Our OSS Blog
Yesterday Dr. Oz had a 21 year old woman as a guest who believes that keeping a cell phone in her bra for four years caused her breast cancer. Oz described that the location of the tumour corresponded to the placement of the cell phone. A surgeon then described that he had seen several other similar cases in young women who had no family history of the disease. In theory a cellphone triggering breast cancer does not seem plausible. The electromagnetic fields produced are way too weak to have an effect on living tissue by any known mechanism and despite that loud rhetoric coming from some alarmists, there has been no increase in brain tumours since cell phones have become popular. Of course I'm not an expert on breast cancer, but I do have access to noted surgical oncologist Dr. David Gorski whose opinion I value. Here are his comments:
"Breast cancer in women under 25 is fairly rare, but it happens. Over my 14 year career thus far since I finished my fellowship, I personally have treated a 19-year-old for breast cancer (my youngest breast cancer patient ever thus far in my career), a handful of women, no more than 10, in their 20s (one of whom was 26 and pregnant at the time of her diagnosis), and more women in their 30s than I can remember. (I just operated on a 33 year old on Wednesday.) A former partner of mine once treated a 14-year-old. Moreover, the vast majority of breast cancer cases, including breast cancer in young women, are not linked to genetic predisposition; more than 80% are sporadic; so it means almost nothing that these women didn't have a family history or other evidence of a genetic predisposition. As for women under 40, it is hardly impressive to have found four women under 40 with breast cancer who might have been keeping their cell phones in their bras.
That being said, how many 21-year-olds hold their cell phones in their bra or in shirt pockets near their breasts?Read more
How close to the wind can a conventional sailboat sail? Is there a theoretical limit to the angle to the TRUE wind that a boat can achieve (including lateral drift)? I was taught (many years ago) that the limit is 45%. Is this considered correct today?
Good question. I don't think there's a fundamental limit that is the result of some physical law. I think the 45 degree rule is about **efficiency** - if you sail any closer than this, then you're not taking maximum advantage of the wind.Read more
In 2007, seventeen-year-old cross-country runner Arielle Newman was found dead in her home. Autopsy results were inconclusive. After a two-month investigation, the medical examiner concluded that Arielle Newman’s death was caused by methyl salicylate, the key ingredient in sports creams like Bengay and IcyHot. How can a muscle-soothing cream lead to such a tragedy? It seems to be a matter of dose.
Sports creams may seem harmless since they are routinely used for alleviating minor arthritic pains, back aches, strained muscles and joint pains. But those searching for instant relief may be easily tempted to over-apply the medication. There is no doubt that methyl salicylate can be toxic when ingested but most cases of human toxicity occur as a result of topical over-application! Dr. Thomas Kearney, a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, is of the opinion that “topical application of methyl salicylate can be hazardous if it is smeared over 40 per cent of the body, if someone has a skin condition or if another medication interacts negatively with the products.”
Warning symptoms of methyl salicylate toxicity range from fatigue, nausea, hallucinations, dizziness, difficulty breathing, convulsions, ringing in the ears and vomiting. How well one recovers from methyl salicylate poisoning is dependent upon how quickly the treatment is received and on the amount of salicylate present in the blood.
Although synthetic methyl salicylate is prominently known for its role as an analgesic in sports creams, the compound also occurs naturally in oil of wintergreen.Read more
A lot of people have asked about Zenbev, the "organic sleeping aid" available in health food stores. This combination of pumpkin seed extract and dextrose with some rice starch and guar gum was developed by psychiatrist Craig Hudson based on the assumption that the tryptophan-rich protein in the seed releases tryptophan upon digestion, and that insulin secretion in response to the dextrose component leads to other amino acids being absorbed into muscle cells leaving trytophan free to cross the blood brain barrier. This amino acid is the precursor both for serotonin and melatonin with melatonin production being favoured in the dark. Since melatonin is known to enhance sleep, Zenbev should work, at least in theory. Hudson quotes a couple of pilot studies but I can't find any proper randomized double blind trials. There appears to be plenty of anecdotal evidence and the product sells well, especially in Europe. The Natural Products Directorate in Canada has granted Zenbev an NPN (Natural Product Number) giving it some legitimacy, although the requirements for this are not very stringent. Emphasis is on safety, not efficacy. Demonstration of efficacy can come from theory or even anecdotes. There is probably no great risk in trying this product, which based on known biochemistry may actually work. Read more
Mention the word arsenic and our thoughts immediately turn to poison. But there other interesting connections as well. Arsenic rarely is found in nature in its elemental state, it is found as part of a variety of compounds. One of these, arsenic sulfide, has been known since the fifth century BC. It probably came to people’s attention because of its color. The mineral looks like gold! In all likelihood it was a belief that it did contain gold that led to experimentation with the substance, perhaps in an attempt to extract gold from it. There was no gold to be had but the substance did turn out to be very toxic and became a commonly used tool for professional poisoners.
