Radio Shock Jock Flusters Antivaxxer

The radio show, Rover’s Morning Glory, had antivaxxer Brandy Vaughn on the show. Things start to go cattywampus for her on the issue of her credentials.

The long and the short of it that she was a pharma rep for Merck, for whom she sold Vioxx. Now she runs an scare-mongering effort called “Learn the Risk.” She claims a “background in biochemistry” but when pressed, she reveals this means biochemistry coursework at the bachelor’s level. That doesn’t qualify anyone as an expert in anything.

Now, I didn’t title this “SHOCK JOCK DESTROYS ANTI-VAXXER” because we all need less clickbait in our lives. I admit this is just a cheap thrill along the lines of the infamous Jeremy Paxman-Michael Howard interview.

But for me, it’s galling to hear someone refer to themselves as an expert based on such flimsy experience. Watching people like Vaughan inflate their credentials to such dramatic degree doesn’t just seem like advertising puffery–it seems incredibly dishonest. Being an expert is a lot more than cherry-picking studies you found on Google Scholar.

Chemistry Pic of the Week

ginko2

The leaves are finally really turning into their oranges and yellows, and Ginko trees have always been among my favorite to see change color in autumn. They tend to fall easily after changing color to form blankets of brilliant yellow leaves. I’m glad I snapped this before the rain knocked the leaves down.

The reason the leaves change color in autumn is that the green chlorophyll in the leaves is broken down as the the days grow shorter and the temperatures decrease. Eventually the chlorophyll is broken down to colorless products while the other chemicals in the leaves are left behind. The yellows and oranges are from carotenoids like beta-carotene (yes, the same chemical you find in carrots, as well as many other vegetables) and other xanthophylls (a class of chemical that includes carotenoids).

The reds are a little more special. Again, you’re sure to have encountered the chemical responsible in food, but this time the class of chemicals are called anthocyanins. They’re also responsible for red cabbage and red onions (but not beets). Anthocyanins aren’t present in all leaves at all times, but are instead produced by different plants during different processes.

Chemistry Pic of the Week

cucumber beetle - Copy

I seem to be on an insect kick with these… this is a cucumber beetle in a squash flower. It’s kind of amazing to still be seeing all this insect activity in October. Cucumber beetles are pests that spread plant viruses. Interestingly, a pesticide has been developed for them that combines cucurbitacins (which are naturally found in cucumbers and attract the beetles) with carbaryl, a deadly nerve agent. Carbaryl is very similar in structure with acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which is used to send nerve impulses to the muscles.

ccuA

carbarylacetylcholine

The neurotransmitter has to to be cleared before another signal can be sent. It’s the job of another chemical, acetylcholinesterase, to break down the acetylcholine so another signal can be sent. What carbaryl does is bind up the acetylcholinesterase, because its shape and chemical structure is similar to the nuerotransmitter, so that it can’t clear the neurotransmitter, leading to paralysis and asphyxiation of the insect.

Acetylcholine and acetylcholinesterase are also present in humans where they do the same things, although it would take larger quantities of pesticide to have the same effect on humans.

 

Some Chemistry Myths

There are a lot of things people ask about when you tell them you’re a chemist. The things people usually want to know about are are drugs (both licit and illicit), cosmetics, cleaning products, and food. Occasionally you get questions you don’t know how to even begin thinking about, but some questions you get over and over and over again. So here are few issues people ask me about.

Processed Cheese is a Molecule Away from Plastic

This is a fun one, because it shows that a lot of the misconceptions people have about things are bound up in the words they use. The terminology is everything here. An atom corresponds to a specific element, like Helium or Iron, and two or more atoms bound together is a molecule. Molecules can be very complex or very simple. Technically water is “a molecule away” from being plastic, depending on what exactly is meant by that.

Is that a meaningful way to characterize water’s similarity with other substances? The claim is “true” in the sense that a window is a few construction workers and a lumberyard away from being a house.

