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You Asked: Does the Magnetic Laundry System work?

question markMagnets are fascinating. Imagine the amazement of the ancient Greeks who discovered that some naturally occurring stones, later named magnetite because they were found in a region of Greece called Magnesia, attracted iron. The stones also quickly attracted superstitious beliefs. Magnetite was said to have had magical powers, the ability to heal the sick and frighten away evil spirits. Archimedes, in an undoubtedly apocryphal story, is said to have used magnetite to remove nails from enemy ships and sink them. Magnets never sank ships, but they were used to guide them. We are talking about the compass.

Thousands of years ago the Chinese also noted the properties of naturally occurring magnetite. When made into the shape of a needle and floated on water, the magnetite always lined up in a north south direction! By about 1000 AD, the Chinese had developed the compass that became the key to navigation. But magnets have also been used to navigate people away from reality. In the 1800s physician Anton Mesmer had people hold onto magnetized rods to attract disease out of their body. Mesmerism, as his antics came to be called, often worked. The success of the treatment had nothing to do with the magnets, rather it was based on the belief of the patient. Magnets are great placebos. Today, magnetized bracelets can be purchased to energize the gullible. And you can buy magnetic laundry disks for insertion into washing machines to allow laundry to be done without the use of detergents. The claim is that the magnets ionize water and thereby increase its cleaning ability. Nonsense.

Advertising for these products often attacks commercial detergents accusing them of containing cancer causing chemicals and hormone disruptors. The claim is that the magnetic disks reduce health risks by eliminating exposure to these substances while also saving money since there is no need to purchase detergents. Furthermore, use of the disks prevents the release of toxic substances into the environment. That all sounds very “green.” References are given to a patent for the laundry disks, as well as to a study supposedly demonstrating their cleaning efficacy.

It is important to understand that the only requirement for obtaining a patent is novelty. In this case, since nobody before had the idea of putting magnets into a washing machine, the patent was not hard to get. When it comes to the patent, there is no need to show that the magnets actually do anything, just that their use in this context is novel. How about the study carried out by a testing lab that examined the cleaning efficacy? Technicians actually took bundles of clothes, washed them in a magnet equipped washing machine and demonstrated they came out cleaner than they went in. Surprise, surprise! Water is an excellent solvent and cleans remarkably well even without any detergent. The “study” had no control. That is, there was no comparison between laundering with just water and laundering with the magnetized water.

Is there any rationale that the magnets can actually do something? Water is diamagnetic, which means that it will be repelled by a magnet. But the effect is very, very, small. If a vial of water is placed on a piece of floating Styrofoam and a strong magnet is brought close, it will slowly move away from the magnet. An interesting phenomenon, but nothing to do with cleaning ability. But there is something about the advertising for the laundry disks that is not contestable. They are guaranteed to last for fifty years, a guarantee that is indeed safe since magnets do not rot. That is more than what can be said about the claims of their miraculous cleaning properties.

Joe Schwarcz PhD


antimonyPicture this. You swallow a little pill, wait until it irritates your intestines enough to expel its contents and then hunt through the expelled excrement to retrieve the pill. Why? So you can use it next time to get rid of the bad humours in your body that are making you sick. How can a pill survive passage through the digestive tract? It can, if it is made of metal, in this case, antimony. Now, don’t go asking the pharmacist for antimony pills. The scenario just described isn’t current, it was plucked out of the Middle Ages when the cure for disease was to expel “bad humours” from the body. Actually, that was not unlike the current craze of expelling unnamed toxins from the body with a variety of “cleanses,” many of which have a laxative effect.

Hopefully nobody today would be silly enough to use antimony or its compounds, because here we are talking about real toxicity. Of course they didn’t realize that in the Middle Ages; all they knew was that antimony was pretty good at evacuating the body. And not only through the rear portals. One method involved drinking wine that had been left standing overnight in a cup made of antimony. This resulted in the antimony reacting with tartaric acid in the wine to form antimony tartrate, a compound that induces vomiting. The idea of purging the body to treat illness persisted into the late stages of the 18th century. When Mozart came down with a mysterious illness, he was treated with “tartar emetic,” as antimony tartrate was commonly called. What ailment he suffered from isn’t clear, but he died within two weeks. His symptoms of intense vomiting, fever, swollen abdomen and swollen limbs are consistent with antimony poisoning. Of course, we cannot prove that antimony was responsible for Mozart’s death, he also suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood, a condition that may have led to his demise at a young age.

