chemical safety

#ChemMovieCarnival: Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds is one of my favorite television shows. It follows a team of FBI agents in the Behavioral Analysis Unit. They examine the psychology of crime scenes and the choices of the criminal before, during, and after a crime to build a behavioral profile which ultimately leads to the arrest of the criminal.

The show doesn’t lend itself to chemistry in every episode, but sometimes the show features some interesting opportunities for chemistry. I’ll highlight two here: one light and one sinister.

The resident nerdy genius, Dr. Spencer Reid, (someone to whom I have been compared an uncomfortable number of times…) displays some chemistry magic in a throwaway scene in a season two episode: “Profiler, Profiled.” He wows his coworkers with a ‘magic’ film canister (kids ask your parents what a film canister is) which explodes and shoots like a rocket across the office. Sadly, he calls this merely physics magic, but we’ll let it slide. While the magician doesn’t reveal his secret, it is almost certainly an Alka-Seltzer tablet in water. The bicarbonate and citric acid generate carbon dioxide, which builds up the pressure and causes the canister to fail. Very easy to try at home, where you could also use baking soda and vinegar.

The second example is much more nefarious. In a season six episode, “Sense Memory,” a criminal has an obsession with scents – bad news for a cab driver inundated with aromas every day. We see him flash back to his childhood and, probably, the scent of his mother. This turns criminal when several of his passengers go missing and end up dead. The team’s first clue is the large amount of methanol found in the victims’ lungs. Reid uses his nerdy genius again to educate the team on the properties of methanol.

I’m ok with most of what is presented here… it’s not too bad. Except when he claims methanol can be turned into plywood. Plywood is not made from methanol. In attempting to figure out just what they were talking about, I found that Criminal Minds’ script likely quotes almost directly from methanol’s Wikipedia page. The only latitude I’ll give them is that methanol is turned into formaldehyde which is converted to urea-formaldehyde, the resin used to hold sheets of wood veneer together to make plywood (all also found on Wikipedia).

But enough about that – that’s not even the most interesting chemistry in the episode. It’s the reason why the criminal needs methanol that’s interesting. It’s not just to murder his victims – while that would be unique, it would be perhaps a bit unnecessary. No, instead he needs the methanol in connection with his obsession with scents, particularly the scent from his childhood. His obsession leads him to attempt to preserve that scent, particularly when his job exposes him to so many unpredictable, and often offensive, odors.

He waits until he accepts a passenger with that critical aroma, then abducts them and drowns them in methanol. Essentially, he’s trying to capture eau de humaine. He soaks his victims in methanol to extract their essential oils. Then he distills the resulting solution to concentrate the oils, which he adds to homemade candles to preserve the scent. Some of the setup is questionable (why does the condenser not have water running through it?), but the concept is still interesting and correct enough for me.

Extraction, distillation, essential oils … very gross and disturbing, but creative fictional use of chemistry nonetheless. It goes without saying that you should not soak your friends in methanol for any reason (or your enemies). Instead, stick with chemistry and physics magic with Alka-Seltzer. Your friends will like you much better this way.

By April 21, 2013 3 comments chemical safety, entertainment, fun

Roll-On Hormones, now on ESPN

Here’s something you don’t see every day: new drugs advertised on ESPN. Especially one you apply to your armpits.

Actual Axiron logo: Crash-test dummy with rainbow B.O.?
Source: Eli Lilly

Enter Axiron, Lilly’s new therapy for hypogonadism (decreased hormone production from the testes), a whopping dose of male sex hormone testosterone – 60 mg, compared to the normal 5-10 mg produced in the body – delivered in a convenient deodorant applicator. Lilly’s product capitalizes on its unique delivery system, but it’s actually a “me-too”: AndroGel (Unimed, Abbott) has been on the market since 2000.

Now, I don’t usually glean my drug info from sports networks, but I understand the angle – recall that Bears coaching legend Mike Ditka used to shill for Levitra. I also adore the way modern-day marketing really lasers the lingo at the target audience. Look at that brand name: AXIRON (short for ‘axillary application?’) Split down the middle, the words “Ax” and “Iron” appear, both of which imply manliness, hard work, and toughness. Allow me to suggest a few more, for when the next underarm drug rolls out:

Hammersmash | T-Power | Fueltron | Steamroller | Blasterol

Although hypogonadism appears in the official prescribing information, there’s a huge market for off-label use. Sex hormones are big business; a brief YouTube search suggests that Axiron finds applications for decreased sex drive and female-to-male transgender therapy. My favorite find? Muscle Ch3mistry (NSFW!), an online message board where bodybuilders inquire whether anyone has used Axiron as “male enhancement,” for working out, no doubt.
Readily available, skin soluble testosterone also raises some complex social issues. Lilly’s own prescribing information notes that the product can induce early onset puberty if children touch clothing saturated with delivery gel (See Section 17.2 for the gory details). And who actually sees these ads?’s own Media Kit indicates the primary users of its content are “young, affluent, male avid sports fan[s],” with a median age of 29 – perhaps the population most likely to abuse this drug for potential performance gains, exercise or otherwise.
By December 9, 2012 2 comments chemical safety, fun

When practical jokes and chemistry don’t mix.