But, let’s be generous here and assume what is meant is that the cheese has a similar chemical structure to plastic. Well, cheese is a mixture of a lot of different substances, but let’s narrow it down to the substances that most looks like plastic:

pplinol

The top structure represents a plastic we all know: polypropylene. You find it in the caps on soft drink bottles. The bottom is a fatty acid found in all sorts of cheese, including processed cheese. Each “kink” in the line represents a carbon atom and each line represents a carbon-carbon bound. Two lines represent double bonds, and at the tail of the linoleic acid is are a hydrogen and two oxygens. If you look at it carefully, you’ll see that fat and plastic have somewhat similar chemical structures, which is why cleaning cooking oil out of a plastic bowl always seems like it takes a little longer. They’re both carbon-based polymers, meaning they have repeating units of carbon chains that make up the primary structure. Lots of things have repeating carbon units because that’s one of the many ways nature has to create complex structures like plants and animals, and you see it in petroleum, which ultimately comes from once living things.

So instead of focusing on processed cheese’s purported similarity to plastic, why not worry about its nutritional content, or how well it melts on your burger?

Glass is a Slow-moving Liquid

This misconception seems to be dying, but it’s based on the fact that old glass panes tend to be thicker on the bottom, but this has a lot more to do with old glassmaking techniques creating uneven panes. Windows were made so that the thickest and strongest part of the glass was situated towards the bottom.

Some of the misconception seems to be based on the fact that glass is amorphous. Amorphous doesn’t mean liquid, it just means there is no long-range ordered structure. Liquids are also amorphous because they lack long-range order as well. The silica molecules in glass are orientated randomy instead of forming a crystal, but it’s not a liquid.

You can Alkalize Your Body by Eating Certain Foods

No. You can’t. Your body is constantly undertaking the process of homeostasis. All of your biological processes are highly evolved to keep everything from pH to oxygen levels within a fairly narrow range. This is more biology than chemistry, but consider what happens when you drop anything alkaline into your highly acidic stomach: It doesn’t stay alkaline. Your body constantly generates stomach acid and enzymes no matter how many “alkaline” foods you eat, because your body uses energy and nutrients to make stomach acid–you don’t supply it through eating acidic foods. The reason I put “alkaline” in scare-quotes is because this myth often list foods that are decidedly acidic as “alkaline.” Sometimes they’ll say something like “it forms a buffer with stomach acid.” I doubt the people saying this know what a buffer is, but again, say it with me: Homeostasis. Your stomach has a built-in buffer that it uses, based on bicarbonate, which is why antacids like Tums are bicarbonate based. Even those antacids are limited in what they can accomplish, just ask any long-term heartburn sufferer. Your body is not a beaker into which simple chemicals can control something as vital as pH, it’s a complex living thing that has been molded by millions of years of predation, fear, hunger, thirst, and selection pressures we can no longer even contemplate. Let’s show it a little respect.

It’s More Efficient To Melt/Condense Snow/Water Than it Is to Move it.

I’m cheating a little here in that I don’t actually get this in casual conversation, but I do see it shared endlessly across the Internet. Various people have started crowdfunding drives to build devices that pull water from air in areas facing drought, or alternatively have proposed that streets can be heated to remove snow in the winter. These sound like good ideas, but the reality is that they rely on poor understandings of physics and chemistry. The issue is one of changing the state of water. Whether it’s pulling water from air (condensation) or liquefying ice (melting), whenever you take water (or any substance) from one state of matter to the next, there is a huge energy cost. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll draw up some sample calculations to prove it, but the fundamental physics often make these ideas impractical for large scale applications. Having a heated driveway that you personally pay for is absolutely feasible, but asking a municipality or state to take up that expense for miles and miles of road is a different story. It’s a waste of electricity that could be going to other things when snow-plows do an excellent, albeit imperfect, job of pushing the snow aside.

Similarly, areas that are drought stricken and in dire need of water immediately often don’t have the well-developed energy infrastructure to power devices that condense water from air. Even if they do, low rainfall correlates directly with low ambient humidity, meaning even the air is often too dry to extract moisture energetically. Efforts such as groundwater exploration, water reclamation projects, and irrigation systems are often much more economical and practical than the various “water from air” schemes I’ve seen. In fact, those efforts may do more harm than good by diverting resources from proven strategies.

