure can have very different effects.

I am certainly not saying that we should have no worries about chemicals to which we are exposed. We do need to be concerned about alcohol, lead, smoke, mercury, some pesticides and some flame retardants, but we also need to understand that just because some substance in a pure form causes an adverse effect in a test tube or in an animal doesn’t mean that its presence in a consumer product presents a risk. There are thousands of chemical reactions going on in our body all the time including numerous ones that break down potential toxins. The human body and its interaction with chemicals is far too complex to yield simple answers.

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Categories: OSS Blog

Plastics

Recent posts from our Blog - Fri, 07/15/2016 - 21:36

"I hate plastics. We should get rid of them.” So began an email I received. The correspondent went on to talk about how plastics are a plague on the environment, how they contain chemicals that contaminate our food supply, disrupt our hormones, cause autism and ADHD and use up valuable petroleum deposits. What prompted the email was some comments I made about different plastics having different properties and how there were some concerns with some but not with others. The disturbing part of the message was the insinuation that I must be in the pockets of the plastic industry since I did not agree that plastics were substances forged in hell. That allegation is easy to answer. I get zero funding from the petroleum or plastics industries. My allegiance is to the scientific method. Where that path leads, I go.

It is true that plastics can be an environmental plague. But plastic shopping bags don’t jump into rivers or trees by themselves, and empty bottles that should be recycled don’t leap into garbage cans unaided. People are the problem. As far as using up petroleum resources, only about 5% of oil goes towards plastic manufacture, and in North America the prime raw material is actually not petroleum but natural gas. I should add that while plastics are mostly made from fossil fuels, this is not the case exclusively. Polylactic acid, widely used today, is made from corn and there is extensive research in the area of “green chemistry” to produce a variety of polymers from plant products.

What about the bit about contamination of our food supply? Anytime two surfaces come into contact, there is an exchange of chemicals. Indeed, it is possible that trace amounts of plastic chemicals with endocrine disruptive properties may end up in our food supply, but the dose is so small that any sort of harmful effect is very unlikely. Heat increases the release of chemicals, so it is better to use glass or ceramic for warming up food, although plastics labeled as microwave safe contain no easily leached components. As far as ADHD and autism go, the fact is that nobody knows the cause. There is much speculation ranging from genetics and microbiome imbalances to environmental contaminants but plastic ingredients would come way down the list. It is true that we can definitely live without plastic microbeads in cosmetics and even without synthetic fabrics, although resorting to cotton poses a whole range of other problems. But the suggestion to get rid of plastics is simple-minded nonsense that amounts to lack of seeing the forest for the trees.

Our life today depends on plastics. They are vital components of our airplanes, our cars, our buildings, our TV sets, our food production and drug manufacturing equipment, as well as numerous consumer goods ranging from shampoo bottles to shower curtains and toothbrushes. Yes, you could make toothbrushes from wood and pig bristles, but nylon is a lot better. Modern medicine could not function without plastics. Intravenous tubing, blood bags, burn dressings, artificial limbs, heart-lung machines, artificial joints, pacemakers, MRI machines, CAT scanners and x-ray equipment and white dental fillings rely on plastics. And just try to make a computer without plastics. Right now you are reading this on a computer or cell phone that could not function without plastics. Mr. McGuire in the Graduate was right: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Benjamin: Yes, sir. Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? Benjamin: Yes, I am. Mr. McGuire: Plastics!”

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Categories: OSS Blog

You Asked: Is it true that getting angry can affect the heart?

Recent posts from our Blog - Fri, 07/08/2016 - 07:55

According to a study in the European Heart Journal, a single angry outburst can have immediate adverse effects. That’s because anger causes an increase in blood pressure and a release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Indeed, the risk of a heart attack or angina is nearly five times higher in the two hours following an anger outburst than at other times, and the risk of stroke is four times higher. Let’s not get too carried away with this though, because at any given moment the risk of a heart attack or stroke is very low, so even a five fold increase in risk isn’t that great. To put the numbers into perspective, researchers estimate that if 10,000 healthy people have one anger outburst a month over a year, one of them will suffer a heart attack or a stroke as a result of the outburst. Among people who have other risk factors such as smoking, being overweight, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, there would be four cardiovascular events over a year with one monthly outburst. But among people who get angry more often, which is not an unusual scenario, the risk rises significantly. For example, if 10,000 people who also have other risk factors have five angry outbursts a day, some 600 of them will have a heart attack or stroke.

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Categories: OSS Blog

You Asked: Is it true that getting angry can affect the heart?

You Asked? - Fri, 07/08/2016 - 07:55

According to a study in the European Heart Journal, a single angry outburst can have immediate adverse effects. That’s because anger causes an increase in blood pressure and a release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Indeed, the risk of a heart attack or angina is nearly five times higher in the two hours following an anger outburst than at other times, and the risk of stroke is four times higher. Let’s not get too carried away with this though, because at any given moment the risk of a heart attack or stroke is very low, so even a five fold increase in risk isn’t that great. To put the numbers into perspective, researchers estimate that if 10,000 healthy people have one anger outburst a month over a year, one of them will suffer a heart attack or a stroke as a result of the outburst. Among people who have other risk factors such as smoking, being overweight, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, there would be four cardiovascular events over a year with one monthly outburst. But among people who get angry more often, which is not an unusual scenario, the risk rises significantly. For example, if 10,000 people who also have other risk factors have five angry outbursts a day, some 600 of them will have a heart attack or stroke.

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Small beads can make for a large problem

Recent posts from our Blog - Fri, 07/08/2016 - 07:52

Science can make for a strange bedfellow. I had just finished recording a video showing off one of my favourite sweaters and expounding on the ingenuity and the environmental benefit of it being made from recycled polyester bottles when an article appeared on one of my newsfeeds about how “your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply.” The message was that the very fabric I was so high on may be unravelling the fabric of society.

I must say I was puzzled by the headline, but on glancing through the story, the details of the problem quickly came out in the wash, as it were. Synthetic fabrics are not exactly inert and release microscopic bits of fiber when washed. The particles may be microscopic, but their number is anything but. Researchers at the University of California found that a synthetic fleece jacket releases hundreds of thousands of microscopic fibers, about 2 grams in total, with each wash. Wastewater treatment removes some of this debris, but most of it ends up in rivers, lakes and oceans where it can be consumed by wildlife. The fibers then can bioaccumulate up the aquatic food chain, right up to people consuming fish. Whether this presents a risk is not known, but bits of plastic are not a desirable dietary component. The clothing industry is sensitive to the problem and is working on coatings for fabric that would reduce shedding. Also in the works are washing machines that prevent the release of microfibers by using pressurized carbon dioxide instead of water.

The shedding of microfibers from synthetic fabrics is not the only way tiny pieces of plastic, invisible to the naked eye, end up in water systems.” Microbeads,” introduced into consumer products such as toothpaste and exfoliating skin products as abrasives, are a bigger concern. Six varieties of the tiny beads are used. Those composed of either polyethylene, polypropylene or expanded polystyrene are more likely to float, whereas the ones made of polyvinyl chloride, nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are more likely to sink. McGill biologist Anthony Ricciardi has found microbeads in significant numbers in sediment at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, meaning possible contamination of fish that feed on the riverbed.

