Is Homeopathy an Environmental and Health Hazard?

By Michael Edmonds 04/11/2010 41

Most reputable scientists agree that homeopathy is pseudoscience and that it doesn’t work. But let us for a moment consider what the consequences would be if homeopathy did work. One major concern would have to be its’ potential as an environmental and health hazard.

For those who are not familiar with the concept, homeopathy typically involves taking an ‘active’ component, for example arsenic oxide, snake venom or pus, and diluting it by a factor of one hundred and succussing it. (Succussion is the process by which the solution is shaken in a particular way to ‘activate’ the solution). After succession one hundredth of the solution is then removed, diluted by a factor of one hundred and succussed again. This process is repeated many times until the final ‘potentiated’ solution is produced. For example, the commonly used 30C solution undergoes a sequence of thirty serial dilutions.

So why would homeopathy be a potential hazard if it actually worked? Well let us consider the dilution process more closely. At each step, ninety nine percent of the solution is discarded. One assumes this must be into the environment thereby resulting in an increasing contamination of the worlds’ water supply with various ‘potentiated’ water molecules that may be inadvertently treating us for headaches, nausea, fever, constipation, period pain and many other maladies. Now I don’t know about you but I’m not too happy with the idea of being unintentionally medicated when I have a glass of water. Particularly when, as a reasonably healthy male, I have no need to be treated for maladies such as headaches, period paid or morning sickness. And heaven forbid that I consume water molecules with the memory of anti-constipation molecules if I ever come down with a case of diarrhoea!

But surely, you might think, the whole world’s water supply could not be that contaminated with these ‘potentiated’ water molecules? On the contrary, if homeopathic theories were true, such wide spread contamination would be impossible to avoid. Just consider the amount of water involved in making a single 100 mL solution of a 30 C solution. For each step a 100 mL solution is prepared but only one mL is needed for the next step. Therefore over the 29 dilution steps to prepare the final 100 mL of solution, 2871 mL of water (29 x 99 mL) will be discarded. That is almost 3 litres of waste water containing ‘activated’ water.

The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths represents over 150 homeopaths in New Zealand. If one were to assume each member produced an average of five new solutions a week that would amount to over 110 tonnes of ‘contaminated’ water entering New Zealand waterways each year. And this isn’t even taking into account the homeopathic solutions sold through most pharmacies.

As homeopathy is not bound by the established laws of chemistry, the more dilute a solution is the more powerful it becomes. So unless homeopaths are storing their discarded intermediate solutions in vast storage facilities somewhere, their extra ‘potentiated’ water molecules are passing into the environment and being rapidly distributed throughout our waterways and river systems. If they seriously believe their potions work as they describe, should they not be taking some responsibility for this ‘contamination’?

41 Responses to “Is Homeopathy an Environmental and Health Hazard?”

  • Ha ha! I hadn’t thought of that all that worrisome excess before. It gets even worse if you follow along with their theory. You have you’re 110 tonnes of contaminated water yes, but that is still effective even when it’s been diluted by a factor of 100 isn’t it? Which gives us an additional 109890 tonnes of NZ water contaminated by the release of that initial 110 tonnes. Shocking! 🙂

  • Thanks, Aimee nice to be here and thanks for all your help in setting this up.

    Glad you like it Alison, Ben. 🙂

  • Absolutely brilliant! A novell approach to the ridiculousness of homeopathy and very well written. Coffee spilled here because of the humour, a highlight of the day.

  • Welcome Michael. Nice to see a local face on SciBlogs. 🙂 Nice first post too. This was an angle I’d never really considered. It’ll be interesting to see the weasel words used to explain why it can’t contaminate the environment.

    Also, any takers on starting a book to see how long it takes before the NancyBot responds to this?

    I’ll give it 2 days at the most. 🙂

    • Thanks Gold, I’m looking forward to seeing a homeopath explain this away. If we were running a book on it I would give it 50:50 odds that any answer would contain the word “quantum”.

  • Actually Gold, four local faces on here – Michael, Daniel Collins (Crikey Creek), Jess Dykstra (Shaken not Stirred) and Gareth Renowden (Hot Topic syndicated). Get them along to your next pub meet-up!

  • Doesn’t New Zealand have any method of hazardous waste disposal? I’m sure the homeopathic pharmacies follow regulations for safe disposal…and most industries (how about big pharmaceuticals ?!) produce MUCH more hazardous waste.

    • Fred, I think you are missing the point. Most industries dispose their waste based on scientific advice typically involving the isolation, dilution and/or breakdown of harmful substances. Homeopathy’s claims are non-scientific (“i.e. that potency increases with dilution“) so assuming that this is correct, by their own standards they are polluting the environment.
      If homeopaths are going to stick to their claims that dilution increase potency, then they should be able to explain the logical extensions of that belief.

  • Thanks for that list Peter. 🙂

    We’ve had Gareth out before, but he’s quite a way out of town for the regular trip for Skeptics in the Pub. His talk was quite interesting though. We even had a climate change denier in the audience. 🙂 The thing I found odd was his genuine surprise at the fact that the majority of us accepted global warming as a fact. I really should get him back. ClimateGate has happened since then. It’d be good to get an overview of the situation, the fallout and the current state of things from the point of view of someone that follows the topic a lot close than I do.

    Micheal has also been a speaker. Talking on this topic and the implausibility of if. Really good talk and the slides worked in well. I especially liked the one showing scale. Picture of a virus with a water molecule to scale. Then explaining that it wasn’t quite to scale as he needed to enlarge the water molecule so it could be seen on the slide. 🙂

    I’ll follow up with Daniel and Jess too. Things are hectic at the moment. George Hrab and Rebecca Watson are touring. I’ve landed the job of chief cat herder for that so possibly early next year.

