Monday, November 16, 2009

Chemtastic Designs: New stuff...

Oops. It's been a while since I posted about Chemtastic Designs, so here are a bunch of new and updated chemistry T-shirt designs...

First, there's the "Precious" design, which features the chemical element symbols of four precious metals -- gold, silver, platinum, and palladium -- none of which are as precious as your little one. :)

There's the updated "Little Princess" design, now looking more girly:

There's the "Sweetheart Series" which features 4 different sweeteners: sucrose (table sugar), aspartame (200 times as sweet as sugar), saccharin (300x sugar), and sucralose (600x sugar). Are you a real sugar or artificial sweetener kind of person? How sweet are you? Pick your sweetheart:

There's the "chemistry is not for the weak" and "CYNIC" T-shirts:

The "HUNK" and "PUNK" and "BrAt" designs:

And finally "SAsSY" and "PrINCe charming":

That's it for now. :)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cheap 'dipstick' test for pesticides in food

Researchers from McMaster University in Canada are developing a cheap "dipstick" test that can detect pesticide residues in food and drinks in less than 5 minutes. In contrast, conventional mass spectrometric testing typically takes hours to complete. The experimental paper-based test strip detects acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors, including organophosphate pesticides, and changes color depending on the amount of pesticide present. The test has pesticide detection limits on the order of 1-10 nM (bendiocarb 1 nM; carbaryl 10 nM; paraoxon 1 nM; malathion 10 nM) and should be suitable for the rapid screening of trace levels of organophosphate and carbamate pesticides.

Their work has been published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

While the test won't be able to tell us exactly what types of pesticides are present in our food, it would be pretty neat if the test strips could eventually be available to the average consumer so that we can check the levels of pesticide residues in the stuff we buy, and make better choices about the foods we eat.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tylenol reduces effectiveness of vaccines in babies?

A new study published in The Lancet, led by military and government scientists in the Czech Republic, has found that Tylenol (aka acetaminophen, paracetamol), when administered right after an immunization shot, can slightly reduce the effectiveness of vaccines in young babies (9-16 weeks old). Acetaminophen is widely recommended as an analgesic for babies, and it seems to be common practice for parents to give their babies acetaminophen right after they get their shots to prevent fever and fussiness. Fever after a vaccine is pretty common -- it's the body's immune response -- but apparently, curbing the fever also reduces the immune response and the amount of antibodies that are produced. In fact, antibody levels remained significantly lower even after the babies got their booster shots at 12-15 months old.

Doctors from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention note that even with the use of acetaminophen, more than 90% of the babies achieved protection from the vaccines after the booster dose, but they believe that the consistency of findings from other studies suggests that routine use of fever-lowering medicines during immunization may not be recommended.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Now there's BPA in cash register receipts?

I haven't posted about bisphenol A (BPA) at all, even though there's been A LOT of coverage on the health concerns of this chemical. First it was in polycarbonate baby bottles, then in the epoxy liners for food cans. Now we find out it's in cash receipts. What's the concern? BPA is an endocrine disruptor (estrogen mimic), and some studies suggest that human exposure to the chemical could lead to negative health effects, such as reproductive problems, obesity, and cancer. Back when I was working in industry, I used BPA quite regularly as a monomer, but of course I was handling it safely, with gloves and in a fume hood.

Apparently, the carbonless copy papers that are used for most credit card receipts and the thermal imaging papers used by most cash registers both rely on BPA chemistry. How does it work? A powdery layer of BPA combined with an invisible ink is coated onto one side of the paper so that when heat or pressure is applied, the BPA and ink molecules react to produce color. Not surprisingly, the quantities of BPA on these receipts are at the milligram level (60-100 mg) -- compare that to the nanogram amounts of BPA that can leach out of polycarbonate baby bottles. Yikes. TIP: Wash your hands well before you lick your fingers...

What's next, BPA in polycarbonate CDs and DVDs? Maybe we're better off going back to vinyl records and VHS tapes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Detecting cancer during surgery in real time

This is cool. Researchers at Justus-Liebig University in Germany have developed a way to detect cancerous cells during surgery, by using a combination of mass spectrometry and an electroscalpel. Mass spectrometry is already used to distinguish between healthy and cancerous tissue, but samples have to be ionized before analysis by way of a high-voltage nitrogen jet -- a procedure that would most certainly not sit well with the patient...

However, the researchers found that the "surgical smoke" emitted by the electroscalpel can be collected and used as a sample for mass spectrometry. Analyzing the samples takes only a fraction of a second. By taking multiple samples within the surgical area, doctors could map out the healthy parts and unhealthy parts, which could make tumor removal more effective and reduce the number of subsequent surgeries.

The technique has already been tested in animals, and human clinical trials will begin soon. The only drawback is that a commercial mass spectrometer is very expensive (6 digits!), but the researchers believe that the cost could be reduced to about $20,000 with lower-performance mass spectrometers, which should work fine for this purpose.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The best and worst cellphones in terms of radiation output

Here's a post that caught my eye from Engadget, pointing out a list of best and worst cellphones based on the amount of radiation they put out. A quick glance at the list made me jump, as my cellphone -- the Motorola W385 -- is among the worst. Great. However, nothing in the list indicates anything about the quality or performance of the phones. My phone works extremely well in terms of sound quality and reception, and I'm not sure I would trade it in for one that emitted less radiation but had crappy reception and sound quality. And seriously, how much radiation are we talking about here?

It would take some work to dig out all the studies about the health effects of cellphone radiation that are out there, but so far, the conclusion is... inconclusive. Research is still on-going. But until then, it might be wise to not chat for hours with the cellphone next to your head. Or chat while driving -- this is a little off-topic as it has nothing to do with radiation, but it's probably more dangerous. I guarantee that if you see someone driving erratically on the road, weaving and driving much slower than the speed limit, it's not because they're intoxicated. It's because they're talking on their cellphone.