Microbeads range in size from 10 millionths of a meter to one millimeter. Their round shape makes them much less irritating than irregularly shaped, abrasive exfoliants like apricot kernels or walnut shells that have sharp edges. Also, because the particles are tiny spheres, they act as little ball bearings, allowing for easy spreadability of creams and lotions as well as a smooth texture and silky feel. There’s more. Imperfections in the skin tend to be visible because of the contrast between how they reflect light compared with the surrounding tissue. Microbeads with their ability to scatter and diffuse light can minimize the appearance of fine lines and improve skin tone. When it comes to toothpaste, though, they make a minimal contribution to polishing the teeth and may actually become embedded in gum tissue. Why are they there? Since the microbeads can be produced in various colours they can also increase the visual appeal of a product.

A single container of face wash can contain hundreds of thousands of the microspheres. While the virtually indestructible plastic beads are not themselves toxic, once they enter the water, they attract potentially toxic substances such as PCBs, triclosan and nonylphenols. Like the microfibers, microbeads can then become part of the aquatic food chain, eaten by fish and then by people. Once consumed, the beads may also leach out plastic additives like colourants, plasticizers and ultraviolet light stabilizers.

Researchers have found fish both in the oceans and the Great Lakes contaminated with microbeads. Besides carrying toxins, the beads can cause internal abrasions and can stunt growth of the fish by giving them a false sense of being full. One-third of fish caught off the south-west coast of England have been found to contain microbeads and  Belgian researchers studying seafood from German farms and French supermarkets found that an average portion of mussels can contain about ninety microplastic particles, and an order of oysters about fifty. The beads have also been found to lodge in the guts of crabs as well as in their gills.

The number of microbeads that end up in the environment is staggering. In New York State alone some 19 tons go down the drain every year. Most wastewater plants are not equipped to filter out such fine particles and while they could be retrofitted, the expense would be prohibitive. Drinking water poses less of a problem because municipal water treatment plants can filter out the tiny particles although a sampling of German beers found microbeads in every bottle, with the water used being the likely source. Both Canada and the U.S. have moved to ban microbeads and manufacturers have started the process of phasing them out. Researchers agree that there are still too many unknowns to fully assess the environmental damage caused by microplastics but given that they do not contribute significant benefits they should be eliminated.

But the problem of plastic waste in the oceans is greater than can be accounted for by microfibers and microbeads. Other tiny particles form from the breakdown of plastic bags, bottles and all sorts of containers that get discarded end up in waste streams that empty into the ocean. “Biodegradable” on a label means that the plastic has been shown to degrade under ideal composting conditions, but these do not exist in the natural environment. Estimates are that the ratio of plastics to fish by weight in the oceans is 1:5 and with our current callous attitude towards “reduce, recycle, reuse,” it is set to increase to 1:1 by 2050.

Given these concerns, I don’t think I can wear my “made from a plastic bottle” sweater with the same pride as before. And I may even feel a bit of apprehension tossing it into the laundry basket.

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Categories: OSS Blog

Vitamin D and Prevention of Disease

Recent posts from our Blog - Fri, 07/08/2016 - 07:48

To take or not to take, that is the question many people have been asking themselves about vitamin D supplements. As is so often the case in science, there is no concrete answer. This in spite of close to 2000 studies published in the scientific literature. What that means is that if an effect exists, it is likely to be small, because if it were significant it would have revealed itself.

There is no question that a deficiency of vitamin D is responsible for rickets and that vitamin D supplements can help. But beyond that, the situation is quite murky. Given that rickets is a bone weakness problem, it is reasonable to explore whether vitamin D supplements can protect against fractures, particularly among the elderly. There are consistent observational studies showing an association between low vitamin D levels in the blood and greater risk of fractures. However, studies on supplementing the diet with vitamin D have not shown spectacular results. When the studies dealing with fractures are pooled, the evidence that emerges is that taking roughly 1000 IU of vitamin D and 500 mg of calcium can have an effect on fracture reduction, but not a very significant one. The data indicate that roughly fifty people would have to take vitamin D and calcium every day for ten years to prevent one fracture. There is no increased advantage to taking more than 1000 IU a day.

Vitamin D supplements have also been claimed to be of help in multiple sclerosis, depression, rheumatoid arthritis and respiratory tract infections. In the case of MS, it is well known that the incidence increases with latitude, suggesting that decreased exposure to ultraviolet light leading to a reduced formation of vitamin D in the body may play a role. But supplementation with vitamin D has not been shown to have a clinical effect. Neither has benefit been shown for depression or respiratory tract infections.

There has also been much interest in exploring the potential of vitamin D supplements in preventing cancer given that observational studies have consistently shown that people with low blood levels of the vitamin have a greater risk of cancer, especially of the breast. But the question here is whether low levels predispose to cancer, or whether cancer causes vitamin D levels to drop. A few studies, mostly in women, have shown that supplements reduce the incidence of cancer but in general the total number of cancer cases in these trials is too small for sweeping generalizations. Nevertheless, the trend in the cancer studies is towards showing at least a minor protective effect with vitamin D. So, the bottom line is that vitamin D is no panacea, but may play a small role in preventing fractures and possibly some cancers. Given that there is no recorded downside to dosing with 1000 IU a day, and that the supplement is cheap, it seems that taking a 1000 IU vitamin D supplement is not unreasonable, especially for women. The potential benefit is very small, but the risk is essentially zero. Read more

Categories: OSS Blog

Before ether was a potent painkiller, it was a hit with revellers

Recent posts from our Blog - Wed, 06/22/2016 - 06:12

The marble and granite statue in the Boston Common depicts a physician in medieval clothing holding a cloth next to the face of a man who seems to have passed out. An inscription on the base of the statue reads “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain, first proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. 1846.” No names are mentioned.

It was on Oct. 16, 1846, that dentist William Morton ushered in the era of surgical anesthesia by putting printer Gilbert Abbot to sleep with fumes of ether from an inhaler he had devised. Surgeon John Collins Warren then proceeded to remove a tumour from the patient’s neck without any of the usual screaming or thrashing about.

Warren looked up at the doctors who had witnessed the event in the surgical theatre that would become known as the “ether dome” and proclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”

That was in reference to a failed attempt by another dentist, Horace Wells, to demonstrate anesthesia with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, at the same hospital. In that case, Wells hadn’t waited long enough for the nitrous oxide to take effect and the patient howled in pain as Wells attempted to extract a tooth. He exited in disgrace to the cries of “humbug.”

Although Morton gets credit for the first organized demonstration of ether anesthesia, he certainly was not the first to experiment with the chemical. The sleep-inducing effect of ether was first recorded 300 years earlier, when famed Swiss alchemist, philosopher and physician Paracelsus noted that its vapours would induce a state of unresponsiveness in chickens. Ether does not occur in nature, so where did Paracelsus get it?

In 1540, German physician and botanist Valerius Cordus discovered that heating alcohol with sulphuric acid, then known as oil of vitriol, yielded a new highly flammable substance with a characteristic smell. Vitriol was the archaic name for compounds that today are termed “sulphates.”

Cordus discovered that heating a solution of green vitriol, or iron (II) sulphate, a naturally occurring mineral, yielded “oil of vitriol.” Then in the 17th century, German-Dutch chemist Johann Glauber found that burning sulphur with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) produced sulphuric acid.

Potassium nitrate decomposes to yield the oxygen needed to convert sulphur to sulphur trioxide, which dissolves in water to produce sulphuric acid. In the 19th century, potassium nitrate was replaced by vanadium pentoxide, which acted as a catalyst allowing for easier production of sulphur trioxide. This was the method used to produce the sulphuric acid needed for the synthesis of ether in the 1800s.

