Monthly Archives: June 2008

RIP George Carlin

George Carlin was a comedian, an advocate for freedom of speech, and a skeptic. His approach to skepticism was casual, in-your-face, and occasionally hilarious.

He will be missed.

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Vaccines: Do they contain antifreeze?

In a future post I will get into more detail about the anti-vaccination movement in general, but for today I will focus my discussion and conclusions on the confusion that has led some to believe that vaccines include antifreeze when in fact they do not.

The idea that vaccines contain antifreeze is a misunderstanding of chemistry and the nature of chemical compounds that has been largely promoted by groups who believe that vaccinations cause autism. Yes, some types of antifreeze contain ethylene glycol (EG). Yes, some vaccines contain polyethylene glycol (PEG). No, vaccines do not contain EG. PEG and EG are fundamentally different chemicals.

Well, what’s the difference, they sound the same to me?”
That “poly” is an important distinction. Saying that PEG is the same as EG is like saying sodium chloride is poisonous because it has chlorine in it. Sodium chloride is salt. Chlorine does not equal chloride – and that’s just the difference of one letter in the name, so nobody should go by nomenclature or spelling to decide how different chemicals are. Chlorine is a strong oxidizing agent. Chloride is the major anion in sea water. If chlorine and chloride behaved at all the same, the entire sea would be poisonous. Chloride and chlorine even have the same chemical structure, but chloride is negatively charged. So something as “small” as the charge, or even the nature of a single bond, can completely change the nature of a chemical.

The chemical structure of EG is: HO-CH2-CH2-OH
The chemical structure of PEG is: HO-(CH2-CH2-O-)n-H

Looking at that, it can be easy to mistake them for the same thing. However, the brackets indicate that the component CH2CH2O is repeated “n” (a number of) times between the OH and the H. This is called a polymer (or oligomer) chain. Note that 2 H’s and an O make H2O – water. So:

EG has one water molecule per CH2CH2O component.
PEG has one water molecule per the entire polymer chain and the chain can contain several CH2CH2O components.

The structure of a chemical is important, thus the fact that there a different number of CH2CH2O components in PEG compared to EG is fundamental to the chemical’s nature and function. They are 2 different chemicals. Period.

Ok so we’ve established that EG and PEG are not the same chemical just because they look alike and sound alike. So, how are they different in action?

Ethylene Glycol
EG is a highly toxic chemical that is generally used in coolants, natural gas production, chemical reactions, and manufacturing plastics/polyester. Acute EG poisoning initially presents similarly to intoxication – dizziness, headache, slurring, and confusion. Unfortunately, EG digests into other toxins, such as glycolic acid and several other compounds, as it leaves the body. The accumulation of these compounds contributes to the overall toxicity in the body leading to cardiac distress and, eventually, kidney failure.

Polyethylene Glycol
PEG is produced by the interaction of ethylene oxide with ethylene glycol and/or water. PEG has a low toxicity and is used in the production of several consumer products: laxatives, skin cream, sexual lubricants, foams, tattoos, body armour, eye drops, etc. It is also used for bowel irrigation before surgery. PEG is added to protein medications to produce longer-lasting medication effects, improve metabolism and distribution within the body, improve dosing intervals, and reduce the toxicity of the medication. PEG is often added to compounds that require the mixing of substances with very different properties (for example, to mix oil and water) or to generally increase homogenization. Attaching PEG to other molecules can also mask certain drugs from the immune system, preventing their rejection.

Summary
Remember what I said about salt: even a different charge on a chemical can change its action and function, let alone the addition of an entire molecule section.

EG is toxic. EG is not contained in vaccines, but it is contained in antifreeze. So the rejection of vaccination based on the premise that vaccines contain antifreeze and are poisonous is not supported.

PEG is not toxic. Some vaccines contain PEG, but not all. PEG is not linked to the development of autism. PEG is a non-toxic chemical that is added to vaccines largely to improve dispersion in the body and improve homogenization of the ingredients. PEG is also added to many other household items that people use everyday without ill effects. So, again, rejecting vaccines for containing PEG due to the belief that it is somehow the same as EG is not supported.

These Kids Today…

I was listening to Skepticality the other day and I heard something that always annoys me, because I hear it so often. Basically a scientist was lamenting about “young people” don’t get things because they’re “moving at an MTV pace” and “if it isn’t flashing on You Tube they don’t listen at all”. He looks “at the younger generation…and it’s hard to get them to focus on something that lasts more than 60 seconds.”

Well, that just boils my potato.

Yes, gee, why wouldn’t they listen to condescending garbage like that, Dr. Donald Prothero? I wonder. Could it be, could it, that young people are completely willing to listen but it’s just that they don’t like pompous statements like that to preface the information?

Okay, let’s say for the sake of argument that what he is saying is true and “youngins” do get all of their information from 60-seconds-or-less You Tube clips…where are all his science videos that match that description? If that’s what the “older” generation thinks they’re listening to, then why don’t they do that more?