Rust Spreads

There is some truth to this, but it doesn’t spread the way people think it does, like a disease. Rusting is an electrochemical reaction that happens spontaneously between metal and air, and hastened considerably by water (so much so that we say it effectively doesn’t happen without water.) The reality is that rust has a different structure than the metal it formed from. It’s brittle and prone to forming cracks. Those cracks exposed more metal to the air and elements, causing more rust to form. Unlike copper and other metals, where the oxide layer forms a protective seal around the rest of the metal, rust begets more rust by structurally breaking up the iron surface. But simply taking rust from a piece of metal and putting it on top of another clean piece of metal won’t induce rust formation. That said, wet rust may contain some iron chlorides, salts, and other substances that can start the rusting process in an otherwise pristine piece of metal.

Stopping rust from moving along a structure can be a painful process that requires removal of material. You cannot reconvert rust to metal in a way that leaves you with the original surface in tact. Instead, you have to remove the rust using acid and/or abrasive action with stiff wire brushes and sanding paper to get to the clean iron or steel surface, then, without wasting any time, it’s critical that it be painted or sealed, although certain kinds of steel are fairly resilient. Jimmy DiResta, the restorer, maker, and artist likes to use ketchup to remove light rust because in addition to its vinegar acid content, it clings to surfaces really well.

How to Remove Stains

If there is a class of question that friends and family all tend to come to with, it’s the issue of stains on beloved clothing. This one is complicated. It depends on what the stain is, what the fabric is, how long its been in the fabric, and how valuable the clothing is. Sometimes it’s easy to prescribe a solution for something simple and common like Sharpie marks, but other kinds of stains can be a little more baffling. Stains are hard even for chemists because some substances bind so well to the fabric that there is very little recourse but to attempt using a substance that stands a good chance of destroying the fabric you’re trying to save. This is the entire conceit of dyeing fabric. Some substances are excellent dyes without anyone designing them to be, such as certain types of mud. Chlorine bleach is often a good bet for certain kinds of stains that are effectively acting as organic dyes, the trouble being that a lot of clothing is colored with organic dyes, so you risk discoloration if you use bleach. Often the best resource to have for this kind of situation isn’t a chemist, but a good dry cleaner. Why?

Well, a chemist can tell you how to remove certain stains, but you might not necessarily be able to do it yourself anyway. Certain stains can be lifted off of the fabric by using organic solvents. These are often toxic, damaging to the environment, or difficult to work with. Your local dry cleaner has the licenses, waste disposal systems, and equipment necessary to do the job safely. They also have access to more conventional stain removal methods and a lot of practical knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. It’s not so much that chemists are useless here, but rather that every case is different, and unless the fabric in question is a 14th century tapestry, it’s often not worth the effort and expense of coming up with a custom method to remove a stain without harming the underlying fabric. By all means ask your chemist friends what they think, just don’t be surprised if the first thing they ask is, “Have you tried taking it to a dry cleaner?”

 

Chemistry Pic of the Week

monarch

A monarch caterpillar feasting on some milkweed behind the house. Monarchs are capable of consuming the toxic cardiac glycoside oleandrin (structure below) in milkweed. This substance makes the monarch toxic to animals which might consume them, and the bright distinctive banding of the caterpillar is designed to warn predators. They have to be very careful in eating milkweed (the only plant they’re capable of eating) or the sticky pressurized latex in the plant’s vascular system will disable them.

664px-Oleandrin.svg
Image of oleandrin structure by Jeff Dahl. Shared under the terms of Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Antivaccinationists Fool Themselves with Aluminum

I have a highly sophisticated method for finding articles with bad science on the web: I get on Facebook and see what I come across. It never fails, in about thirty minutes, I’ll invariably find something that makes me stop and scratch my head, or occasionally, hold it in my hands in psychic pain. Recently I came across a rather old article being circulated as new by anti-vaxxers. It was from the Daily Mail, and the breathless headline read,

Perhaps we now have the link between vaccination and autism’: Professor reveals aluminium in jabs may cause sufferers to have up 10 times more of the metal in their brains than is safe

Quite the strong claim.  Often, newspapers will make incredibly strong claims not actually contained in the research, so naturally I decided to read the article to find the study in question. I was immediately hit with something odd. The byline starts, “Professor Christopher Exley for the Hippocratic Post” and very close to the beginning of the article we have,

Study author Professor Chris Exley from Keele University, said: ‘Perhaps we now have the link between vaccination and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the link being the inclusion of an aluminium adjuvant in the vaccine.’