Before ether’s triumphant performance in 1846 at Massachusetts General, it had developed a reputation as a recreational substance. Middle-class partygoers and medical students both in Europe and America frolicked under the influence of ether. More curiously, drinking ether was common in Europe and was particularly popular in Ireland, where the Catholic Church promoted abstinence from alcohol and asked people to pledge not to drink alcohol. Drinking ether was a way to get around the pledge. Ether was sold in pubs and shops until the 1890s, when it was classified as a poison.

Dr. Crawford Long had taken part in ether frolics as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, and when he took over a rural medical practice in Georgia in 1841, he recalled that ether frolickers sometimes developed bumps and bruises of which they seemed to be oblivious.

Could ether be used to relieve pain, he now wondered? The answer came when he delivered his wife’s second baby with the aid of ether anesthesia. Long went on to perform a painless dental extraction, and in 1842 used an ether-soaked towel to put James Venable to sleep before proceeding to excise two tumours from his neck. But Long was not an academic, was not interested in publishing, nor did he crave fame or fortune.

It was two years after William Morton’s celebrated demonstration that Long documented his efforts in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal in a paper titled “An account of the first use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations.”

He described a number of cases, including the amputation of two fingers of a boy who was etherized during one procedure and not the other. Long reported that the patient suffered terribly without ether but was insensible with it. The reason he had waited to publish, he said, was the need to overcome criticism by local colleagues, who had suggested that the ether effect was just an example of mesmerism, which at the time was promoted as a pain-reduction method.

With his publication, Long added his name to the list of people claiming to have been the inventors of ether anesthesia. There was William Morton, of course, and Charles Jackson, a physician who had given up medicine to establish a private laboratory for analytical chemistry, where he also taught students, including Morton, who had come to expand his scientific knowledge.

Jackson claimed that he had introduced Morton to ether anesthesia, and the two got involved in a rancorous battle for years. There was also a Berkshire Medical College student, William E. Clarke, who claimed he had first used ether to put patients to sleep.

It was because of the controversy that the Boston monument does not bear the name of any of the claimants. But it does bear a biblical quote from Isaiah: “This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts which is wonderful and excellent in working,” addressing the worry people had that relief of pain was somehow interfering with God’s will.

The quote suggests that medical intervention is itself a gift from God and is backed up by a relief on the statue depicting a woman who represents Science Triumphant sitting atop a throne of test tubes, burners and distillers, with a Madonna and Child looking on with approval. There is also a Civil War scene on the side of the monument with a Union field surgeon standing ready to amputate a wounded soldier’s leg. The soldier sleeps peacefully. Thanks to ether, he would feel no pain.

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Bending Spoons and Bending Minds

Recent posts from our Blog - Mon, 06/13/2016 - 21:40

Everyone has skeletons in their closet. There’s at least one in mine. A couple of years ago while on a cruise I pinched a spoon from the dining room. It wasn’t because of any lack of spoons at home, it was because no matter how hard I tried I could not bend this one. I tried with two hands, I tried by pushing against the table, I even tried placing the handle under my heel and tugging on the head. No give at all. I had to have that spoon!

I’ve been practicing magic as a hobby ever since I was a teenager. It has turned out to be a perfect fit with my career because of the numerous scientific principles involved in creating the illusion of contravening the laws of nature. And that is what magic is all about. Seeing someone levitate, or vanish inside a cabinet, or appear out of thin air, requires an apparent suspension of the laws of nature. The key word of course is “apparent,” because all such effects are accomplished by clever scientific means. A magician, however, attempts to ensure that the audience will not discover those means. Science can also appear magical, but in this case, we relish in scuttling the magic with down to earth explanations. Just think about it. Isn’t an airplane with hundreds of people aboard flying through the air magical? How about taking pictures with your smart phone and sending them around the world in seconds? Or a seed growing into a plant or a new life being created from the meeting of cells? But magic is converted into science with an appropriate explanation.

I have found performing magic to be an excellent springboard for a discussion of scientific methodology and for fostering the critical thinking needed to prevent being swept away by the tsunami of pseudoscience generated by a rapidly multiplying bevy of charlatans. When you can demonstrate how “psychic surgery,” a procedure by which diseased tissues are apparently removed without an incision, can actually be accomplished by sleight of hand, you have given believers something to think about. Similarly, a demonstration of “mental” effects with a clear declaration that these are done by clever chicanery can help convince at least some that trickery may be involved when psychics perform seemingly scientifically inexplicable feats.

One such feat is “psychokinesis,” or the ability to move objects using only the power of the mind. Psychokinetic effects were first popularized in the middle of the nineteenth century when Angelique Cottin in France claimed that electric emanations from her body allowed her to move objects without touching them. She convinced many observers of her power, but critics offered quite down to earth explanations about how such effects could be performed by natural means. Since that time numerous psychics have claimed psychokinetic powers, with Uri Geller being perhaps the most famous. In the 1970s he beguiled audiences and even some scientists with his apparent ability to bend metal with the power of his mind. He gets credit for introducing the phenomenon of mental spoon bending, an effect upon which he built quite a spectacular career.

Magicians were also astounded. Not by the effect, which can be accomplished by a number of established methods, but by how the public was so ready to swallow a “paranormal” explanation. Conjurers were quick to reproduce the spoon bending trick, pointing out that the only requirement was a modicum of sleight of hand. This brings us back to my pilfered spoon.

When I do the spoon bending trick, I first hand out the spoon to the audience with a challenge to bend it. Once it is established that it can withstand all efforts, I proceed to bend it “with the power of my mind.” But in rare cases, some strong men have managed to bend the spoon and destroy my performance, so I’m always on the lookout for super-strong spoons. I can tell you that Crystal Cruises have such. They absolutely cannot be bent, except in the hands of a magician who is equipped with a “special something.”

But why am I talking about tormenting cutlery? Because last week, thanks to colleague Tim Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta, I learned that “Integrative Pediatric Medicine Rounds” at his University were set to feature a talk on “Spoon Bending and the Power of the Mind.” The seminar would be given by an “energy healer” who has been described as being “a Reiki Master teacher, a certified Trilotherapy practitioner, a Yuen Method practitioner and a teacher of popular Spoon Bending and Tantric Sex workshops.” So this was not to be a workshop on critical thinking, which could have been appropriate. The prospective speaker actually claimed that 75% of attendees would be able to bend spoons with their mental energy!

The scientific community reacted with vigour to this assault on reason, and the resulting extensive media coverage caused the seminar to be cancelled with some weasel explanations being provided about the workshop “being withdrawn by the presenters.”

The “presenter” was to be Anastasia Kutt, who is not some wacky outsider, but is listed in the University’s Directory as “a research assistant in the “Complementary and Alternative Research and Education (CARE) Program” and is also involved in research activities and organizing events.” What sort of events? Given her interest in topics such as Tantric Sex and spoon bending one wonders.

Criticism of this spoon bending fiasco should not be construed as an attempt by the mainstream scientific community to curb free speech or to police academic research. Rather it is an appeal for reason and for vigilance against quackery sneaking into “integrative medicine” programs which are becoming increasingly popular.

I don’t know how Ms. Kutt bends spoons, but I’d be willing to fly to Edmonton at my expense to find out. If she can bend my Crystal Cruise spoon I’ll eat a University of Alberta Integrative Health Program hat.