Getting back to the list of phones... If you pay closer attention to the source of this list, it's from the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group. While their website is nice in that it compiles a lot of useful information, be wary that this group tends to sensationalize science to suit their agenda. Do your research and use your common sense.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Don't drink the water at school...

According to an investigation by the Associated Press, the drinking water at public and private schools in all 50 states in the U.S. has been found to contain various contaminants, including coliform bacteria, lead, copper, arsenic, nitrates, pesticides like 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane (DBCP), and disinfectants. Contamination is worst at schools that use well water.

Amazingly, this problem has been mostly ignored by the federal government even as the number of violations against the Safe Drinking Water Act have increased significantly over the past 10 years. Apparently, drinking water monitoring is inefficiently spread out among too many local, state, and federal agencies, such that many risks are going unreported, and devising an effective national monitoring plan will be complicated and expensive. Right now, the EPA can only provide guidelines on environmental practices, since it doesn't have the authority to require testing for all schools.

The AP's analysis of a database of federal drinking water violations from 1998 to 2008 revealed that California (which has the most schools of any state) had the greatest number of violations (612), followed by Ohio (451), Maine (417), Connecticut (318), and Indiana (289). The most common contaminant was coliform bacteria, followed by lead, copper, arsenic, and nitrates.

I guess the good news is that the number of schools with unsafe water represents only a small percentage of the nation's 132,500 schools, but something needs to be done. Kids drink more water per pound than adults, so they are more susceptible to the effects of contaminants in water as well as food. It's probably best to give your kids (bottled, if you trust it, or filtered) water to bring to school so that they don't have to drink the school's water.

Sometimes I wonder what's in our tap water at home. We filter it, but even then, what gets through the filter? I honestly don't know, and I'm just assuming it's fine. Anyone have an atomic absorption spectrometer and GC-MS?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Showering can be bad for your health?

This is interesting. Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder report that showering can be bad for your health...when the inside of the shower head is contaminated with a biofilm of Mycobacterium avium, which can cause lung infections in people with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly and pregnant women. Symptoms include tiredness, a persistent dry cough, shortness of breath and weakness, and generally feeling unwell. Bacteria-filled water droplets suspended in the air in a shower can be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs.

The researchers found that of the 50 shower heads they tested (from 9 cities in 7 U.S. states), 30% of them contained M. avium at levels that were 100 times greater than that typically found in household water supplies. In particular, plastic shower heads accumulated more bacteria-rich biofilms than metal ones. Their work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Other illnesses that are known to be spread from showers include Legionnaires' disease and Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections. Hot tubs and spa pools can also spread disease.

It's probably a good idea to let the shower run a bit before stepping in to reduce the amount of exposure to any bacteria.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Study finds people who multitask are often bad at it

I thought this article was kind of amusing. I like to multitask, and I think I do it pretty well, but I also realize that sometimes it's better to do things one at a time.

Stanford University researchers put 100 students through a series of three tests and found that heavy media multitaskers -- those who regularly juggle e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, while watching TV, surfing the internet, and doing homework -- tend to be distracted by everything.

In each test, the students were separated into two groups: those who do a lot of media multitasking and those who don't. In the first test, they were shown two sets of images -- two red rectangles, and two red rectangles surrounded blue rectangles -- and were told to ignore the blue rectangles and determine if the red rectangles in the second image were in a different position than in the first image. While the heavy multitaskers had trouble ignoring the blue rectangles, the low multitaskers aced the test. The second test showed that the heavy multitaskers weren't any better at memorizing things (sorting and organizing information) either. They were shown sequences of alphabetical letters, but they were not very good at remembering when a letter popped up twice. In the third test, they were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and were told what to focus on, and once again the heavy multitaskers weren't any better than low multitaskers at switching from one task to another.

The researchers concluded that when multitaskers are bombarded with multiple sources of information, they can't filter out the irrelevant stuff, which ultimately hinders their performance. But they are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with the inability to concentrate or whether they are hurting their brain functions by taking in so much information at the same time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chemicals leach from packaging into our food

Surprise, surprise. Chemicals from packaging products leach into food -- that's the cover story in a recent issue of Chemical & Engineering News. According to folks in the packaging industry, all packaging materials leach chemicals into food, so it's not a question of whether chemicals will leach but how much will end up in your food...

These chemicals can originate from the chemical composition of the packaging itself, or it can come from chemicals that the packaging comes into contact with during manufacturing, sterilization, and shipping. Plastic is probably the most common packaging material these days, and leachables include plasticizers such as di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, antioxidants like Irganox 1076, benzophenone light stabilizers, and unreacted monomers. Most recently, bisphenol A (BPA) has gotten a lot of attention for leaching out of polycarbonate baby bottles and drinking containers, as well as from epoxy-lined metal cans. Even glass containers have issues. Sometimes glass, especially the recycled variety can leach minerals or metals, and the rubber seals on caps for glass containers can also introduce chemicals such as N-nitrosamines, 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Then there's the waxy paper packaging for greasy things like hamburgers, or for microwave popcorn, that can leach perfluorinated compounds. And there's more... Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority found that 4-methylbenzophenone, a component of printing ink used on cereal boxes, was present in the German chocolate muesli contained within said boxes. Previously, infant formula had been recalled in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and France in 2005, when another printing ink component, isopropylthioxanthone, was found in it. Ink can even migrate through two layers of plastic packaging(!) Health Canada recalled a product after it was found that a drug solution in a plastic pouch was contaminated with ink that was printed on the outside of a second plastic cover pouch...

The main problem is that these materials are sourced from tertiary or quaternary sources that supply a variety of industries that have different cleanliness requirements from food or drug industries. Trying to place controls across the entire supply chain can be difficult and must start with educating suppliers about material safety. At least some packaging companies are looking at ways to reduce the amount of leachables, but it comes at a price -- more expensive packaging, and consequently, more expensive products for consumers.

Now I wonder how much of various packaging and printing chemicals Jessie has already ingested from her uncontrollable habit of chewing on everything, especially (printed) paper products...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Would you like some lead in your lipstick?