Mozart had always been sickly and it is well known that he had been often treated with antimony compounds by his physicians and that he even dosed himself when he didn’t feel well. It is interesting that Mozart actually believed he was being poisoned, but not by himself. He thought his musical rival Antonio Salieri was trying to do him in. Although the famous movie “Amadeus” alludes to this possibility, historical facts do not corroborate the poisoning story. Contrary to the portrayal, Salieri did not confess at the end of his life to having tried to kill Mozart.

Back in the 1990s a volatile compound of antimony known as stibine (SbH3) was accused of being responsible for crib death. The theory was that it was produced from antimony oxide added as a flame retardant to polyvinylchloride sheets. A fungus found in mattresses supposedly made this conversion possible, at least under laboratory conditions. The theory has now been dismissed because neither the fungus, nor levels of antimony in babies’ blood could be correlated with crib death.

More recently Greenpeace created a stir with a booklet entitled “A Little Story About The Monsters In Your Closet.” What sort of “monsters?” The subtitle brings them out of the closet: “Study finds hazardous chemicals in children’s clothing.” Yup, the monsters are chemicals. One that the Greenpeace study detected was antimony trioxide, present in all fabrics that have polyester as a component. No great surprise here since antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst in the production of polyester as well as a flame retardant. And it is true that antimony trioxide can be described as presenting a hazard. But hazard is not the same as risk.

Hazard is the innate potential of a substance to cause harm without taking into account extent or type of exposure. Inhalation of antimony compounds in an occupational setting can be a problem, and it is correct that antimony trioxide has been classified as “suspected of causing cancer via inhalation.” But this is not relevant for the trace amounts found in fabrics. Here the issue would be migration out of the fabric and subsequent absorption. This has been extensively investigated and the amounts that are encountered are well below the established migration limits. The same applies to the trace amounts that leach out of the polyester bottles that are widely used for water and other beverages. Concentrations are less than the 5 parts per billion safety limit.

Antimony does not occur in nature in its metallic form, so where did Middle Age physicians get it? Like most metals, antimony has to be smelted from its ore, in this case antimony sulfide, also known as stibnite, a substance that has been known for thousands of years. Jezebel, the Biblical temptress is said to have used it to darken her eyebrows and stibnite was the main ingredient in “kohl” used by ancient Egyptian women in a type of mascara. Exactly who figured out that heating antimony sulfide converts it to antimony oxide, which yields metallic antimony when fired with carbon, is unknown, but if you visit the Louvre, you can see a 5000 year old vase that is made of almost pure antimony.

Today, neither metallic antimony nor its compounds have a medical use, although up to the 1970s, antimony compounds were used to treat parasitic infections like schistosomiasis. These preparations did kill the parasites, but sometimes they also dispatched the patient. Up to the early twentieth century, tartar emetic was used as a remedy, albeit an ineffective one, for alcohol abuse. The New England Journal of Medicine once reported a case of a man whose wife tried to cure him of his alcoholic habit by secretly putting tartar emetic into his orange juice. The result was a trip to the hospital with chest pains and liver toxicity. Two years later the man reported complete abstinence from alcohol. Seems antimony had taught him a lesson.

Joe Schwarcz PhD

Microwaves and Blood

RBCThere is a lot of nonsense that goes around about microwaves. I’m sure you heard many of them. They destroy nutrients in food. They cause cancer if you stand next to a microwave oven. Microwaved water kills plants. All poppycock. And then there is the story about a woman who died because the blood she received in a transfusion had been warmed up in a microwave oven? The case of Norma Levitt is an interesting one and is often used by anti-microwave activists to prove that microwaves are dangerous. This case proves nothing of the sort. Here are the facts.

Norma Levitt had successful hip surgery at the Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa in 1989, but unfortunately died on the operating table after the procedure. She received blood during the operation which had been warmed in a kitchen microwave oven. After her death, the family launched a lawsuit claiming negligence because the blood had been warmed in a non-standard fashion. The defendants, the doctors involved in the operation, asserted that the patient had died of a blood clot, a complication of surgery. The court found for the defendants, whereupon they launched a successful lawsuit against the plaintiff’s attorneys for wrongful accusation. Each defendant was awarded $12,500.

Whenever blood is used for a transfusion it is warmed to body temperature. Heaters especially designed for this process are available in order to guard against overheating which can result in hemolysis, or destruction of the red blood cells. This in turn causes release of potassium from the cells and excess potassium can be lethal. The issue is one of overheating the blood, not of the method used. Microwave ovens heat very quickly and temperature control is difficult. That’s why they are not appropriate for warming blood. Nothing to do with microwaves being “dangerous!”

The allegations on the anti-microwave websites suggest that somehow exposure to microwaves produced some dangerous substance in the blood which killed Norma Levitt. This is nonsense. Overheating blood by any method produces the same result. No, blood should not be heated in a kitchen microwave before a transfusion, but this has absolutely no bearing on cooking with microwaves. This is a classic case of taking a smidgen of truth and twisting it out of proportion. And incidentally, the court did not find that the transfused blood was the cause of death.