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Categories: OSS Blog

Critter Cuisine

Recent posts from our Blog - Sat, 06/11/2016 - 02:14

We hear a lot about food these days. Whether it is about healthy choices, food security and feeding the planet, environmental impacts of food production or the science of GMO biotechnologies, hardly a day goes by without food appearing in our headlines.

Curiously, the most readily available source of low-fat animal protein found just about anywhere in the world (outside of Antarctica) is largely ignored by most food cultures. It might be time we start talking about eating insects, or entomophagy.

Putting our icky aversions aside for a moment, there are many good reasons to consider eating insects. Apart from their widespread availability in the wild, they can easily be raised indoors, with a fraction of the footprint (both in terms of land use and carbon emissions) of domestic livestock such as cattle or pork. Also, insect is a lean meat, with up to three times the protein content and with a fraction of the fat, with crickets compared to beef for example. Also, it is a versatile food, which can be eaten raw, cooked or processed, such as being dried and ground into a flour for baking.

Entomophagy is not new or strange to many people around the world, to be sure. One can easily find bulk crickets or woodworms in the markets of Singapore, or termites and grubs in the Ghanaian markets in Accra. Eating insects is also commonplace in cuisines from Brazil, Australia, Japan, China and more. So why is it that entomophagy still carries a taboo in Canadian/American cultures?

The answer may be partly psychological in nature, partly economic and the two are surprisingly linked. Clearly, our western culture carries with it a strongly ingrained entomophobia, or fear of insects, and we don’t tolerate them in our homes, on our lawns, in our crops or even in our thoughts. There is such a widespread phobia of creepy crawlies of any kind that billions of dollars are spent annually on the propaganda of their evil ways and on chemical pesticide solutions to their eradication from every corner of our lives.

This fanatical intolerance of insects was very deliberately fostered and nurtured by post-WWII chemical pesticide companies looking to promote the magical properties of their pesticides (like DDT) and bolstered by an imaginative TV and film media industry that created blockbuster entertainment about killer cockroaches, an attack of the giant ants or tales of mutant wasps that attack human brains via the ear canal. Ouch, scary stuff!

The net effect of this anti-insect campaign has been one in which most of us would rather squish a bug than pop it into our mouths. I am confident, however, that because this is a learned behaviour, it can be unlearned... or better yet, prevented in the first place by reaching out to children and teaching them about the joy and wonders of our critter cousins, before it is stamped out of them by society. Children are naturally curious about all aspects of nature and are particularly intrigued by bugs.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by the teachers at my 3-year old son’s Montessori school to give an insect-related show-and-tell. I managed to borrow several specimen of Stick Insects and Madagascar Cockroaches to bring in for the kids and I was thrilled to see the glee and eagerness from every child who wanted to touch and hold and play with these exotic insects. I kept thinking that the response would have been very different from an adult audience. What a shame it is that this joy of nature is bred out of us as a whole eventually.

Around 15 years ago, back when I was a keen Graduate student in an entomology lab at Laval University in Quebec City, I visited the Insectarium in Montreal for an insect-tasting event. In the foyer of the museum, a dozen chefs were set up behind linen-clothed tables and were preparing gastronomic cuisine of one kind or another, all of which involved insect ingredients. I eagerly ate a multi-course meal consisting in part of ginger-glazed scorpions, garlic-fried crickets, beetle flour cookies and angel-food cake garnished with zesty ants.

At some point during my entomological smorgasbord I noticed that I was being observed by a cautious and curious 8-year old boy, who seemed to take delight in the sight of a grown-up (sort-of) hungrily gobbling down some fried crickets, when I offered him a little taste. The boy reached out his hand to try one when he was noticed by his mother, who was standing just a few feet away.

In the blink of an eye, the poor boy was yanked by the arm, with a shriek from his mother, so brusquely that you could almost hear the socket pop! I mistakenly thought that they were here for an insect-tasting event.... apparently not.

Unfortunately, the boy was so traumatized by his mother’s reaction that it is most likely that his interest in insects was cut short on that very day, one in which a trip to the insectarium could have otherwise promoted a long-term fascination. Too often, our developed entomophobia is inherited directly from our parents, passed down from generation to generation.

We’ve got a long way to go as a society before we are collectively comfortable with all that insects may have to offer us in our lives and maybe even more to consider eating them as regular food.

So whether our conversation about food is related to the challenges of feeding 8 billion+ humans with a smaller ecological footprint or simply to explore the diversity of foodstuffs from the almost 1 million species of insects that exist, we need to start by shifting the flavour of the conversation first, from entomophobia to entomophagy.

Obviously, if we are to have any kind of positive conversation about bugs at all, we need to start with the children and to build pro-actively towards a society that can work with insects and not just against them. Maybe there would be a place for a new “Dickie Dee”-style street vending delivery cart for insect foods.... I can see it now: “Doc Brown’s Bugs ‘n Bites” will be the next food craze coming to a neighbourhood near you. Listen for the chimes as they come around the corner, playing something by The Beatles, of course.

Dr. Adam Oliver Brown

Here is a link to my Facebook page, where you can see some pics and videos of the insect visit with the school children: https://www.facebook.com/DrAdamOliverBrown/

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Categories: OSS Blog

The Right Chemistry: The thermite reaction can be used in tools or weapons

Recent posts from our Blog - Sun, 05/22/2016 - 05:24
 

 The place was Edinburgh, Scotland. The occasion, the Edinburgh Science Festival. There were a number of captivating presentations, but my biggest thrill came from looking out the hotel window. A light rail track was being constructed just outside and the workers were busy welding. My eyes popped when I saw what they were doing. I was looking at a live thermite reaction! I had talked about this reaction in class on numerous occasions and marvelled on it in videos, but had always deemed it too dangerous to perform.

 

A chemical reaction that produces heat is said to be “exothermic.” The most common example would be the combustion of a fuel. Light a candle and you can feel the heat that is produced. The hottest part of a flame, where the colour is a light blue, can reach a temperature of about 1400 degrees Celsius. But that is a low temperature compared to the 2500 degrees produced by the “thermite” reaction between aluminum and iron oxide. Essentially, this reaction involves the transfer of oxygen from the iron oxide to aluminum to yield aluminum oxide and metallic iron. At this high temperature, the iron is in its molten form and sets fire to any combustible material in its path, making the thermite reaction ideal for use not only in welding, but also in incendiary bombs and grenades.

Back in 1893, German chemist Hans Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce pure metals from their ores. The classic method for extracting iron relies on heating iron oxide ore with carbon. The carbon is converted to carbon dioxide as it strips oxygen from the iron, leaving behind metallic iron. Some unreacted carbon, however, tends to contaminate the iron. Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce iron without the use of carbon and hit upon the reaction of iron oxide with aluminum. He was impressed by the remarkable amount of heat produced and suggested that the reaction he had discovered could be used for welding. In 1899, the thermite reaction was put to a commercial use for the first time, welding tram tracks in the city of Essen.

It didn’t take long for the military to realize the potential of this extreme exothermic reaction in warfare. In 1915, the Germans terrorized England by using Zeppelins to drop incendiary bombs based on the thermite reaction. By the Second World War, the battle was on not only between Allied and German armed forces, but also between their scientists and engineers who sought to produce more effective incendiary devices. The Germans came up with the “Elektron” bomb, named after Elektron, an alloy composed of 86 per cent magnesium, 13 per cent aluminum and 1 per cent copper that was used for the casing of the bomb.