The FDA recently (and finally!) released their test results for lead in lipstick -- they found lead in all 20 lipsticks tested. The lead was present at levels as high as 3.06 ppm, with an average of 1.07 ppm, which is 10 times higher than the FDA's limit for lead in candy. Unfortunately, the FDA doesn't have any standard for lead levels in lipstick, and they won't name the three specific manufacturers that make lipsticks with the highest levels of lead in them... Although, Campaign For Safe Cosmetics had conducted its own study back in 2007 and found lead in two-thirds of the 33 different lipsticks it tested, including ones from L'Oreal, Cover Girl, Christian Dior, and Maybelline. Why is there lead in lipstick? Because apparently, some colorants contain traces of lead, and it is also present as a by-product in ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, ozokerite (mineral or paraffin wax), and petroleum-based ingredients. Since lead is considered a "contaminant," you won't find "lead" listed on the ingredient labels, so how will you know if your lipstick is lead-free? I guess the best thing to do is to not wear lipstick. However, apparently there are now lipsticks on the market that are labeled "lead-free," so keep an eye out for those if you trust the claim.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

CafePress takes even more control...

UPDATE: A CafePress rep notes that the shirt in question has been in my shop since May 5. So I guess it's my fault. It's possible that the shirt was created by myself unintentionally -- I would never in my right mind try to put that shirt in my shop. I have now taken it out. I also just got an email from CafePress community relations manager Angela Low informing me of this, and she gave more details indicating that the buyer had purchased the design on a galaxy blue colored shirt, so the black text should show up (but not ideal).

I have to say I'm rather amazed at CP's quick response to my blog post, and it has certainly helped to clear things up. However, I do think this serves as an example of an instance where CP could use their new "changes" to do good -- modify the design so that it looks nice on the final product -- or don't sell it at all.

My original post:
OMG... I just experienced my first CafePress (CP) sale where CP actually put one of my designs on a shirt that wasn't meant to be used for that particular design (see image to the right) -- because the text is in black, and well, the shirt is black... {I have the same design where the text is in white and that was specifically made for "dark" shirts.} How did this happen, you ask?? CP recently made yet more changes to its seller services that gives them even more control over shopkeepers' designs. The following is quoted from an email sent to shopkeepers:
  • CafePress may help determine what products your designs will be available on in the CafePress Marketplace and may automatically add your designs to additional products for you. For example, if a customer wants your design on a sweatshirt, and you don't offer a sweatshirt we can add your design to a sweatshirt.
  • To improve the printing quality, CafePress may automatically modify your designs. For instance we may clean up JPG artifacting, adjust colors for optimal printing on different printers and products, and adjust placement on different products.
What's even worse is that they named the shirt "BaBY" (which is the title for another design I have in my shop, not this one!) -- this shirt is supposed to be called "Future Genius." Here is proof that they have no idea what they are doing, and they are ruining shopkeepers' designs. I wouldn't be surprised if the shirt gets returned to CP because it looks awful. I wish I could contact the buyer and let her know that she can get the same (but appropriate) design on a dark shirt directly from my store...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

DNA to predict your kid's talents?

Here's an interesting yet disturbing article about using DNA tests to determine a child's genetically predisposed talents. The Chongqing Children's Palace in China is conducting such a study on 30 children aged 3-12 years, in collaboration with the Shanghai Biochip Corp. which is performing the DNA tests. Apparently, a simple saliva swab can collect enough cells to isolate 11 different genes, which can provide information about IQ, emotional control, focus, memory, athletic ability, listening ability, physical characteristics, and more. The scientists claim that this information could potentially help predict their future careers as well. The DNA test costs about $880, plus the kids are sent to a 5-day "summer camp" where they are evaluated by experts in different areas to determine what they should pursue.

The parents -- who just want the best for their (only) children -- believe that this will help them understand their children better and give them a head start, but will it? Just because a child is good at something doesn't mean that they will want to pursue it as a career. What if they have many talents? Are the parents going to choose one for them? It sounds like the parents want to control how their children turn out. What if the test shows that a child has a natural gift for athletics, so the parents push the child into sports in the hopes that they will one day become a successful athlete. Maybe the kid is happy about the choice at first, but one day they discover that they're just not good enough in the highly competitive field of sports. "But, my DNA says I should be a star!" What kind of long-term psychological damage will the parents have inflicted on their child?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chemtastic Designs: Color Blind Test

The latest from Chemtastic Designs is the symbol for the chemical element Carbon formed with different colored dots in a design that was inspired by the Ishihara color test for detecting red-green color blindness. The test usually consists of a series of images formed with colored dots, with numbers embedded in them as dots with slightly different color.

What do you C? (sorry, bad pun)

Monday, August 24, 2009

What are kids searching online?

Are you curious about what your kids are looking up online? Even at 15 months old, my little toddler is already fascinated by what's on my computer screen and enjoys watching kid-friendly videos on YouTube. But what will she be doing online in a couple of years?

Computer security company Symantec has compiled a list of the top 100 searches conducted by children online, based on 3.5 million searches made by OnlineFamily.Norton service users worldwide between February and July 2009. Apparently, "YouTube" was the most popular search term, which isn't surprising, since it's an obvious starting place for entertainment and education purposes. "Google" and "Facebook" came in second and third, respectively, followed by "sex"(!), "MySpace," and "porn"(!).

I'm not looking forward to having to "spy on" or "censor" what my kid does online, but it seems like it's necessary to set "age-appropriate" rules. Symantec's OnlineFamily.Norton service apparently gives parents the tools to manage how their children use the internet. Parents can see which sites they visit, how long they're online, who they chat with, and what information they're sharing with others. I guess the nice thing is that the service doesn't "spy" on kids -- it makes its presence known on the screen -- and when they're starting to tread towards forbidden territory, animated dog characters appear on the screen to warn them (I wonder how well that will work with teenagers). A Symantec Internet Safety Advocate even claims that the service gives parents the opportunity to broach "delicate" topics, such as sex.