Joe Schwarcz PhD

You Asked: Is it true that they add cyanide to salt?

saltYes, sort of. Some commercial varieties of salt have small amounts of sodium ferrocyanide added to prevent caking. When humidity is high, a thin layer of moisture forms on the surface of the salt crystals, and some of the salt dissolves in this layer to form brine. If the relative humidity then drops, the water evaporates and the brine solution recrystallizes between the salt crystals, causing them to aggregate into clumps. Ferrocyanide decreases the solubility of salt in water so the salt is less likely to dissolve in the moisture that coats the crystals and that in turn reduces the amount of recrystallization.

Any mention of cyanide conjures up images of poison so the presence of ferrocyanide in salt sounds scary. That’s why producers would rather list it on a label as “yellow prussiate of soda,” an old-fashioned term first coined in reference to Prussia, the country where it was originally synthesized. There is, however, no need to be terrified of ferrocyanide because the cyanide in this compound is tightly bound to an iron atom and is not released in the body. Even if it were, it would be irrelevant because the amount would be way too little to cause any harm. And ferrocyanide itself is remarkably non-toxic.


Joe Schwarcz

The oPhone

ophoneYour cell phone wakes you up in the morning. No big deal. You reach over to turn off the alarm, touch another button, and suddenly the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts into your nose. But no point reaching for the cup, there isn’t one. The scent is drifting out from the phone! If you would rather wake up to the odour frying bacon and toast, that’s possible too. Welcome to the wonderful world of the “oPhone.” And we are not talking science fiction here; the oPhone already exists and will be hitting the market soon. Not only will you be able to entertain your nasal passages with a multitude of fragrances, you will also be able to send scent messages. Imagine irritating your friends back home with the scent of tropical fruit along with a picture of yourself swinging in a hammock and sipping a pina colada somewhere in the tropics. Of course your friends will have to be equipped with an oPhone.

So what makes this magic happen? A set of eight replaceable chips, each containing four “building-block scents” that can be dispensed in response to an electronic signal. The 32 basic smells can be combined to dispense a fantastic array of aromas. Select “meaty,” “cheesy” and “grilled toast,” and you’ll conjure up the odour of a cheeseburger. And of course you can experiment. Who knows what sort of a whiff you’ll get by pushing the “cocoa beans” and “meaty” buttons?

It sounds like the oPhone could be a lot of fun, but can this technology be put to some useful purpose? Maybe. You just finished dinner and there is that delectable dessert staring you in the face. You know you shouldn’t indulge, but it looks so good. Perhaps you’ll whip out your oPhone, push a button and the unpleasant smell of rotting meat will kill your appetite. There is even the possibility of diagnosing early Alzheimer’s disease. The inability to recognize certain scents has been linked with the early stage of this disease. And maybe the oPhone can even deal with the situation by helping with memory. Studies have shown that reading something while being exposed to a scent can lead to improved recall in the presence of the same scent. Trigger a smell from your phone as you put down your keys. When you want to find them again, push the button for the same scent and you’ll remember where you put them. Maybe. Of course this method won’t work to find a lost oPhone.

Joe Schwarcz

Goat Poop in Your Hair?

goatsNow that we’ve got your attention, let’s talk about argan oil. Don’t worry, we will get around to the poop. Surely you’ve heard of corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and canola oil. But unless you’re familiar with Moroccan traditions, or are in the habit of frequenting trendy hair salons, chances are that argan oil has escaped your attention. So what is this oil that most people have never heard of?

Argan is a tree that grows in only one specific region of Morocco and produces a fruit that resembles a large olive. Stripping away the fleshy outside layer exposes a nut that can be dried and cracked open to reveal several kernels. Traditionally these have been roasted, mashed and squeezed to yield an oil with a nutty flavor. Because the trees are rare, and a lot of work is involved in producing the oil, it tends to be expensive. That’s why it is used sparingly, usually to flavor salads and dips. It can also be stirred into couscous. There are even health claims about lowering cholesterol and boosting the immune system, although these have to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Chemically argan oil is very similar to olive oil, consisting mostly of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, and linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat. While these are deemed to be “healthy,” argan oil would rarely be consumed regularly in significant amounts to have any impact on health. Like olive oil it also contains some vitamin E, along with small quantities of other antioxidants of no practical relevance. There is somewhat more rationale for the use of argan oil in cosmetic products. At least one study suggests that a small amount rubbed on the skin can reduce sebum production and there is some hope that it may have an effect on psoriasis. But even here it is doubtful it would differ from olive oil.