This looks a lot more like a press release than journalism. I have nothing against press releases in principle. I could see myself happily issuing news of my work and spend lots of time explaining my findings. I just wouldn’t expect a journalistic outlet of any quality to let me essentially write their article on it. (The implication here being that the Daily Mail is not a journalistic outlet of any quality, in case that’s not clear.)

But the study is open access, so let’s all read it. There are a lot of ways to read a study, I start with the abstract, but then immediately move to the conclusion. This is because I like to be very clear about what the paper is trying to prove.

We have made the first measurements of aluminium in brain tissue
in ASD and we have shown that the brain aluminium content is extraordinarily
high. We have identified aluminium in brain tissue as both
extracellular and intracellular with the latter involving both neurones
and non-neuronal cells. The presence of aluminium in inflammatory
cells in the meninges, vasculature, grey and white matter is a standout
observation and could implicate aluminium in the aetiology of ASD.

Breaking this down, Mold, et al are saying:

  1. They measured aluminum in the brain tissue of people diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder.)
  2. That the levels are “extraordinarily high.”
  3. That the aluminum is both inside of brain cells and outside of the cells in the brain matter.
  4. That the location of the aluminum in certain types of cells could suggest aluminum  causes ASD.
  5. Aluminum in vaccines is a possible cause of ASD.

Technically, the fifth claim is not made in the paper, but made by the supervisor of the lab who issued what I’m calling a press release, but we’ll examine it anyway.

So how do they try to prove these claims? I’ll keep it simple, since this blog is written with non-scientists in mind. They use two techniques: Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (AAS) and fluorescence microscopy. in searching the literature, AAS does seem to have a long history in the literature going back to at least the eighties for analyzing metals in brain tissue. I’m not going to question its suitability here, since I’m not an expert in making tissue measurements. For all I know, it’s the gold standard for making these kinds of measurements in the field.  I have performed AAS before, just not to measure metals in tissue.

The basic principle of AAS is this: The electrons around an atom vary in their energy levels. Different atoms have electrons with very specific energies and by hitting them with light of very specific wavelengths, those atoms can be promoted to excited states. Outside certain elements, the light passes through because it’s not at the right energy to interact with an atom. By looking at how much light was absorbed by the sample, (because some of the light was “used up” or absorbed by the atoms which were excited) we know how much of a substance was in the sample. Because the wavelengths of light have to be very specific for the element you’re looking for, this method is usually very good for certain kinds of elemental analysis.

After reading the conclusion, I jumped straight to the data. Here, we find we can strike claim two off the list right away: That the levels of Aluminum are “extraordinarily high.” They can’t be high, low, or normal because we don’t have a baseline. The problem is that the researchers have data for five brains from people who were diagnosed with ASD… and that’s it. We’re missing our control specimens. Experiments like this need controls: We need samples of brain tissue from people who are known not to have been diagnosed with ASD, so that we have something to compare our results to. In principle, it should not be hard to get an IRB (an ethical review board) to approve the use of brain tissue from people who have no known history of ASD. If these specimens could not be obtained, then it requires explanation as to why, or why controls are not needed. Often, if you don’t have the data or samples you need to run an experiment, you just have to wait to publish until you do. It’s not the ideal case for a scientist, but it’s the responsible thing to do. They claim that they based their ideas on a different paper that studied numerous brains, but they don’t really do any kind of direct comparison that is age or gender matched, and that study has many of the same problems in methodology that this one does.