  • Just for devil’s advocate sake: couldn’t they possibly make 100 new solutions with each old solution so not waste any at all?
    Of course then you’d need many magnitude more subscribers to use it all up and there’s the stumbling point, no doubt. I had no idea it was such an involved process to go through. Do they seriously do this? If I were them I’d just get tap water and pretend that it’s diluted something or other. No one would notice, and I’d still get my money. Hmmm…

    • Hi Paul

      You’ve touched on another one of the absurdities of homeopathy. If one were to try and make use of every solution during the dilution process you would need 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x100 x100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 mL of water.

      or looking at it another way, one mL of the “active” ingredient would require a sphere of water with the same diameter as the Milky Way Galaxy to make such a dilution.

  • @PaulFallon if they were to start with a solution of 1ml active ingredient added to 99ml water and then used all of that at the next stage, they would need 10 litres. Do you see where this is going? Repeat this out to 30C and they would need 1.0E^59 liters of water. I’ve seen this described as a sphere of water with a radius of around 1AU (yes, that’s correct, Astronomical Units.)

    The scary thing is 200-300C is also quite common (and much more powerful). That sphere of water, centered on Sol, would touch our nearest stellar neighbor.

  • “Michael, I think we may need to check our references on the size of the spheres. :)”

    Yes. An order of magnitude (or 10) is significant you know……..;-]

  • Found it.

    It was Ben Goldacre who said it. This sphere had a diameter from the earth to the sun, roughly. Not radius as I mentioned.

    Given the typical dilution is 30C I’d take this as being in reference to that. Extrapolating out, 200C could match the 4.3ly sphere and it’s not inconceivable that at 300C the sphere would encompass the galaxy.

    Would love to see someone actually present the math on this. 🙂

    • The galaxy quote was one I found online but taking it back to first principles:

      10^60 mL = 10^57 L = 10^54 cubic metres
      Volume of a sphere = 4/3 x pi x r^3
      rearranging this (if I’ve done it correctly) gives r (the radius) of 2.9 x 10^14 m
      The diameter = 2 x r so 5.8 x 10^14 metres = 5.8 x 10^11 kilometres
      So one very large sphere with a diameter of 5.8 x 10^11 kilometres.

      One AU = 1.5 x 10^8 kilometres.

      However, galaxies are much much bigger so I think my comment about the milky way is way way off. In terms of magnitude the sphere would be much closer to 1 AU than the milky way galaxy – my bad!

      Perhaps I just should have said more water than exists on this planet!

      If someone could check my calculations please do, its been a while since I’ve had to do geometry or magnitude calculations.
      Chemistry calculations tend to go in the other direction (i.e. smaller)

  • Yeah I was very much tongue-in-check with my idea. I knew it’d be lots of water (my guess was more than we had on earth) but THAT much. Wow. That’s quite incredible.

  • And then there is the danger for teenagers drinking diluted homeopathic alcohol instead of the strong stuff ;-).

  • so, if further diluting activated water makes it more powerful, would boiling it off weaken it? Or would we then (eeep!) have activated molecules diluted into our atmosphere, becoming stronger with less concentration? That makes my head hurt…

    • I thought about boiling it off or distillation myself, but given the water molecules now “remember” the original compound (at least according to homeopaths) then surely it should have no effect?

  • God this is idiotic. I’m no proponent of homeopathy, but is this really the best you could come up with? With the medical industry failing to instruct consumers of the safe disposal of often over prescribed medications like anti-biotics. With our waters and oceans currently saturated with estrogens and countless other biproducts of the medical industry, not to mention the pollutants put out by the chemical industry generally. Where the FDA, OSHA and the EPA have been eviscerated. Is this really the road you want to go down to defend orthodox medicine from charlatans?
    Remember – keep it simple stupid. Homeopathy is untested and unlicensed and therefore should be avoided.

    • I’m sorry Greta, but stating that homeopathy is “untested and unlicenced” is not enough. That puts it in the same category as drugs that are currently being tested and might be usefully medically. Homeopathy has had over 200 years to prove its utility and has failed. I agree that we need to be concerned with the contamination of our environment, but when many millions of dollars worldwide are wasted on this bogus therapy it has to be pointed out, as this money could go towards the causes you support.
      Finally, homeopathy encourages “magical thinking”. If we are ever to get the majority of our population thinking intelligently about global issues such as climate change, environmental contamination etc then they have to start thinking rationally (as well as with empathy) before we can make any progress.
      With homeopathy still misunderstood/believed by so many people, I have no problem with using a little creativity in demonstrating how absurd its theories are.

    • Sorry I just realised I hadn’t answered Greta’s question “Is this the best you can come up with?”

      The answer is “No, You ain’t seen nothing yet” 🙂

  • I have to agree with Michael, Greta. A little ‘respectful insolence’ (don’t know how to do the TM sign) doesn’t go amiss with something as silly as homeopathy & besides, having someone like Michael pointing out the ridiculous nature of the whole dilution thing might just be enough to open some potential users’ eyes.

  • 2¢. Also there are plenty of science based take downs of homeopathy around, written a couple myself. But sometimes you need a different angle to shake people out of the complacency. I don’t think that’s idiotic.

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    • “Homeopathy works – but it is the talking, not the tinctures that helps patients”

      I’ve seen this argument a number of times, and it does not convince me for several reasons.
      1) It allows homeopathy to encourage magical thinking
      2) Just do away with the tinctures then, and call it counselling, or better still redesign our medical system so medical professionals have the time to properly listen to their patients
      I know some people will still argue that the deception of homeopathy is what allows the placebo effect, but surely in this day and age there has to be a better way of achieving the placebo effect – see point 1) again

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