Well, actually many scientists DO do that. You can find many videos from the JREF, the Skeptic’s Society, Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer, etc. on You Tube. Also, there are many entertaining science podcasts (such as the one Dr. Prothero was ON, which was about an hour long by the way!) that young people listen to. In fact it’s my understanding that a lot of the main audience for the astronomy podcast I listen to (gasp!) is high school students.

Those would be the shows put on by those scientists who DON’T sit around complaining about how unwilling to learn they all are.

So are youth the problem? I don’t agree. First of all, I think that traditional forms of media still work for those who want to find it and for those who produce it well. For those who don’t, there are alternatives that some scientists are willing to acknowledge and participate in. People of any age respond to entertaining, concise, non-pretentious, possibly comedic/satirical, factual media no matter what form it takes.

The bottom line is, if people change how they get information, it is the scientist’s job to accommodate and disseminate appropriately. It is NOT the scientist’s job to throw up his/her hands and complain about how “young people” are a bunch of ADHD-laden MTV kids who like to watch their fingers fing all day long, thereby alienating him/herself from the masses along with science itself. This attitude does nothing to better the relationship between the scientist and newly-developing scientific minds and only furthers the stereotype that we are all a bunch of stuffy, lab-coat-wearing know-it-alls. Want to teach young people about science and attract them to the field? Then TEACH them! Oh and by the way, don’t treat them like idiots in the process. Thanks.

Warning: science content (seriously)

Many people wonder how the unfortunate man, John Graziano [video contains imagery of bodily harm and may be disturbing some people] is still alive due to the seriousness of his injuries. To summarize briefly, a car accident has caused a devastating head injury to this man, leaving a sizable hole in his head – approximately 1/3 of his head is missing. Allow me to explain how this is possible (I’ll keep things simple):

The brain is made of 4 main parts: the cortex, the limbic system/basal ganglia, the brainstem, and the cerebellum. The cortex has all of the major “higher functioning” responsibilities, such as judgment, problem solving, emotional control, speech, perception, etc. The limbic system/basal ganglia take care of things like neurotransmitter (NT) production, emotion, memory encoding, etc. The brainstem handles some NT production, automated bodily functions (breathing, sleeping, temperature control…), etc. And the cerebellum takes care of rhythms and balance. This is a GROSS oversimplification, but for today’s purposes this explanation contains enough detail to get the point.

Basically, a person can “survive” with almost all of their cortex destroyed, which is what happened in this case. This is because, as you may have picked out from the above, it is NOT the cortex that handles the bodily functions that fundamentally maintain us. Of course, without a functioning cortex we are unable to hunt for food, gather water, bathe, dress, and do all of those things that would keep us alive over a long period of time. But the functions that maintain breathing, core temperature, circadian rhythms, and sleep are still functioning. This means that with modern medical technology, a person can be kept alive with only their “lower” brain structures intact.

Great.

Personally, I hope that if something as horrible happens to me as has happened to Mr. Graziano, I will be lucky enough to have my brainstem destroyed so my loving family will not be obligated to maintain, and be forever emotionally attached to, the remainder of my body. I have the deepest sympathy for their family and I do not mean to be crass in saying so, but I must be honest.

This situation raises important, eternal questions for our society: Is being “alive” the most important end result of an accident? Doesn’t quality of life count for something? If there is no quality of life, would death be more desirable than a lifetime of near-vegetativeness and, possibly, constant discomfort? Do we as a society have to change our attitude towards life and dignity in order to better service our loved ones in times of crisis?

Discovery has Jumped the Shark

It’s Thursday night, 5 June 2008. I decided to catch the program entitled “Mystery of the Crystal Skulls” on Discovery which aired at 9:00 PM Atlantic time. I was not hopeful when the show summary included many statements about the end of the world in 2012, but like a brave little skeptical soldier I pressed on.

The first several minutes was a summary about how mysterious the skulls are – great, because I couldn’t tell that by the title. After surmising that the Mayans couldn’t have carved the skulls because the archaeologists who originally found them couldn’t think of how the Mayans did it, the deep narrator voice introduced an “expert” pointing out that “if we can store gigabytes of information in the tiny amount of quartz we use in computer chips, how much could stored in these skulls?!” [paraphrasing]. All set to exciting music, of course. That statement makes so little sense I don’t even know where to begin complaining about it, so I won’t.

“Perhaps the answer lies far, far away…on Mars. Back on Earth…” Ok that phrase should never be uttered on a serious scientific show. Thus, this was not a serious scientific show. Thus, what the flying FART was it doing on Discovery?

I finally had to turn it off when they consulted Richard Hoagland about 15 minutes into the show. You heard me. Richard freaking Hoagland. On DISCOVERY! How can the people who run the same channel that airs Mythbusters sleep at night after airing this piece of trash punctuated with that extent of batshit insanity? I am absolutely disgusted.

I would have liked to brave the entire show to summarize all of the nonsense, but I figured I’d prefer to save myself the 2 hours and do something that wouldn’t make me want to kill myself.

UPDATE: In the time it took me to write this, they uttered this gem: “Is the skull from the lost island of Atlantis? If so, it would blow a hole in our current theory of evolution!” Then they talked to Richard Hoagland some more. Ok…I’m about to have a coronary. Have to not leave the channel ON when I’m trying to no longer be stabby.