This alloy burns with a very hot flame, but requires a high temperature for ignition. The thermite reaction was up to the task. When an Elektron bomb hit the ground, a small percussion charge of gunpowder ignited a priming mixture of finely powdered magnesium and barium peroxide. This reaction produced the heat needed to ignite the thermite mix of aluminum and iron oxide, which in turn ignited the highly combustible casing. The Allies developed similar types of bombs resulting in the most destructive air raid in history, which was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but the firebomb raid on Tokyo in March 1945. An Allied bombing of Dresden the same year with incendiary bombs virtually destroyed the whole city. During the Second World War, the Allies dropped some 30 million 4-pound thermite bombs on Germany and another 10 million on Japan.

Thermite hand grenades were also used during the war to disable artillery pieces without the need for an explosive charge, very useful when silence was necessary to an operation. This involved inserting a thermite grenade into the breech of a weapon and then quickly closing it. The great heat produced by the thermite reaction welded the breech shut and made loading the weapon impossible. Alternatively, a thermite grenade was discharged inside the barrel of an artillery piece making it useless.

During the Vietnam war, thermite grenades found a different use. From the start of hostilities, putting a crimp into the enemy’s food supply was part of the U.S. military strategy. Since rice was a staple for the Viet Cong, destroying rice paddies was a primary goal. At first, attempts were made to blow up rice stocks and destroy paddies with hand grenades and mortars, but this proved to be maddeningly difficult. The next idea was to burn the rice paddies with thermite grenades. All this did was scatter the rice grains, which could then still be harvested. Another approach was needed.

Enter “Agent Blue,” an arsenic-based herbicide, unrelated chemically to the more infamous Agent Orange. Agent Blue affects plants by causing them to dry out, and as rice is highly dependent on water, spraying Agent Blue on rice paddies can destroy an entire field and leave it unsuitable for further planting. The U.S. used some 20 million gallons of Agent Blue during the Vietnam war, destroying thousands of acres of agricultural fields and defoliating wooded areas that the Viet Cong used to ambush American troops.

Recently, the thermite reaction made the news in a different context. Conspiracy theorists purport that it was thermite explosives planted inside the World Trade Center that brought down the twin towers in a CIA coordinated plot. They also maintain that the moon landing was faked and that the U.S. government is hiding the bodies of aliens. Some also claim that the rise of Donald Trump was engineered by a Democratic conspiracy and that on the verge of being elected he will announce “fooled you.” Wouldn’t that be something? It would trump the thermite reaction for heat generated.

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Categories: OSS Blog

The Right Chemistry: The thermite reaction can be used in tools or weapons

OSS VIDEOS - Sun, 05/22/2016 - 05:24
 

 The place was Edinburgh, Scotland. The occasion, the Edinburgh Science Festival. There were a number of captivating presentations, but my biggest thrill came from looking out the hotel window. A light rail track was being constructed just outside and the workers were busy welding. My eyes popped when I saw what they were doing. I was looking at a live thermite reaction! I had talked about this reaction in class on numerous occasions and marvelled on it in videos, but had always deemed it too dangerous to perform.

 

A chemical reaction that produces heat is said to be “exothermic.” The most common example would be the combustion of a fuel. Light a candle and you can feel the heat that is produced. The hottest part of a flame, where the colour is a light blue, can reach a temperature of about 1400 degrees Celsius. But that is a low temperature compared to the 2500 degrees produced by the “thermite” reaction between aluminum and iron oxide. Essentially, this reaction involves the transfer of oxygen from the iron oxide to aluminum to yield aluminum oxide and metallic iron. At this high temperature, the iron is in its molten form and sets fire to any combustible material in its path, making the thermite reaction ideal for use not only in welding, but also in incendiary bombs and grenades.

Back in 1893, German chemist Hans Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce pure metals from their ores. The classic method for extracting iron relies on heating iron oxide ore with carbon. The carbon is converted to carbon dioxide as it strips oxygen from the iron, leaving behind metallic iron. Some unreacted carbon, however, tends to contaminate the iron. Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce iron without the use of carbon and hit upon the reaction of iron oxide with aluminum. He was impressed by the remarkable amount of heat produced and suggested that the reaction he had discovered could be used for welding. In 1899, the thermite reaction was put to a commercial use for the first time, welding tram tracks in the city of Essen.

It didn’t take long for the military to realize the potential of this extreme exothermic reaction in warfare. In 1915, the Germans terrorized England by using Zeppelins to drop incendiary bombs based on the thermite reaction. By the Second World War, the battle was on not only between Allied and German armed forces, but also between their scientists and engineers who sought to produce more effective incendiary devices. The Germans came up with the “Elektron” bomb, named after Elektron, an alloy composed of 86 per cent magnesium, 13 per cent aluminum and 1 per cent copper that was used for the casing of the bomb.

This alloy burns with a very hot flame, but requires a high temperature for ignition. The thermite reaction was up to the task. When an Elektron bomb hit the ground, a small percussion charge of gunpowder ignited a priming mixture of finely powdered magnesium and barium peroxide. This reaction produced the heat needed to ignite the thermite mix of aluminum and iron oxide, which in turn ignited the highly combustible casing. The Allies developed similar types of bombs resulting in the most destructive air raid in history, which was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but the firebomb raid on Tokyo in March 1945. An Allied bombing of Dresden the same year with incendiary bombs virtually destroyed the whole city. During the Second World War, the Allies dropped some 30 million 4-pound thermite bombs on Germany and another 10 million on Japan.

Thermite hand grenades were also used during the war to disable artillery pieces without the need for an explosive charge, very useful when silence was necessary to an operation. This involved inserting a thermite grenade into the breech of a weapon and then quickly closing it. The great heat produced by the thermite reaction welded the breech shut and made loading the weapon impossible. Alternatively, a thermite grenade was discharged inside the barrel of an artillery piece making it useless.

During the Vietnam war, thermite grenades found a different use. From the start of hostilities, putting a crimp into the enemy’s food supply was part of the U.S. military strategy. Since rice was a staple for the Viet Cong, destroying rice paddies was a primary goal. At first, attempts were made to blow up rice stocks and destroy paddies with hand grenades and mortars, but this proved to be maddeningly difficult. The next idea was to burn the rice paddies with thermite grenades. All this did was scatter the rice grains, which could then still be harvested. Another approach was needed.

Enter “Agent Blue,” an arsenic-based herbicide, unrelated chemically to the more infamous Agent Orange. Agent Blue affects plants by causing them to dry out, and as rice is highly dependent on water, spraying Agent Blue on rice paddies can destroy an entire field and leave it unsuitable for further planting. The U.S. used some 20 million gallons of Agent Blue during the Vietnam war, destroying thousands of acres of agricultural fields and defoliating wooded areas that the Viet Cong used to ambush American troops.

Recently, the thermite reaction made the news in a different context. Conspiracy theorists purport that it was thermite explosives planted inside the World Trade Center that brought down the twin towers in a CIA coordinated plot. They also maintain that the moon landing was faked and that the U.S. government is hiding the bodies of aliens. Some also claim that the rise of Donald Trump was engineered by a Democratic conspiracy and that on the verge of being elected he will announce “fooled you.” Wouldn’t that be something? It would trump the thermite reaction for heat generated.