Me: "Oh, what are you working on?"
Kid: {desperately tries to shut down computer} "Umm..."
Me: {glances at screen} "Daaahhh!!"
Kid: "I was just...curious..."
Me: {sighs} "Okay...maybe it's time we have a little chat about..."

Jessie, please take your time growing up.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Possible Cure For Multiple Sclerosis?

I thought it was pretty cool that researchers at McGill University and the Jewish General Hospital Lady Institute for Medical Research in Montreal have developed a new experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) called GIFT15 that completely reverses it in mice. Even better, the researchers think the treatment should work in humans too. However, the MS has to be caught in its earliest stages for the treatment to be effective.

GIFT15 works by suppressing the body's immune response so that it will stop attacking the central nervous system. Because of the way it works, the treatment could also potentially be used to treat other autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn's, lupus, and arthritis, as well as to control immune responses in organ transplant patients. GIFT15 -- a new protein hormone that consists of a combination of GSM-CSF and interleukin-15 proteins that are fused together in the lab -- converts B-cells (white blood cells normally involved in immune response) into powerful immune-suppressive B-regulatory cells. The researchers took normal B-cells from the mice, added GIFT15 to transform the B-cells, and then gave the converted B-cells back to the mice intravenously. After one dose, the mice recovered from their MS-like illness with no significant side effects.

The research has been published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What's in your 'fragrance'?

I like nice smelling things, like soaps, and lotions, etc. However, I've found that the smell of most perfumes and many lotions gives me headaches. Maybe I have a perfume/fragrance sensitivity or allergy.

When you look at the ingredient list for cosmetic products, you often see "fragrance" listed. What is fragrance? It turns out that it can include many chemicals that the manufacturer doesn't need to disclose, such as phthalates. Phthalates are typically used as plasticizers for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics and are considered endocrine disruptors, which can cause reproductive problems, changes in hormone levels, birth defects, and possibly more -- what is it doing in fragrances?? Apparently, they're used as solvents to "fix" scents so that they last longer. Here's the FDA's take on phthalates in cosmetic products. According to the FDA, the main phthalates used in cosmetics are dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), and diethylphthalate (DEP). To date, it appears that the FDA believes there is insufficient evidence to indicate that phthalates in cosmetics pose a significant health risk. Furthermore, the FDA doesn't require manufacturers to list individual fragrance ingredients, so as consumers, we will never know what's really in a product's fragrance. Think about all the products that we use that contain fragrance -- shampoos, lotions (even baby shampoos and lotions), perfumes, soaps, detergents, scented candles, air fresheners, etc.

So, we should just buy fragrance-free products, right? Well, maybe not... Apparently, "fragrance-free" products can still contain chemicals used to mask unpleasant smelling components of the formulation, but they would have to be listed in the ingredients as "fragrance." Although, if they are present at an "insignificant level," then they don't have to be listed in the ingredients...

I guess the key thing is to look for the word "fragrance" in the ingredient list of your favorite products, and then decide whether you can give it up for something potentially healthier. I say "potentially" because a lot of products are advertised as being "natural" and "healthy" when they really aren't if you look carefully.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What? The spleen is important?

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have shown that the spleen actually has an important purpose -- it's a significant source of monocytes, which are a type of white blood cell that serves as part of the body's immune system. These cells are major players in helping the body recover from a heart attack, removing dead muscle cells, rebuilding stable scar tissue, and generating new blood vessels. The spleen also serves to filter blood to remove things such as parasites and aging blood cells. When the spleen ruptures during an accident, it has to be removed to prevent excessive hemorrhaging, since it is a highly vascularized organ. While we can survive without a spleen, previous studies have suggested that there is a greater risk of early death for people who have lost their spleens. So, take care of your spleen!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Chemtastic Designs: "OBSTiNaTe"

Here's the latest design I posted at Chemtastic Designs: "OBSTiNaTe"

Stubborn babies need to learn big words too. "OBSTiNaTe" is spelled with the chemical element symbols for Oxygen, Boron, Sulfur, Titanium, Sodium, and Tellurium.

Jessie is in an obstinate phase now. It doesn't matter what we say -- she'll still try to do what she wants. Somehow I get the feeling this isn't going to get any better, especially when she hits her teenage years...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

'Natural' alternative to DEET insect repellent

I happened to come across this article about a potential alternative to DEET that is found in the South American Tauroniro tree (Humiria balsamifera). The compound, which is called "(-)-isolongifolenone," can be synthesized from cheap turpentine oil feedstock, and researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have also patented a more cost effective method to produce isolongifolenone analogs. The researchers found that isolongifolenone worked better than DEET at repelling mosquitoes and works just as well against ticks.

Apparently, isolongifolenone derivatives have been used "safely" as fragrances in cosmetics, perfumes, deodorants, and paper products, so, I guess they're claiming that isolongifolenone is safe? Maybe. Benzene is carcinogenic, but toluene (a "benzene derivative") is not. I'd like to see more chemical evaluation data... Oh, yeah, and just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it isn't toxic...

The article doesn't discuss how the new repellent works, but one could assume that it works in a similar way to DEET. Ever since DEET was developed by the USDA and patented by the U.S. Army in 1946, scientists have believed that DEET worked by masking the smell of the host or by blocking the insect's ability to locate a host. Last year, researchers from University of California, Davis, reported groundbreaking research indicating that mosquitoes are repelled by DEET because they simply don't like its smell! If it's that simple, then surely we could find something less toxic that's odorless/pleasing to humans but stinky to mosquitoes?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Apparently, women are getting more beautiful...

According to Markus Jokela and researchers at the University of Helsinki, "beautiful" women had up to 16% more children than less attractive women. The study followed 1,244 women and 997 men in the U.S. over the course of 40 years, and their attractiveness was determined from photos that were taken during the study.

Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, had previously reported that good-looking parents were 36% more likely to have a daughter than a son as their first-born child, and suggested that this was due to an evolutionary strategy that has been programmed into human DNA. Kanazawa argues that since physical attractiveness is inherited, if more attractive parents have more daughters, then women will gradually become more physically attractive than men over the course of several generations. He claims that good looks benefit women more than men, hence the evolutionary bias. Men, on the other hand, don't need to be as good looking, but there's an evolutionary pressure for them to be successful, because that's what women are looking for in potential mates. Kanazawa's previous research has also suggested that scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who have "male brains" tend to have more sons than daughters. Hmm...

I can't help thinking about all the "beautiful" celebrities who have average-looking kids...

Monday, August 3, 2009

UK study finds no health benefits to organic foods...

Believe it or not, a recent study by researchers in the UK has concluded that organic food isn't any better than regular food. The researchers claim that there is little difference in nutritional value and there is no evidence that organic produce is healthier. Now, the first claim I tend to agree with, but I completely disagree with the second one. While there may still be traces of synthetic pesticides on some organic produce (did you know that?), properly grown organic food will most certainly contain less pesticides than normal produce. It does say that the study didn't look at the effect of pesticides, but it's irresponsible for them to make a conclusion like that based on incomplete research. They should scratch this statement: "...there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food." Let's see, isn't reducing the amount of pesticides people ingest a health benefit?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Exxon to Produce Biofuel from Algae

The New York Times reports that Exxon Mobil will be investing $600 million to produce liquid biofuel from green algae for transportation purposes, in partnership with biotech company Synthetic Genomics -- though it could be 5-10 years before we see any large-scale commercial production of algae-based fuels. According to Exxon, algae has the potential to produce more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, which is significantly more than the 650 gallons for palm trees, 450 gallons for sugar cane, and 250 gallons for corn. The biofuel derived from algae is supposedly similar in chemical structure to petroleum products and should be compatible with the existing transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, algae can be grown in areas that aren't suitable for farming food crops and could help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Apparently, Exxon and Synthetic Genomics plan to genetically engineer new strains of algae that will be able to absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

I was never a big fan of the idea of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, especially when it means using crops that would otherwise be used to feed people -- there are still millions of starving people living on this planet of ours. Furthermore, to grow the crops at a scale that will make a difference, we would have to cut down even more forests to make way for farm land. Then there's the issue of carbon emissions, and using biofuels will not help the environment in that area either. However, in this case, if Exxon and Synthetic Genomics can pull it off, then this algae-based biofuel could be promising.

[Aside: Hydrogen is the cleanest fuel, but there are still so many hurdles in the way before it can even become practical. In the meantime, it makes sense to look at other fuel alternatives, but let's hope that we don't give up quite yet on hydrogen.]

The New York Times' Green Inc. blog has posted an article about the biofuel debate.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Where do guys find so much time to play video games??

This is a question that has puzzled me ever since I discovered that my husband is addicted to video games. Why is it that I'm always struggling to find free time to do stuff I like, while he's got time to play video games? And he can literally play for hours...

A new study from Michigan State University has found that girls spend less time playing video games compared to boys because they have less leisure time. Huh, what a surprise. Of the 276 MSU undergrads who participated in the study, female students spent much more time on jobs, homework, and other "obligatory" activities than male students. The male undergrads reported having almost twice as much free time per week than female undergrads. The study also confirmed what I could have guessed: once a gamer, always a gamer. Students, both male and female, who played more video games at an early age continued to do so. Amazingly, playing video games did not appear to impact a student's GPA. (According to my in-laws, my husband's grades actually got better after they got him a game system when he was younger.)

The study suggests that girls are possibly less interested in gaming because there are fewer women working in the game-design industry (it's 88% male!) such that games tend to be geared more towards guys. The researchers think that if there were more women involved in creating the games, then the games would naturally be more appealing to women. The researchers suggested that the ideal game for women would provide stress relief, brain exercise, more quality time with family/friends, and be playable in short chunks of time. I totally agree -- though playing video games still won't be the first thing I think of doing when I have some free time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The modern maternity ward

Talk about sweet! While the last thing on a woman's mind when she's going into labor is, "Does the room have Wi-Fi?", apparently many hospitals are renovating their maternity wards to include such things as whirlpool tubs, Wi-Fi, more attractive decor and linens, and the availability of message therapists, portrait photographers, and manicurists. Why? Of course, they aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts because they understand what a stressful, tiring, and painful time it is for moms and moms-to-be. The bottom line is: $$$. Hospitals -- now highly competitive businesses -- are trying to capitalize on the nation's crazy obsession with pregnancy and babies, trying to win over an apparently coveted demographic: women. That's because women tend to be the ones who take charge of their children's health care and take care of a sick or aging relative.

Glad to know that hospitals have our best interests in mind...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meth labs: Do you know the history of your home?

I've been watching the first season of the AMC television series called "Breaking Bad" in which the main character, a high school chemistry teacher, decides to use his chemistry skills to produce high quality methamphetamine with a former student, after he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Why? Because he wants to make sure his pregnant wife and teenage son, who has cerebral palsy, are financially secure once he is gone. I want to point out that while using your chemistry degree to make illegal drugs is bad, this is one of the few (if not the only) instances where a chemist is the main character on a TV series, and he's not your stereotypical nerdy, geeky, white male in a labcoat either. OK, maybe he starts out that way...

Anyway, I recently saw this article in the New York Times, and it's horrifying. I've heard about how once a residence has been the site of a meth lab, it's pretty much uninhabitable. What I can't believe is that such information can be withheld, and people have no idea that they're moving into and living in a toxic waste contaminated home. One homeowner later found out that there were high concentrations of meth on her kitchen countertops -- where she was sterilizing bottles and preparing baby food(!)

