Sunday, March 6, 2011

Do Not Try This At Home

I read this article in Time today. Chemistry is replete with accounts of chemists that used themselves as the first test subject for the properties of the compounds that they isolated. I was just at a lecture by a natural products chemist that worked with a pillar of drug discovery who tested which tree frogs to examine by licking them (shades of a famous Simpsons episode).

That said, I think if you asked synthetic chemists about it most would admit, that at least inadvertently, they had ingested a number of unknown compounds. In my case there was a whole class of heterocyclic compounds with a distinctive odour (my wife called it "that wet dog smell"). My group and I made an significant number of new derivatives and truth be told many of them had a significant volatility. High enough in fact that we must have breathed in a significant compound load by inhalation. We all admitted at a group barbeque that after a week or so of working on these heterocycles that both our urine and stool carried the distinctive odour. I reassured my group by telling them that this was proof that the compounds were passing through us unchanged. Unchallenged, as all supervisor assertions must be.

I doubt I am alone but I have at least anectdotally heard from other chemists more concerns about breathing solvent fumes than compound inhalation. The day is coming when we will have to wear full Hazmat suits to add vinegar to baking soda or to even make molecular models of caffeine. All it will take is one lawsuit.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.