Read more
Categories: OSS VIDEOS

Forget Homeopathic Arsenic for Stress Reduction

Recent posts from our Blog - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 05:26

During a recent talk on the relation between the body and the mind, I mentioned the newest anxiety-relieving craze, colouring books. Aimed at adults, these feature intricate patterns that provide quite a challenge for staying inside the lines. The contention is that focusing on the special patterns distracts the mind from anxiety and stress. Evidence is sketchy, but millions of colouring books are flying off the shelves, topping best-seller lists. That in itself says something about our society.

After my talk I was approached by a lady who claimed she had something better than colouring books to relieve anxiety and slipped a vial full of pills into my hand. She didn’t seem like a clandestine drug pusher so I thought I would look down and find some pills of lorezapam or maybe St. John’s Wort. Such was not the case. The label on the vial read “Arsenicum album 30C.”

No, she was not trying to poison me. These were homeopathic arsenic pills based on the curious notion that a substance that in large doses causes certain symptoms can, in homeopathic potency, repel the same symptoms. Since arsenic poisoning is associated with anxiety and restlessness, a person suffering such symptoms should find relief in a homeopathic dose of arsenic. In the bizarre world of homeopathy, potency increases with greater dilution, and a dose of 30C is said to be extremely potent. Such a pill is made by sequentially diluting a solution of arsenic a hundred fold thirty times and then impregnating a sugar pill with a drop of the final solution. At a dilution of 30C, not only is there no trace of arsenic left, there isn’t even a water molecule that has ever encountered any of the original arsenic.

Homeopathy is a scientifically bankrupt practice that was invented over two hundred years ago by German physician Samuel Hahnemann who was disenchanted with bloodletting and purging, common medical procedures at the time. He was a good man who searched for kinder and gentler treatments and homeopathy fit that rubric. Since knowledge of molecules was almost non-existent at the time, Hahnemann could not have realized that his diluted solutions contained nothing. Actually, the truth is that they did contain something. A hefty dose of placebo!

Now here is the kicker to this story. Hahnemann was quite accomplished in chemistry and actually developed the first chemical test for arsenic. In 1787 he found that arsenic in an unknown sample was converted to an insoluble yellow precipitate of arsenic trisulfide on treatment with hydrogen sulfide gas. When in 1832 John Bodle in England was accused of poisoning his grandfather by putting arsenic in his coffee, John Marsh, a chemist at the Royal Arsenal, was asked to test a sample of the coffee. While he was able to detect arsenic in the coffee using Hahnemann’s test, the experiment could not be reproduced to the satisfaction of the jury and Bodle was acquitted. Knowing that he could not be tried for the same crime again, he later admitted to killing his grandfather.

The confession infuriated Marsh and motivated him to develop a better test for arsenic. By 1836 he had discovered that treating a sample of body fluid or tissue with zinc and an acid converted any arsenic to arsine gas, AsH3, which could then be passed through a flame to yield metallic arsenic and water. The arsenic would then form a silvery-black deposit on a cold ceramic bowl held in the jet of the flame and the amount of arsenic in the original sample could be determined by comparing the intensity of the deposit with that produced with known amounts of arsenic.

The Marsh test received a great deal of publicity in 1840 when Marie LaFarge in France was accused of murdering her husband by putting arsenic into his food. Marie was known to have bought arsenic from a local chemist which she claimed was to kill rats that had infested the house. A maid swore that she has seen her mistress pour a white powder into her husband’s drink and Marie had also sent a cake to her husband who was travelling on business just prior to his becoming ill. The dead husband’s family suspected that Marie had poisoned him and somehow got hold of remnants of food to which she had supposedly added arsenic. The Marsh test revealed the presence of arsenic in the food and in a sample of egg nog, but when the victim’s body was exhumed the investigating chemist was unable to detect arsenic.

To help prove Marie’s innocence by corroborating the results of the investigation of the exhumed body, the defense enlisted Mathieu Orfila, a chemist acknowledged to be an authority on the Marsh test. Much to the defense’s chagrin, Orfila showed that the test had been carried out incorrectly and used the Marsh test to conclusively prove the presence of arsenic in LaFarge’s exhumed body. Marie was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The controversial case captured the imagination of the public and was closely followed through newspaper accounts making Marie LeFarge into a celebrity. It would also go down in the annals of history as the first case in which a conviction was secured based on direct forensic toxicological evidence. Because of Mathieu Orfila’s role in the case, he is often deemed to be the “founder of the science of toxicology.” The Marsh test became the subject of everyday conversations and even became a popular demonstration at fairgrounds and in public lectures. This had an interesting spin off. Poisonings by arsenic decreased significantly since the existence of a proven, reliable test served as a deterrent.

As far as claims about relieving anxiety with homeopathic arsenic go, well, they cause me anxiety. I think I’ll flush those homeopathic tablets down the drain (no worry about arsenic pollution here) and buy a colouring book.

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Categories: OSS Blog

‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

From Our Contributors - Thu, 05/12/2016 - 04:32

In the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

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Categories: From Our Contributors

Serious Nonsense

Recent posts from our Blog - Mon, 05/09/2016 - 10:45

“We've had more people reverse cancer than any institute in the history of health care, so when McGill fails, or Toronto hospitals fail, they come to us. It can be stage 4 cancer and we reverse it.” You can imagine why that quote caught my eye. Both McGill and University of Toronto have world-class cancer treatment centers, but unfortunately, when it comes to stage 4 cancers, which are the most deadly, the chance of successful treatment is low. So, who is it that claims success where the latest evidence-based treatments fail? “Dr.” Brian Clement, who runs the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, apparently has the answers that have evaded mainstream researchers. What sort of doctor is this fellow? One who has some sort of accreditation as a “nutritionist” from a diploma mill where they apparently teach some, let us say, “interesting” science. I’m judging by the following rather fascinating outpouring of nonsense-bedecked drivel from the Hippocrates Health Institute.

“Based on modern biophysics and ancient Chinese medicine, color frequencies are applied to acupuncture points using a light pen and crystal rods. This promotes hormonal balance, detoxification, lymph flow and immune support while reducing headaches and sleeplessness. Working on cellular memory where the cause of disease resides, color puncture promotes healing from within.” And all you have to do is shell out $120 for a 50 minute treatment. All this of course is laughable, but when it comes to claims about curing cancer, the humour quickly vanishes with the realization that it is real people with real cancer who are being duped. And going by the following asinine promo, that is just what is happening.

“One of the major treatment goals of The Cancer Wellness Program at Hippocrates Health Institute is to strengthen the basic vitality, flow, and coherency of a person’s BioEnergy Field upstream to affect and change their downstream physical mass. The changes in a person’s vibrational frequency or bioenergy field, once stabilized, changes the electrical/chemical milieu in their body so that it is more difficult for their cancer or tumor mass with its own specific vibrational frequency to be sustained.”.

This is inane claptrap is far from the only type of cancer treatment Hippocrates offers. Intravenous vitamins and wheat grass implants are standard fare. Implanted where? Well, let’s just say in areas where the sun doesn’t shine. Clement maintains that “every disease known to man, plus premature aging, can be successfully dealt with on a diet of organic plant based foods.” Apparently not mental disease, given that Clement surely follows this diet. Patients are also told to give up meat and dairy, and are asked to swallow some rather bizarre ideas. Genetics don’t matter much, Clement says, and what doctors say about the BRCA gene predisposing to breast cancer is false. On his regimen, this mental wizard claims, tens of thousands of people have reversed the final stages of cancer. I would love to see the evidence for that. This charlatan is in Canada right now, giving talks, mostly to entice First Nations people to visit his Institute in Florida for treatment. Just like that given to the unfortunate 11-year-old Ontario girl who suffered from leukemia. That had a very sad outcome. Let’s just say she was not one of the tens of thousands of patients that Clement claims to have successfully treated.