According to the article, people who live in these contaminated environments have succumbed to mysterious illnesses -- migraines, kidney disease, respiratory problems -- and pets have died. The fumes and chemicals from methamphetamine production can permeate drywall, carpets, insulation, and air ducts. The cost of cleaning a site can range from $5,000 - $100,000. Some states require cleanup and disclosure at the time of sale of the house's history. This obviously works really well, since one homeowner said that the former owner of their house -- who is now in prison -- had checked "no" on the disclosure form when asked if the house had ever been a meth lab...

Here is a document from the EPA titled "RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products" that describes generally how methamphetamine is made, and it has a surprisingly lengthy list of chemicals commonly found at former meth labs. Here are some nastier ones: sodium/potassium/hydrogen cyanides, dimethyl sulfate, phosphine, sulfur trioxide, thionyl chloride, lead acetate, and the list goes on...

Unfortunately, there are no national standards governing meth contamination, and where there are state laws, the property owner is almost always held financially responsible for the cleanup. The CDC has a list of documents (alphabetically by state) that give a general overview of legislation, ordinances, policies, and regulations regarding methamphetamine, meth lab cleanup, and public health risks.

Do you know the history of your house?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Chemtastic Designs: Little Stinker, Little Screamer

I just posted two new designs at Chemtastic Designs.

"Little Stinker" is a contribution from my husband. The idea was his -- funny, considering that I'm the one who changes all the poo diapers -- but the design is mine. Apparently dimethyl sulfide is a main component of poo smell...

"Little Screamer" was inspired by our recent long distance plane trip with Jessie. She screamed almost the entire way... When we got off the plane, we passed by some other passengers who were on the plane with us, and I overheard them say, "Oh, look, it's the little screamer!"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Genetically altered mice can convert fat into carbon dioxide?

Guess what? Researchers at UCLA have shown that mice can be genetically altered to convert fat into carbon dioxide... AND they can eat a diet of "fast food" and still stay skinny. Sounds like a dream, doesn't it?

The researchers were inspired by plants and bacteria, which digest fat differently than humans and mammals. Plant seeds typically contain a significant amount of fat, and when they germinate, a set of enzymes called the "glyoxylate shunt" help them convert the fat into sugar. The researchers then introduced the genes for these enzymes into cultured human cells and found that the cells converted the fat completely into carbon dioxide. Then they introduced the genes into the livers of mice and found that the mice stayed skinny even when they ate a high-fat diet, and they also showed lower cholesterol levels and lower fat levels in the liver. What happened to all the fat? Well, it wasn't converted into sugar. It was converted into carbon dioxide!

Could you imagine if all the people in the world were treated with this "glyoxylate shunt therapy" and went on their merry way eating tons of fatty foods with no *apparent* consequence -- how much more greenhouse gases would we be adding to the atmosphere? :)

Not sure why, but I keep thinking of the humans in WALL-E ...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Recycling -- Bad for the Environment?

Who knew that recycling could be bad for the environment? Discover Magazine points out that while recycling is better than tossing in the trash, problems arise when people don't pay attention to the type of plastic they're throwing in the recycling bin, mixing plastics that shouldn't be mixed together. Why? Because the presence of other types of plastic or foreign materials like food can ruin an entire batch of recycled plastic. Of course, the plastic is first sorted at a sorting plant prior to recycling, but the automated sorting process isn't perfect, and any contamination will compromise the strength and durability of the recycled plastic that is produced. Poor quality recycled plastic will just lead manufacturers to use more new plastic instead -- and this is where recycling can be bad for the environment.

The Daily Green has a nice slideshow describing what the different recycling symbols and numbers mean.

Our city only collects number 1 (PET or PETE - polyethylene terephthalate) and 2 (HDPE - high density polyethylene) plastics for recycling. I'm very conscientious about sorting out plastic at home, but sometimes it can be tricky. I've seen some fresh fruit packaging that looked like it could be PETE, but surprisingly it turned out to be polystyrene (PS, number 6 plastic)...

Horizon Organics and Puppy Mills???

I was rather disappointed to find out that Horizon Organics has been linked to a puppy mill in Lancaster County, PA. B&R Puppies -- which was cited a year ago for keeping dogs in filthy cages and not vaccinating them -- has apparently been supplying milk to Horizon. Horizon sent an inspector to B&R and confirmed this, leading the company to suspend the farmer, who has since closed his dog-breeding business. Believe it or not, this has allowed him to continue supplying milk to Horizon. Due to the efforts of Bill Smith, who has dedicated his life to fighting puppy mills, Whole Foods has sent out a request to all its vendors saying that it will not accept any products that come from farms where dogs are mistreated.

I guess there's just no way for big companies to monitor every little detail in their business, but it does make you wonder about the quality and source of the food you eat from "trusted" brands.

New, Safer Form of Acetaminophen

Following up on my previous post about acetaminophen... Apparently, scientists in Louisiana have developed a way to scale up production of a safer form of the drug, which had previously been difficult to produce in large quantities. This alternate form of acetaminophen reportedly has similar potency to the original but with a lower risk of liver toxicity. So far, they are able to produce the drug in multigram quantities with 99% purity.

Monday, July 13, 2009

FDA Wants to Ban Popular Painkillers Containing Acetominophen

Apparently, the FDA is thinking of banning painkillers like Vicodin (hydrocodone + acetominophen) and Percocet (oxycodone + acetominophen) because they contain... acetominophen, best known as "Tylenol." Acetaminophen is added in the formulations because it acts on different pain receptors than hydrocodone and oxycodone. An FDA advisory panel argues that acetominophen can cause liver damage if it is taken at high doses and is urging the FDA to lower the recommended maximum doses for the drug. The issue with Vicodin and Percocet is that patients may not realize that they contain acetominophen and may mix them with other drugs that contain acetominophen, like NyQuil and Theraflu, and there is some research that suggests the possibility of greater liver damage with these two painkillers. If the ban on Vicodin and Percocet goes through, doctors will have to figure out how to manage their patients' pain using other (and perhaps more complicated) methods. Of course, the pharmaceutical industry is planning to fight the ban, since prescription drugs containing acetominophen generated $1.4 billion in sales in 2008.