Specifically, they have really wide standard deviations in their data. When you run a sample in AAS, most of the time you perform the experiment in triplicate, meaning you perform it three times per sample. You take the average of the three values, and calculate the standard deviation. For those of you who aren’t that into statistics, standard deviation tells you how spread out the data is. For certain kinds of data, AAS data included, you want your standard deviations to be as small as possible. If you look at the paper (which again, is open access, so you can download it to see for yourself) the data is reported the same way. Yet their data is full of unexplained inconsistencies. For the same sample, you’ll get three very different readings leading to high standard deviations. Some variation is expected due to various imperfections in the instrumentation and conditions, but it shouldn’t vary that wildly.

This isn’t the kind of data you can draw any real conclusions from. If I were running that experiment, I would stop to figure out why my results are so inconsistent. Is the instrument malfunctioning? Are my samples dilute enough or too dilute (AAS is only accurate in certain concentration ranges)? Am I using the right fit model for my calibration data? Is my sample prepared properly? I have a lot of theories about why the data looks the way it does, ranging from pH issues making some readings artificially low (aluminum can drop out of solution at certain pHs), to matrix effects making some readings artificially high. These would all be pure speculation on my part. I don’t have the information I need to speculate more intelligently, because the authors chose not to discuss the most troubling parts of their data. Even their supplementary information doesn’t include calibration data, which isn’t always included, but with these kinds of results, should be included.

This is a strike against claim 1, that they measured the amount of aluminum in the brains of people diagnosed with ASD. I have no idea what they measured with any certainty.

I don’t know much about fluorescence microscopy, so it’s very likely I could end up schooled here. They stained brain samples with a substance called lumogallion, which binds to aluminum and glows under a special microscope designed for this purpose. But when I looked up lumogallion, it actually binds to multiple metals, not just aluminum. So that test is not quantitative (meaning we know how much aluminum is in images) or specific (meaning that we know that what we’re looking at is absolutely aluminum and not something else), but qualitative (meaning we can infer there is aluminum in the images). With better AAS data to buttress the microscope data, they’d be in a better position, but with the data they have, I don’t know that the microscope data is that convincing. However, I’ll be kind and say that they proved claim 3, simply because I don’t know enough about that specific method to say for certain what the results really mean.

We’re left with the following conclusion: There was some aluminum in the brains of 5 people who were diagnosed with ASD.

That’s it. It’s impossible to build the house of “Aluminum causes ASD” on these foundations. Even if this study was well-conducted, claim 5 would need a lot more proof. For instance, aluminum from food (and therefore very likely in expressed breast milk) dwarfs anything found in vaccines. Aluminum is actually quite abundant on this planet we call home, and so even if there is a real causal relationship between aluminum and autism, the primary source of that aluminum is not vaccination.

Then we get to the last thing I read in any study: Conflicts of interest and funding. Some people say that this should be the very first thing you read in a study, but I disagree. While funding can indicate a bias, a bias is not in itself a reason to dismiss good data or well-conducted research. In other words, a bias does not in itself make someone wrong and lack of bias does not in itself make someone right. The issue here, is that the research does not appear to be well-conducted. However, we can still glean some useful information from the identity of their funders: The Children’s Medical Safety Institute. Reading up on them, they hardly seem to be a benign source of funding. Apparently they will fund any research that “proves” vaccines are unsafe, but don’t seem to have high standards for how that research is conducted.

Meanwhile, this bad paper from 2017 is still being circulated as “news” a year later. People are using it as “proof” that vaccines cause autism. This is what’s really troubling about this paper. Its reach exceeds its scholarly merit, in no small part due to the publicity the researchers sought for themselves. Scientists don’t just have an ethical obligation to other scientists, but there’s an ethical obligation that we have to society. If you’re going to make strong claims linking autism to vaccination, then you have an obligation to back that up with strong evidence. People will absolutely take even the most preliminary study on an issue like vaccination and act on that information. This paper doesn’t bring us closer to the truth, and in fact, it muddies it. Even as I write this, the Daily Mail article is probably still doing its rounds, and most people aren’t going to download the study, much less dig into the data. This research will carry far more weight in the realm of public opinion than the data justifies. That’s the real shame of it.