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Categories: OSS Blog

A Holistic Nutritional Rockstar’s Rocky Science

Recent posts from our Blog - Fri, 05/06/2016 - 04:39

Sometimes you can evaluate a person’s scientific acumen by a single comment they utter. This is the case with Catherine Sugrue who labels herself a “holistic nutritionist rockstar.” Of course suspicion about her knowledge is immediately raised when we learn that it was gained at the “Institute of Holistic Nutrition,” which isn’t exactly Harvard. But the giveaway of the rockstar’s untrustworthiness is her reiteration of the absurd statement that “margarine is about one molecule away from plastic.” This isn’t about coming to the rescue of margarine. I don’t like it and I don’t eat it. I much prefer butter. But I am piqued by the shoddy pseudo scientific exhortations of self-proclaimed experts. In this case I’m further annoyed that this particular pseudoexpert was interviewed for an article about fats that appeared not in the National Enquirer, but in the National Post. When there are Canadians like Yoni Freedhoff, Chris Labos and Tim Caulfield who actually are experts when it comes to nutritional issues and would never confuse the public with ludicrous analogies between margarine and plastic.

Margarine being “one molecule away from plastic” is just plain nonsense. Plastics are composed polymers while margarine is a blend of fats and water. There is no chemical similarity between the two. In any case, being “one molecule away” is a totally meaningless expression. Substances are made of molecules, which in turn are composed of atoms joined together is a specific pattern. I suppose one might say that hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, is one atom away from water, H2O, but even this is meaningless. That extra oxygen atom changes the properties of the substance dramatically. Sticking a finger into a bottle of pure hydrogen peroxide quickly reveals the effect of that extra oxygen.

So, even if margarine had some chemical similarity to plastic, which it does not, its properties could still be dramatically different. Slight alterations in molecular structure can account for very significant changes in properties.

It is true that saturated fats have been vilified beyond the scientific evidence but the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction. Kourtney Kardashian attributing her 5 pound weight loss to drinking clarified butter every morning is without scientific merit. Catherine Sugrue correctly warns that “getting your nutritional advice from celebrities is a dangerous game.” But so is getting it from a self-proclaimed “holistic nutritional rockstar” who is a graduate of an institution where you can take continuing education courses in “energy medicine,” “clinical detoxification,” and “applied iridology.”

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Categories: OSS Blog

You Asked: Can coffee explode in the microwave oven?

You Asked? - Fri, 05/06/2016 - 04:28

A sensational sounding e-mail about “exploding coffee” has been making the rounds. It describes the misadventures of an unfortunate soul who heated up water for coffee in a microwave oven. When he picked up the mug, it “exploded!”

Explode is probably too strong a term, but spurting and frothing is a real possibility. This is due to a phenomenon known as superheating. First, we have to understand what boiling is all about. At the surface of a liquid molecules are always evaporating. If we leave a glass of water out, it will eventually disappear.  If we heat the liquid, its molecules move faster, become more energetic and more molecules go into the vapour phase. As a consequence, the liquid disappears more quickly. At the boiling point, molecules all over the liquid, not only at the surface are energetic enough to go into the vapour phase. They do this most readily by evaporating into airspaces that exist in the container. All containers have imperfections where air gets entrapped when a liquid is introduced. As these air pockets fill with vapour, they expand and begin to rise. That is why we see streams of bubbles which originate at the sides or the bottom of the container.

In a microwave oven, the container is not heated, only the water.  So the container actually cools the liquid in contact with it, meaning that the liquid in the center is always hotter, sometimes by as much as 10 degrees C. But the liquid in the center cannot boil, because there are no air bubbles for it to evaporate into.  By the time the liquid near the edge of the container reaches the boiling point, the liquid in the middle is considerably hotter; it is superheated.

The addition of sugar or a tea bag now can spur vigorous boiling. This is because the surface imperfections introduce trapped air bubbles into which the superheated liquid vaporizes. Sometimes just picking up the container can have an explosive effect as the superheated liquid comes into contact with air bubbles on the periphery. Accidents can be prevented by putting a plastic spoon into the mug or glass while it is heating in the microwave. In this case the scare-mongering note about “exploding coffee” may actually has some basis in fact.

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Hepatitis A From Frozen Berries

From Our Contributors - Thu, 04/28/2016 - 08:45
On April 15, 2016, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced a food recall warning regarding the possible contamination with Hepatitis A, a viral liver disease, of the frozen fruit product, “Nature's Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend”. Canadians have been advised that the food recall is in effect in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, where the product has been sold. As of April 22, 2016, there are eleven related Hepatitis A cases in three provinces (1): Ontario (8 cases), Quebec (2 cases), and Newfoundland and Labrador (1 case).   While it is frightening to know that Hepatitis A can be contracted by eating frozen berries, a product that is supposed to be healthy, coming into contact with hepatitis A can be quite easy. Hepatitis A is usually linked with the lack of potable water and inadequate sanitation,  and the virus is spread mainly by the faecal-oral route. It can be acquired from any food and drinks prepared by a person who is infected, as an  infected person can carry, due to improper hygiene, traces of their faeces when preparing refreshments. Shellfish derived from waters containing sewage can also carry hepatitis A. The frozen berries sold at Costco in Canada were at some point contaminated with hepatitis A from at least one infected worker (during harvest, manufacturing or processing) who was handling the berries, and who did not take preventative hygienic measures such as frequent hand-washing with soap and water, and the use of gloves. After infection with hepatitis A, symptoms usually reveal themselves two to seven weeks after viral infection. Fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, jaundice, dark urine, vomiting, and fatigue are all symptoms. Although cases usually last one to two weeks, a few severe cases can last several months before recovery, and some people can die from liver failure. People with pre-existing liver conditions are at a greater risk of severe illness. Older people tend to get sicker than younger people after infection.The disease is not chronic (there is usually no permanent liver damage), and lifetime immunity is acquired either from recovery after infection, or through immunization with the hepatitis A vaccine.   The hepatitis A virus, a picornavirus, is of an icosahedral shape and does not contain an envelope. It possesses a single-stranded RNA packaged in a protein capsid. There are three different numbered human genotypes of the virus, but type IA is the most commonly occurring. Genetic sequencing of the virus can reveal which molecular subtype of the virus is associated with a particular outbreak (2), thus narrowing down unassociated cases of infection. To determine whether infection has occurred, a blood test to look for IgM anti-hepatitis A antibodies, a particular immune response, can detect the virus as early as two weeks after the initial infection.   Known as a “traveller's disease”, hepatitis A is usually associated with countries that are less developed, but it does and can occur in Canada. In industrialized countries, outbreaks of hepatitis A are often linked to contaminated produce (3). During March 2012, there was a small outbreak of hepatitis A in British Columbia, Canada that was traced to pomegranate seeds in a frozen fruit product (4). April 2013 saw more than 70 cases of hepatitis A infection in four Nordic countries (5,6). In the United States, there were 165 confirmed cases of hepatitis A infection found across 10 states, in 2013 (7). This outbreak was traced to pomegranate arils found in a frozen berry product sold at Costco, and 44% of the infected patients were hospitalized. Frozen fruit can last for up to a year in the store, and hepatitis A can incubate for up to 50 days, so a hepatitis A outbreak is often detected only after many people have been infected (8). Case-control studies, where patients with (case) and without (control) a disease, such as hepatitis A, are compared retrospectively for frequency of exposure to a risk factor (such as the contaminated frozen fruit), and through this study method the source of the outbreak can be unraveled.   Costco is publicly offering free vaccination clinics to affected individuals of this recent 2016 outbreak, as vaccination can prevent the disease symptoms from occurring if given within two weeks of exposure (9). There are two options for post-exposure prophylaxis of hepatitis A. The first is the vaccine injection, which is an inactivated version of the virus. The second is immunoglobulin (IG), which is injected and consists of antibodies which fight the virus to prevent infection. It is a blood product produced from paid donors. An exposed individual who may be allergic to the vaccine may opt for the IG. A study comparing the two options found that immunoglobulin was slightly more effective than the vaccine (10). However, the vaccine offers a lifetime immunity, whereas the response of immunoglobulin against hepatitis A is only for three months after the IG administration-subsequent exposure to hepatitis A can still result in an infection. Individuals can get a pre-exposure prophylaxis vaccination, which renders permanent immunity before any exposure, and travellers to countries where hepatitis A is endemic are required to receive the vaccination before leaving to their destination.   The recent 2016 hepatitis A outbreak in Canada from frozen fruit is only one of several similar outbreaks that have occurred in the past in different industrialized countries. Hepatitis A is spread through the faecal-oral route, and although it is more common in less developed nations where poor sanitation conditions are prevalent, improper hygiene during food handling can cause an outbreak.  Identifying the specific molecular subtype of hepatitis A can help trace which cases are associated with a particular outbreak. It is recommended that anyone handling food take proper precautions in food safety in order to prevent further hepatitis A outbreaks. If worried, one should obtain a pre-exposure vaccination to acquire permanent immunity to the virus. Read more
Categories: From Our Contributors

