another weird science letter

By Alison Campbell 23/05/2011


This one seems to be firmly in the ‘nature good, man-made bad’ camp.

Doctors, drug companies and journalists alike refuse to acknowledge that what they manufacture, prescribe and pontiificate about is harmful to each and every human being. If children become poisoned, as reported [the writer is referring to a recent case where a child died after swallowing an adult’s heart medication], then why should adults be less vulnerable? Certainly not. Simply more and more body cells are destroyed.

I’m sure those whose lives have been saved by modern pharmaceutical products (including antibiotics, anaesthetics, painkillers, and yes, chemotherapy) would disagree. Where chemo is concerned, doctors freely admit that the drugs are toxic – they have to be, to kill cancer cells. The oncologist must judge the treatment carefully to avoid killing too many healthy cells as well. (And yes, I know that statyement’s ripe for quote-mining!) And of course, dosage is important – the amount of a drug that can treat an adult ailment will quite likely be dangerous for a child.

Science can only succeed in making one form, whereas nature makes many forms (isomers).

I’m guessing that here our writer is referring to the fact that many molecules are chiral, whereby a very small change in the molecule’s physical form can have very large effects on its biological activity. However, he’s wrong on a couple of counts. First, chemists are quite capable of manufacturing more than one isomer of a particular chemical, and second – for chiral molecules anyway – living things utilise only one form of each molecule. What’s more, one ‘stereoisomer’ can be safely used by the body, while in some cases the other can be highly toxic – these days great care is taken during the manufacturing process to ensure that only the correct isomer is used in the final product.

Nature’s pure essential oils harmonise our cells; drugs, by contrast, being created synthetically increase disorder. .

Not quite sure about this ‘harmony/disorder’ thing.  Cells by their very nature are highly ‘ordered’, complex systems. OK, I’m sure an aromatherapy session is pleasant, relaxing, and improves one’s overall feeling of well-being. But more than that? I notice that essential oils are pushed by Mercola as having ‘significant therapeutic benefits’, which by itself makes me cautious :-) But anyway. This site advises that they shouldn’t be taken internally, which would rather tend to limit their effectiveness on internal ailments. And some are certainly not without their side effects:a 2007 study of gynecomastia (breast development) in prepubertal boys found that in some cases this could be traced to the use of lavender and tea-tree oils.

Show me where manmade intervention is as good as nature provides.

Ever taken an aspirin? The active principle in aspirin was originally obtained from willow bark. Modern methods of producing it mean that dosage can be standardised & the drug used more effectively. Nor is ‘nature’ this gentle, caring, universally beneficent thing. There are many entirely natural substances that will kill you very dead – including ricin, from the castor oil bean: the toxin of choice used to kill Georgi Markov back in 1978. (And – I can’t resist – won’t someone warn people about dihydrogen monoxide?)

Ignorance and arrogance play big parts in the lack of acknowledgement of the powers of nature, in the interest of money-making benefits rather than for health.

Any doctor who’s seen a patient die of an intractable ‘superbug’ infection, or from cancer that’s advanced beyond the ability of oncologists to offer anything more than palliative care, is all too aware of the ‘powers of nature’. They don’t see why nature should always simply run its course – bear in mind that that 200 years ago, most people could expect to live only around 40 years. Modern medical and pharmaceutical advances have done a lot to change that.


0 Responses to “another weird science letter”

  • Nice post, Alison

    I REALLY hate the natural = good/manmade = bad concept as it demonstrates such ignorance of chemistry and biology (and common sense when it comes down to it).

    Here you can find a really good document which factually looks at this myth.
    http://www.rsc.org/images/NaturalNotes_tcm18-115179.pdf

    It lists the 8 most deadly chemical compounds as:

    1) Botulinum Toxin A (natural)
    2) Tetanus toxin A (natural)
    3) Dipthera toxin (natural)
    4) Dioxin (manmade)
    5) Muscarine (natural)
    6) Bufotoxin (natural)
    7) Sarin (manmade)
    8) Strychnine (natural)

    I’m not sure if this list is completely correct as palytoxin from coral (natural) is fairly potent as well. Still it does indicate that nature is still far more capable of creating lethal compounds than we are.

    The other thing that REALLY ticks me off about letters like this is that pretty much every chemist I know who works in drug research is doing so because they want to make the world a better and healthier place. If making people well was as simple as skipping through fields chomping on berries and grasses, then we would all be doing it. This giant strawman of sinister scientists and drug companies is really beginning to wear thin!