I always thought that acetominophen was the typically recommended over-the-counter painkiller because it was "mild" -- I guess in that it doesn't irritate your stomach like aspirin and ibuprofen can. I'm also aware that combining the use of acetominophen with alcohol is bad for the liver -- so don't try to take Tylenol to take care of that awful hangover! Apparently, it's the painkiller of choice for pregnant women, as it's recommended for use in all stages of pregnancy for short-term fever and pain relief. While it's been safely used as the standard remedy for fever and pain in children, parents need to be careful not to mix Tylenol with other medicines, such as cold medicines which often already contain acetominophen or contain alchohol in their formulations. The Mayo Clinic has published an article that contains some useful information, as well as a dosage chart for children that also lists the toxic amount over a 24-hour period for a given child's weight.

I used to be a big fan of Tylenol, but I found that it took too long to take effect, so I've mostly switched to Advil (ibuprofen), and I don't take it unless I absolutely need to. I think I was given prescription strength Motrin (also ibuprofen) both when I had wisdom tooth surgery and my c-section, and I recall feeling some withdrawal symptoms, like headaches, when I stopped using it. The nurses and doctors at the hospital called me "iron woman" when they found out I stopped taking the Motrin 3 days after surgery. :)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Who owns your favorite organic food brands?

Did you know? Big corporations own many popular organic brands, and they don't really want the consumer to know about it. For example, brands like Back to Nature, Cascadian Farm, and Odwalla are actually owned by Kraft, General Mills, and Coca-Cola. Apparently, since 2002 when the government implemented organic standards, these large companies have been quietly acquiring popular organic brands in a bid to buy the consumer loyalty that comes with these brands -- though they don't want to advertise this, since it could damage the "natural" image that they're paying for. Michigan State University professor Phil Howard created a chart that shows who owns what in the organic food industry.

Jessie drinks Horizon milk and eats Stonyfield Farm yogurt. We eat Kashi cereal. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, Stonyfield Farm is owned by Danone (Dannon), and Kashi is owned by Kellogg... Not surprisingly, these large corporations are also introducing their own lines of organic products. I've also noticed that supermarket chains like Kroger have introduced their own organic products as well, and interestingly, they don't put them in the organic food section of the store. They put their organic products right next to the regular stuff. Hmm...

For further reading, there are a bunch of articles on the topic of "corporate organic food" on the Cyber-Help For Organic Farmers website.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I'm the natural mosquito repellent...

I got bitten like crazy by mosquitoes this past July 4th. It's my own fault because I don't like to use insect repellent because I don't want to absorb stuff like DEET through my skin. Besides, when I've actually succumbed to using mosquito repellent, I still get bitten. N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET), the active ingredient in the most effective insect repellent formulations, is absorbed through the skin in varying amounts depending on its concentration and the presence of other chemicals (such as alcohol) in the product. Furthermore, once in the body, DEET can cross the placenta in pregnant women. Now if I were going to be in an environment where there was a very high risk of catching mosquito-borne illnesses, like West Nile Virus, malaria, or encephalitis, then I would use it, since the benefits outweigh the risks.

In any case, I was the mosquito repellent for everyone else at the party, since all the mosquitoes were attracted to me... Now, recently, I got excited when I saw the ads for the new OFF! Clip On Mosquito Repellent. What a great idea, I thought. The device is pretty simple. The "refills" consist of a piece of paper that has been impregnated with the active ingredient, and a little battery-powered fan disperses the repellent in the air around you. Then I wondered what the active ingredient was. Metofluthrin. Metofluthrin vaporizes pretty readily at room temperature, which makes it ideal for this application. Then I looked more carefully at the EPA report on the chemical, and was somewhat disturbed to find that it has been classified as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans." Great. If this is indeed the case, I'm not sure I want to be breathing in this stuff as it's dispersed in the air around me. It's still a relatively new chemical, so who knows?

Here's the California Department of Pesticide Regulation Public Report on Metofluthrin.

How well does the OFF! Clip On mosquito repellent work? People I know claim that it works well only if you're not moving too much. For example, wearing it while walking your dog will probably not work too well, because by the time the repellent has been dispersed in the air around you at any given moment, you will have moved away from that location...

There are some plant-based mosquito repellents, such as citronella, geraniol, p-menthane-3,8-diol (from eucalyptus), and soybean oil, but just because they seem more "natural" doesn't mean they're healthier. They also have their own health risks.

Monday, July 6, 2009

How do they make fireworks in different shapes?

We missed out on the fireworks this year. The show was after Jessie's bedtime, plus, at her age (14 months) she'd probably be more terrified than excited about all the loud booms. Chris and I miss seeing fireworks. The last time we saw a real fireworks show was in 2006, I think. My favorite types of fireworks are the kind that explode into those giant expanding 3D balls, and the blue ones -- the most expensive color. The blue color comes from copper salts, such as copper(I) chloride, which is unstable at high temperatures, so the firework has to burn bright enough to be seen, but it can't get too hot. Here's a list of metal salts and the colors that they produce in fireworks.

Have you ever wondered how they make fireworks that produce shapes like stars and hearts? Apparently they paste the metal salt pellets on a piece of paper in the desired pattern, and then place explosive charges above and below the paper in the shell. When the pellets go off, they spread out in the same pattern as they were arranged on the piece of paper. Cool!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What did kids play with before electronic toys existed??

Have you noticed that practically every toy has some sort of electronic component to it these days? Before I had Jessie, I had decided that I didn't want my kid to play with toys that made annoying noises, but that's pretty much impossible, unless you restrict them to playing with traditional toys like building blocks, stuffed animals, dolls, etc. But now, I'm guilty of accepting and buying (oh no!) toys for Jessie that make noise... Sigh. She has plenty of non-electronic toys as well, and she plays with them just as much, so I can't say whether "hi tech" toys are better. I just hope she grows to like LEGOs as much as I did when I was a kid. I think LEGOs are one of the simplest toys out there that will encourage kids to be creative.