Some hair dressers recommend argan oil as a conditioning agent, often citing that it is the reason why Moroccan women have beautiful hair. Actually there’s no evidence that Moroccan women have particularly beautiful hair, or that significant numbers of them use argan oil. In any case, there’s no theoretical reason to think that argan oil would work better than olive oil as a hair conditioner. But there is also a product called “Moroccan oil” that is available in better hair salons and pharmacies that actually works very well in making hair more manageable and more likely to hold its shape.

While this product does contain some argan oil, it is hardly the active ingredient. Basically it is included to allow for some hype about a rare oil. The first three ingredients are actually cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone and cyclomethicone, three very effective silicones that really can tame troublesome hair. But there are plenty of cheaper silicone products that do as good a job. However, they don’t come with the mythology that surrounds argan oil. And part of that mythology is that traditionally the oil was pressed from nuts that had passed through the digestive tracts of goats that had climbed the tree to satisfy their craving for the argan fruit. Supposedly the nuts processed by the goats were easier to crack and yielded a particularly flavourful oil. Goats do climb the argan trees, that much is true. But collecting their poop to isolate the nuts is a myth. As much a myth as the one about argan oil having magical properties.

Joe Schwarcz


Tempest in a K cup

K cupsA question came up about the risks of chemicals leaching out of those convenient coffee K cups. Yes, chemicals do leach out. That of course is the idea, you want to leach out the hundreds of compounds that contribute to coffee flavour and aroma and you also want a good shot of the stimulant caffeine. However, the likely reason for the question was concern about chemicals leaching out from the plastic. Yes, that happens too.

Anytime two surfaces come into contact, especially if one is a liquid, there will be transfer of chemicals. I don’t know exactly what plastic is used in these cups since the company maintains that this is proprietary information. By its texture, it seems the plastic is either polystyrene or polypropylene. It certainly is not polycarbonate which would be a source of bisphenol A (BPA). Traces of styrene, the compound from which polystyrene is made, may leach out. But styrene also occurs naturally in coffee beans, so all coffee will have some styrene. This is really not much of an issue because styrene is quickly metabolized and excreted.

If anyone has concerns about styrene, they had better stay away from cinnamon which can have as much as 39,000 ppb of styrene as opposed to the 5 ppb that may be leached out from polystyrene. They will also have to stay away from beer which has up to 25 ppb of naturally occurring styrene. If the K cup is made of polypropylene, there is no issue whatsoever. No compound of any consequence leaches out of this plastic. Basically what we have here is a tempest in a Kcup. If there is to be a concern, it centers in the environmental unfriendliness of these little cups which may pose a big problem in terms of where they end up.

Joe Schwarcz

In the beginning there was…Persil

persilThe world’s first commercially available laundry powder was Persil, introduced by the German company Henkel in 1907. The name derived from perborate and silicate, two key components in the product. Persil was introduced as an improvement over the action of soap, the traditional cleaning agent first formulated around 1500 BC. Just heat some sort of fat with ashes from a wood fire and you get soap. The ashes supply the alkaline chemicals needed to break down the molecules of fat and convert them into salts of fatty acids which we know as soap. One end of the soap molecule has an affinity for water, the other for oily substances. Washing with soapy water then removes oily residues from a surface. While soap cleans well by emulsifying and removing greasy stains, it does present some problems. It isn’t great on colored stains and it forms a precipitate when used in water that has a high mineral content. This “scum” is hard to rinse away and dulls clothes. Persil addressed both of these problems.

Sodium perborate is an oxygen releasing agent, and oxygen is effective for destroying stains. As the prototype “oxidizing agent,” it can steal electrons from molecules. Since electrons are the glue that hold molecules together, exposure to oxygen can break down complex molecules, such as the ones responsible for stains. This is why traditionally laundry was either hung out to dry or spread out over grassy fields. Not only did this expose the fabric to oxygen, but also to ultraviolet light from the sun which can also break down colored molecules. Sodium perborate did the work of the air and the sun at the same time. The addition of sodium silicate had a “water softening” effect, meaning that minerals like calcium and magnesium responsible for forming a scum with soap were in a sense neutralized. These minerals react with silicates to form precipitates, just as they do with soap, but the difference is that these precipitates are readily rinsed away and tend not to deposit on the fibers of the cloth being washed. Silicates have great suspending and anti re-deposition qualities. Today’s detergents are chemically far more complex than the original Persil, and Persil itself has a range of products to cater to different needs, but it will always retain its place in history as the “first self-acting laundry detergent,” and the image of the White Lady introduced in 1922 and featured on numerous placards and signs remains an advertising classic.

Joe Schwarcz

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