  • Low hanging fruit, Alison :-)
    Might we know the author of this letter? Presumably if it was a letter to the editor its author is not shy about putting his/her opinion out there.

  • Carol – I know :-) Couldn’t resist it & anyway I didn’t feel like writing something ‘heavy’ last night. It is a letter-to-the-editor of our local rag; it’s just that the science is so bad that I hesitate to sheet it home.

    Michael: This giant strawman… – hear hear! Unfortunately I doubt that line is going to go away any time soon.

  • Michael, although your point is correct, your list is bunk. The placement of Botulinum A toxin is correct, and the placement of tetanus toxin may be correct, although some would argue that diphtheria toxin is more toxic than tetanus toxin. Other nasties that aren’t there, but should be, include (but are not limited to) palytoxin, batrachotoxin, ricin, saxitoxin, tetrodotoxin, atelopidtoxin, abrin, alpha-amatin and a variety of venoms. Sarin doesn’t make the top ten, and neither does any manmade substance.The evidence of acute toxicity of TCDD (the most toxic of the dioxins) to mankind makes it clear that it does not even remotely make the list. I have no idea what bufotoxin or strychnine are doing on that list, there are plenty of toxic substances far more acutely toxic than those two.

    Your list is what happens when chemists make the mistake of imagining that they are toxicologists. Sadly, many chemists suffer from this delusion; I don’t know why.

  • Sorry, I can’t resist, either, but will stay away from pharmacy and medicine.

    “Show me where manmade intervention is as good as nature provides.”

    Boiled, mashed, fried, fricaseed, coddled, souped, baked, roasted, steamed, smashed, sauteed, creamed, cheesed and broiled potatoes are all better than raw potatoes. Give me the manmade intervention over nature any time! :-)

  • Coddled? Can you coddle spuds? I have always associated that one with eggs :-) But apart from that I have to agree – forget about chocolate; potatoes are the food of the gods!

  • Rosalind

    Given your level of expertise, perhaps you could provide a list of what you think are the top 10 most poionous compounds? I’ve come across a number of different lists all of which seem to vary in their content and order, suggesting that measurement of comparative “poisonousness” or toxicity is quite difficult, perhaps because different poisons work in different ways.

    Suffice to say most lists and the compounds you list certainly demonstrate that natural does not mean safe.

  • “Coddled? Can you coddle spuds?”

    Maybe he meant cuddled? After all if you like them that much maybe a bit of a cuddle is in order?

  • Coddled: simmered in milk (at least that’s my understanding). Add a little garlic, herbs and seasoning to the milk. Maybe some grated parmesan over the top of the potatoes after they have been drained for serving.

    Delicious!

  • mmmmmmm, nomnomnom, I will have to try that one. Tonight it will probably be either sauteed or home-made oven fries as my Significant Other went fishing yesterday & we are suffering from a surplus. (Some here may know that fish are definitely not my favourite dish.)

    Hmmm, if we are not careful this could morph into a cooking column!

  • Had to laugh over the “Ignorance and arrogance” line. In my experince (alway to be distrusted of course) the most harm comes from the “Arrogance of ignorance”.
    As shown by a certain Jenny McCarthy and amply displayed in this letter.

  • Lists of poisonousness are variable because of the great difficulty of extrapolating between species and between dose routes, so they mean very little. So why would you want one?

  • Rosalind

    “Lists of poisonousness are variable because of the great difficulty of extrapolating between species and between dose routes, so they mean very little. So why would you want one?”

    I think people are quite interested in lists of “most poisonous substances” hence why so many different ones can be found on line. Your points about the errors of such lists given the difficulties you mention are good ones to remember

  • Even defining “most toxic” is problematic. People usually look for those substances with the lowest LD50, although to draw up an accurate list would require that all the LD50s are determined in the same strain and species, by the same route of administration, and with the same time-point at which death or survival is determined. Getting matching LD50 data for different poisons is wellnigh impossible; just try it sometime. People really want to know about toxicity to humans, but there are ethical problems with getting accurate data for toxicity to humans, and extrapolating from other species is fraught with problems, and stuffed full of highly risk-averse “safety factors”, which is probably why the assumed toxicity of TCDD to humans does not even remotely match actual exposure incidents like the Seveso incident.
    Furthermore is “lowest LD50″ really the most meaningful measurement? When it comes to the poison that kills and maims the most people every year, there is one very clear front-runner: Ethanol. However, people don’t want to hear that! (No, I’m not a teetotaller, either).

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