I’m all for making chemistry accessible to all, heck I even write another blog on the subject. So I’m generally pretty pleased to see chemistry in the main stream media and large blogs.  But this time a large science/tech blog, Gizmodo, has gone too far.

Yesterday Gizmodo published a guest post called “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbours” from William Gurstelle.  Well that already sounds pretty sinister to me, but hey it’s almost Halloween, so maybe the post describes a few harmless pranks for a party, glow in the dark jelly perhaps?

But oh no, William Gurstelle has got grander ideas. Amongst other things he’s suggesting that you spike drinks with methylene blue! The result is that your party guests will starting peeing blue. Oh how we laughed on the way to the emergency room when the methylene blue cross reacted with some other medication causing serious damage to the central nervous system!  Granted Gurstelle does state “For the vast majority of people a tiny dose of methylene blue is harmless”. But I wonder how he knows which of his guests are going to just pee blue and which ones might end up in hospital after his little prank?

Gurstelle’s other suggestions aren’t any better. Spraying a mixture of ammonia and match heads around seems eminently stupid to me.

I can’t believe how astonishingly irresponsible Gizmodo has been in publishing this. They have a pretty big audience (with 1/2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook and a similar number of twitter followers), and so there is a pretty good chance someone will try and follow their instructions with potentially disastrous consequences.



I have sent an email to the editors Gizmodo expressing concerns. I’ll let you know of any response:

Dear Editor,
I would like to express my deep concern  about your article “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbours”.  I feel that condoning the practical jokes described in the article is extremely irresponsible. Maybe you aren’t aware of the potential on consequences of some of these jokes, so let me help you.

Methylene blue is used to treat a number of medical conditions. And like any drug treatments it can interact with other pharmaceuticals resulting in serious side effects. In the case of methylene blue it should NEVER be taken with certain psychiatric medication because it can cause serious damage to the central nervous system.  This is spelled out here .

You should note that this FDA article specifically states that Prozac reacts with methylene blue. In the US about 25 million people are prescribed Prozac annually, that accounts for about 10% of the adult population. So there is a very good chance that someone who has had a drink  been spiked with methylene blue will have an adverse effect.

The rest of the article is equally irresponsible. For example , squirting ammonia around could easily result in chemical burns to peoples’ eyes.

These are not just my concerns, comments on your article, your facebook page, twitter and reddit  make it clear that many people are very worried about your article.

Please do the responsible thing and take the article down.

I will post this email and your response on



Update: Read other peoples’ reaction to Gizmodo’s lunacy here & here .

& the Royal Society of Chemistry have joined the condemnation of Gizmodo.


By October 27, 2012 2 comments chemical safety, opinion

Nitroolefins – The Crying Game

(This post was written for the ‘Toxic Chemicals’ carnival, over at ScienceGeist)

Let me tell you about the time I broke down crying in lab. No, it wasn’t an epic breakup, or even a death in the family. It was…a nitroolefin.

Many summers ago, I worked as a pharma intern, a small flywheel in a then-huge drugmaking machine. My supervisor, a kind, safety-conscious scientist, begged me to come straight to him if I had any questions about my reactions.

We were synthesizing a small nitroolefin – 2-nitropropene, to be exact – for some nitro-Michael additions. If you look at the Org. Syn. prep, it warns, right at the top in red letters, that the compound is a potent lachrymator. The term, from the Latin word for “teardrop,” describes compounds that irritate the eyes to such an extent that tears freely flow.

I carefully piloted the reaction, distilled the greenish-yellow product, and then watched it run up my TLC plate. Beautiful! Now, I just needed an NMR sample.

Gingerly, I dissolved a drop into some chloroform. Forgetting for an instant, I pulled the NMR tube out of the hood to cap it, and within seconds crumpled to the bench. It felt as if someone had stabbed smoldering iron toothpicks into my eyes. I stumbled around until my labmates dragged me over to the eyewash; later, I became well acquainted with our local safety officer. My eyes remained bloodshot for the rest of the day. Lesson learned: Lachrymators are not to be taken lightly! (I’ve experienced similar, though milder, reactions to benzyl bromide and thionyl chloride).

For those younger chemists thinking about summer lab work, take a few minutes to find out if your reagents might cause uncontrollable crying. Cautious handling, and a well-fit respirator, can go a long way towards your future safety and comfort.