Anyway, getting back to electronic toys... I never thought about this until I saw the crossed-out wheelie bin symbol on many of Jessie's toys. You think about recycling your cell phone or computer or other electronic devices, but do you think about recycling your kid's electronic toys? That crossed-out wheelie bin symbol means you can't just throw that toy in the trash, you need to recycle it with other electronic waste. Here's a great website with information about recycling and even composting.

I'm wondering how aware parents are about this and whether they're disposing of their kids' electronic toys properly...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hilarious: 'Sleep Training - A Baby's View'

We recently came back from a trip to Taiwan, and the 12-hour time difference made it very difficult to get Jessie back to her normal sleep schedule. We basically had to sleep train her all over again... It was a painful experience... In fact, it was even more painful than the first time we sleep trained her. In any case, if you've ever tried to sleep train a baby, then you will appreciate how funny this article is. It's called "Sleep Training - A Baby's View":

OK, here's my situation. My Mommy has had me for almost 7 months. The first few months were great--I cried, she picked me up and fed me, anytime, day or night. Then something happened. Over the last few weeks, she has been trying to STTN (sleep thru the night). At first, I thought it was just a phase, but it is only getting worse. I've talked to other babies, and it seems like it's pretty common after Mommies have had us for around 6 months. Here's the thing: these Mommies don't really need to sleep. It's just a habit. Many of them have had some 30 years to sleep--they just don't need it anymore. So I am implementing a plan. I call it the Crybaby Shuffle. It goes like this:

Night 1--cry every 3 hours until you get fed. I know, it's hard. It's hard to see your Mommy upset over your crying. Just keep reminding yourself, it's for her own good.

Night 2--cry every 2 hours until you get fed.

Night 3--every hour.

Most Mommies will start to respond more quickly after about 3 nights. Some Mommies are more alert, and may resist the change longer. These Mommies may stand in your doorway for hours, shhhh-ing. Don't give in. I cannot stress this enough: CONSISTENCY IS KEY!! If you let her STTN (sleep through the night), just once, she will expect it every night. I KNOW IT'S HARD! But she really does not need the sleep, she is just resisting the change. If you have an especially alert Mommy, you can stop crying for about 10 minutes, just long enough for her to go back to bed and start to fall asleep. Then cry again. It WILL eventually work. My Mommy once stayed awake for 10 hours straight, so I know she can do it.

Last night, I cried every hour. You just have to decide to stick to it and just go for it. BE CONSISTENT! I cried for any reason I could come up with. My sleep sack tickled my foot. I felt a wrinkle under the sheet. My mobile made a shadow on the wall. I burped, and it tasted like pears. I hadn't eaten pears since lunch, what's up with that? The cat said "meow". I should know. My Mommy reminds me of this about 20 times a day. LOL. Once I cried just because I liked how it sounded when it echoed on the monitor in the other room. Too hot, too cold, just right–doesn't matter! Keep crying!! It took awhile, but it worked. She fed me at 4am. Tomorrow night, my goal is 3:30am. You need to slowly shorten the interval between feedings in order to reset your Mommies' internal clocks.

P.S. Don't let those rubber things fool you, no matter how long you suck on them, no milk will come out. Trust me.

It's very therapeutic, even for when you've just had a rough day with the kid. I already feel better. :)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boy, I feel old...

Check out this funny BBC News Magazine article. Makes me feel old... A 13-year-old boy exchanges his iPod for a Sony Walkman portable cassette player for a week. Here are some choice quotes:
  • My dad had told me it was the iPod of its day.
  • When I wore it walking down the street or going into shops, I got strange looks, a mixture of surprise and curiosity, that made me a little embarrassed.
  • It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.
  • Another notable feature that the iPod has and the Walkman doesn't is "shuffle", where the player selects random tracks to play. Its a function that, on the face of it, the Walkman lacks. But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down "rewind" and releasing it randomly - effective, if a little laboured.
I had a Walkman back in the day. But I'm not that old!!! I wonder what Jessie will think of all of today's cool high tech stuff when she grows up?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Chemtastic Designs: Recycle Failed Experiments

I just posted a new design at Chemtastic Designs, my chemistry geek-themed store, featuring nerdy T-shirts, onesies, and more. This one is called "Recycle Failed Experiments" because... you never know -- you might make some interesting discoveries from your failures. It's a good idea to revisit failed experiments, unless you're sure you've made pure crap.

I've been rather annoyed by the recent changes at, where my store is hosted. It seems like they've found a way to take away significant profits from the storekeepers while simultaneously increasing their own. Surprise, surprise. Apparently, I'm not the only one who's noticed. Read this blog post. It covers everything I want to say about the changes at Cafepress. Hello,!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tap Water -- A Matter of Taste

I've always wondered about the quality of our tap water. People say our city's is pretty good even though it tastes awful. When we first moved here, we drank bottled water exclusively, but then decided it was more environmentally friendly to drink filtered tap water. Besides, there's no good regulation over the quality of bottled water...

Earlier this spring, I noticed that our tap water had suddenly acquired a kind of musty taste and odor to it. It stayed that way for a couple of weeks, and even though we filtered our water with a Brita carbon filter, the taste remained even after filtering with a brand new filter cartridge. After doing some research, I found out that our city gets its water from a nearby lake, and apparently, algal blooms can cause this type of taste/odor in the water. Though the algae can be removed from drinking water, the chemical compounds they produce cannot be removed completely. Two of these compounds are geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol which both have strong odors. Unfortunately, our senses of taste and smell are extremely sensitive to these compounds, and we can detect them at concentrations as low as 5 ppt. Too bad for me, I have a pretty sensitive nose (and taste buds) -- in the lab, I used to be like the canary in a coal mine. :)

Thankfully, the nasty taste and smell are gone now. It might be neat to go check out the lake sometime.