The Zika Crisis

From Our Contributors - Tue, 04/19/2016 - 22:45

In 2015, the Zika virus outbreak began in the northeast region of Brazil. According to the World Health Organization, there has been 3174 suspected cases of microcephaly in Brazil since January 2, 2016, including 38 deaths (1). The northeastern region of Brazil continues to be the area most affected, with the highest number of suspected cases. On April 13, 2016, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine which concluded that there is a direct causal relationship between prenatal exposure to Zika virus and the outcome of microcephaly and brain abnormalities in the exposed infants (2). While the common symptoms of Zika infection are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis lasting from several days to a week after exposure from an infected mosquito's bite, a recent study recounts two cases of patients who had contracted the Zika virus and later succumbed to acute disseminated encephalitis (ADEM) (3).  This is a condition in which the immune system attacks the body, producing swelling in the brain and spinal cord and damaging the myelin which serves to protectively encase nerve fibers. The same study also describes four patients who had Zika and then developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition where the immune system attacks the body's peripheral myelin.

Zika virus is quickly spread through the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, a mosquito that is usually associated with warmer climates. This species of mosquito bites during the day. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) sent out a warning of the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil on May 2015, and on February 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). The PAHO lists the following areas where local transmission of Zika virus is active (4): Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bonaire, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Hondruas, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peurto Rico, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, US Virgin Islands, and Venezuela. Locally transmitted cases of Zika have been reported in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. There is potential for Zika virus to continue to spread to other countries due to the expanding range of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. A population of this species not carrying Zika was found in Capitol Hill, Washington, DC. Genetic analysis revealed that this particular mosquito population survived five winters in the area (5). Although theAedes aegypti is the species most responsible for spreading the Zika virus, other mosquito species in the Aedes genus can also transmit it to humans. Once the virus enters the bloodstream of a human through the bite of a female mosquito (the male mosquitoes do not bite), another female mosquito can acquire Zika by feeding upon the same host, which can then go on to infect another human. In an area with many Aedes mosquitoes, the process will repeat itself exponentially, leading to widespread viral transmission. A possible solution can be to use genetically modified mosquitoes that are male which reproduce with local female mosquitoes to yield offspring which do not live past the pupae stage. Oxitec (6), a British biotechnology company, developed such a mosquito which has already been released and tested successfully in the Cayman Islands in 2010, leading to a drastic 80 percent reduction in population of Aedes aegypti. Release of the same strain of GMO mosquitoes in the suburb of Juazeiro, Brazil in 2011 resulted in a 81-95 percent reduction of Aedes aegypti in the test region. It is also possible to breed mosquitoes to be genetically resistant to diseases such as dengue, malaria, yellow fever and Zika. Gamma radiation is being used in Brazil to sterilize male mosquitoes. Moscamed, a non-profit organization based in Brazil, took to breeding 12 million male mosquitoes per week, sterilizing them with the cobalt-60 irradiator, and then releasing them into select high-risk areas (7). The released sterile males mosquitoes then meet wild female mosquitoes, but no offspring can be produced. As there is no vaccine available right now, the current method of battling Zika virus is to reduce the population of Aedes mosquitoes.

It has been found that the Zika virus can also be transmitted sexually from an infected human male to his sexual partners via vaginal or anal sex (8), and that the virus can remain for a longer duration in semen than in blood. As of now, it is not known whether a woman can sexually spread Zika virus, or if it can be transmitted through saliva or vaginal fluids. Couples who are pregnant, or men who have travelled to areas affected by Zika are advised by the CDC to abstain from sex or use condoms.

The Zika virus is in the Flavivirus genus of viruses, which also include the West Nile virus, dengue virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, and yellow fever virus. As a flavivirus, the Zika virus is enveloped, has a capsid of icosahedral symmetry, and contains a single-stranded positive-sense RNA genome. The Zika genome is about 10.8 kilobase pairs long. The positive-sense RNA is significant because once the virus enters the host cell, this RNA viral genome can be directly translated into a viral polypeptide, which is then cleaved into structural proteins and proteins to aid in the replication process. The envelope (E) glycoprotein protruding from the membrane of the virus is used for attachment and entrance into human cells.  For the development of a potential vaccine for Zika virus, a segment of the E glycoprotein unique to the Zika virus can be used in the vaccine to mount an antibody-mediated immune response, possibly conferring immunity from future attacks of the virus.

The expanding range of travel of both humans and mosquitoes have allowed for rapidly widespread transmission of the Zika virus. The head and brain abnormalities caused by prenatal exposure from an infected mother are detrimental, and a direct casual link between the virus and microcephaly/brain defects has been determined by the CDC. For instance, the Zika virus genome was found in the brain of an aborted, infected infant (9) that had microcephaly, and Zika virus antigens were found in the brain of one newborn with microcephaly (10). Autopsies found the presence of Zika virus in the brains of infants with severe microcephaly who died. Pregnant women infected with Zika virus have consistently given birth to infants with microcephaly and other brain abnormalities (11). The CDC further found that women who deliver infants with microcephaly were infected with Zika virus during the first and second trimester of gestation, when the brain starts to form and develop (12). There are two hypotheses directed at explaining how the Zika virus causes birth defects such as microcephaly (13). The first hypothesis posits that the placenta transfers the virus directly from mother to the fetus. The second hypothesis refers to the possible reaction of the placenta in response to Zika, which may contribute to or result in birth defects. Pregnant women are advised not to travel to areas where Zika virus is occurring.

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