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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Trisodium Phosphate in Food: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Paint Thinner

A recent internet freak-out that may have passed under the radar for many out there concerns the presence of a potentially toxic food additive in cereal that is also found in paint thinner and cleaning agents.
The ingredient in question is Trisodium Phosphate (TSP), a salt compound with many diverse uses including paint thinning, cleaning, other degreasing, and removing oxidized metal for soldering. Interestingly, and the source of controversy, TSP is also used as a food additive and a nutritional supplement for exercise.

While this conspiracy theory originally dates back to at least 2014, it has recently made the rounds on social media within the past month. Despite being thoroughly debunked by Snopes the meme continues. This serves as just a single example of an ongoing chemophobia – distrust of anything seen as an unnatural “chemical” – among esteemed internet dietary experts.

Much of TSP’s functionality comes from its strong basicity, as it has a pH=12 as a 1% solution. Its basic properties will promote reaction with fatty acids through saponification, breaking down grease and oil and thus serving as a cleaner and degreaser (or paint thinner). These functionalities also make it useful as a food additive, as its saponification ability is useful in cheese sauces and it can prevent acidification of food. It also prevents moisture buildup and has some antimicrobial properties. Interestingly, it is also used as an exercise enhancer, presumably due to the need for phosphates in aerobic metabolism.

While TSP use has dwindled due to phosphates being recognized as a major contributor to eutrophication (promoting algae growth in water bodies), it is “Generally Recognized As Safe” for human consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration. It can be very corrosive at high concentrations due to its basic properties, however there is no substantial evidence of long-term effects at low doses for TSP or other phosphates.

It is only natural (get it) to be concerned when a chemical involved in industrial processes appears in our food. However while in this case the food additive is in fact the active ingredient in cleaners/degreasers and not merely an unrelated component, it is the concentration and context that matter. The basicity and phosphate chemistry of TSP make it a useful compound for a diverse set of functions, however the chemical reactions necessary for those functions are restricted by the specifics of the chemical concentration, media, and form. It is often the important nuances and details that are left out of a tweet or meme.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How Effective is Hand Sanitizer?

There are a few standards that everyone keeps on them in their bag. Moisturizer, chapstick, and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer, with Purell being the eponymous brand name, is available in many public buildings, and some people use it following every touch of a door handle. Purell is a watery gel that is rubbed into one’s hands as a sanitizing agent in lieu of available soap and water. There are different types of hand sanitizer, but the active ingredient in Purell and many common brands is simply ethanol, which universally kills bacteria by dissolving their cell membrane and destroying proteins.

While hand sanitizer is known to be very effective at killing bacteria, for some people it serves as more of a security blanket in response to any and all skin contact. 
The question is, does the availability of hand sanitizer provide a false sense of sanitation?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fracking - Cracking the Code, and Passing Gas

Fracking is an industrial process for extracting natural gas and oil from previously untapped reservoirs in solid ground. The relative value of its benefits and drawbacks has been greatly debated among politicians, news media, and academia. On one hand, fracking has greatly increased the domestic supply of natural gas and oil, contributing to a global decline in prices and promoting U.S. energy independence. Critics, however, point to evidence of serious health concerns and major pollution/contamination risks.

What is Fracking?
Hydrauling fracturing, or “fracking”, involves the pumping of fluid at high pressure deep into wells in order to crack the rock (typically shale) open and release trapped energy-rich natural hydrocarbons (gas and oil). Fracking wells are first drilled vertically down and then horizontally through the target shale deposit, followed by well encasement and subsequent pumping of fracking fluid. Fracking fluid is primarily water, but also includes supportive chemicals as well as proppant. Proppant can be either sand or tiny ceramic balls that fill the cracked rock and help keep the fissures open for extraction of gas/oil. Once the pressure is turned off, the released gas/oil along with other minerals travel up the well and are extracted.

A short video explaining the process of fracking

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

How to Edit Genes (Using CRISPR)

Check out my summary of CRISPR, the molecular biology technique currently revolutionizing genetic engineering:

I wrote this article as a guest column for the blog Infective Perspective. Please check out other posts there as well!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Obama's "Moonshot" to Cure Cancer: Apollo 11, or Apollo 13?

           During his final State of the Union address in January 2016, President Obama announced a plan to invest $1 billion toward a “moonshot” attempt at curing cancer. While the details of the plan are rather broad and ambiguous, it essentially provides increased funding for existing research efforts with an emphasis on data sharing and collaboration. While the biomedical research community will gladly welcome any funding increase amidst an ever-decreasing public investment in research relative to inflation, not all scientists are rushing to praise this initiative.

          The moonshot initiative includes a substantial funding increase for cancer research at both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with additional support for efforts at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Research areas of interest highlighted by the initiative are: vaccine development, earlier  cancer screening/detection, immunotherapy, pediatric cancers, and genomics. As previously mentioned, another big focus is to consolidate various efforts not only among government agencies but also between distinct cancer researchers and labs. An overall summary of the plan’s goals can be found here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Like Cures Like: Assessing the Claims of Homeopathy (In Rapid Succussion)

What is homeopathy?
          Homeopathy was first described in a book written by Samuel Hahneman in 1796, based on the central tenet that “like cures like.” This form of alternative medicine utilizes extreme dilutions of chemicals – usually natural – as therapeutic agents for symptoms and conditions often caused the original source of the substance (for example, arsenic as a cure for severe pain). Homeopathic solutions are prepared by diluting substances many orders of magnitude in either water or ethanol and vigorously shaken (known as succussion). Several rounds of dilution and succession are repeated until the desired dilution has been reached. This repeated process of succession and diution is known as potentisation. Homeopathic dilutions are logarithmic in scale, meaning that each round of potentisation is diluting the substance by 10-fold (Table 1).