Early physicians also used small doses of arsenic as a drug to treat a variety of diseases. Arsenic sulfide’s common name is "orpiment," deriving from the Latin root for gold. It also became known as king’s gold or king’s yellow presumably because of numerous attempts to use it to generate gold for kings. This dates back to Aristotle’s belief that metals grew in the ground, a belief that led alchemists to start with impure metals and hasten their conversion to gold by seeding with various substances. The ripening process was thought to be associated with changes in color, just like plants change color as they ripen. Impure metals in the ground were thought to turn into gold over centuries.
Orpiment was an ideal candidate to seed various mixtures because it looked like gold and alchemists believed it was in fact a substance that was on its way to ripening into gold. Read more
"Magical Mystery Cures" with Bob McDonald on "Doc Zone," the excellent CBC program looked at the 'anti-aging" industry. We were treated to a spectacular array of quacks outdoing each other with nonsense piled on nonsense. Bob did an excellent job going to anti-aging trade shows, exposing the various types of snake oil they peddle although he should have been more confrontational with the quacks.
One promoter of Kangen water, dressed in a white lab coat bearing a symbol very similar to the symbol of snakes wrapped around a staff used by the medical profession, had the gall to state that the water cures cancer. His gibberish filled spiel about fractured water clusters was absurd beyond belief. He was matched by the quack who was peddling an "ionic" foot bath, described below, claiming that the rust generated by the hidden electrodes were toxins being removed from the liver, and the clumps of brown guck were pesticide residues being eliminated. Bob did the right thing and showed that the same thing happens without feet being placed in the water, but unfortunately he didn't do it in front of the quack. Would have loved to see the charlatan's face and hear what explanation he would have come up with.
And then there was the woman who had some crystals attached to a laptop and muttered incomprehensible claptrap about quantum physics and had the nerve (or mental deficiency) to refer to Superman's success with crystals. Bob properly castigated the quacks with their lotions, potions and useless electronic gizmos and concluded that the only real anti-aging regimes were exercise, eating right and selecting one's parents properly. He should have added that the charlatans taking advantage of people who lack the scientific knowledge to see through their absurd schemes should be jailed like the thieves that they are.
Let's elaborate on the foot bath scheme mentioned above. The victim of this scheme is told that the special electrically-powered footbath can remove toxins from the body and improve health. And there is proof. As the subject sits with his or her feet in the bath, a rust colored scum forms, supposedly the accumulated toxins being released from the body.Read more
Wood burning stoves are a health hazard. Period. Not debatable. To understand, we first have to examine what combustion is all about. When cellulose and lignin, the major components of wood, burn completely, they produce carbon dioxide, water, heat and light. The heat of combustion also allows oxygen and nitrogen in the air to form various oxides of nitrogen. But combustion is rarely complete. Smoke is a sign of incomplete combustion…and of a health risk. It is actually composed of tiny particles of unburned hydrocarbons which are packed with carcinogens such as the notorious polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Incomplete combustion also signals the formation of carbon monoxide.
Inhalation of carbon monoxide reduces the blood’s ability to supply oxygen to the body. Nitrogen oxides directly impair the respiratory system and also contribute to ozone formation, which causes breathing problems. Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides are mixed with some of the volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde that are also produced when wood burns.
According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, the particulate matter emitted from wood burning is usually 10 or 2.5 microns in diameter. In order to put this into perspective, a human hair diameter is roughly 60 microns! Due to their miniscule size, these tiny particles can easily lodge in the lungs causing asthmatic attacks, severe bronchitis, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory illnesses.
Cooking indoors on a wood burning smoke is particularly dangerous. However, some studies have suggested that HEPA (high efficiency particulate arresting) filters may be a viable option for reducing particle concentrations in homes. But HEPA filters cannot filter out volatile organic compounds.Read more
Remember when it wasn’t hard to determine if someone had been into the pistachio bowl? They’d be caught red-handed! That’s because until artificially coloured foods became a pariah, pistachio nuts, which are actually not nuts but the seeds of a fruit, often used to be coloured red. Exactly why that was the case is a matter of some controversy.
Some suggest that when pistachios were first imported into North America back in the 1930s, mostly from Iran, the shells tended to be blemished as a result of hand-picking. Since Americans didn’t care for blemished food, the pistachios were dyed red.
Others suggest that the red colour was added to distinguish the newly introduced nuts from other varieties to attract attention. Another possibility is that in Iran, traditionally, the nuts were soaked in brine and then roasted in the sun which resulted in a pinkish coloured shell — and importers added red dye to achieve a uniform product.
The fact is that nobody really knows how the tradition started, or indeed what dye was used, although some accounts make reference to a “vegetable dye,” probably beet juice. With concerns being raised about food additives, red pistachios have mostly disappeared, although a few companies still produce them for consumers mired in nostalgia. The vast majority of pistachios sold in North America now come from California, and instead of attracting consumers with colour, producers hope to attract them with science. The hook is a possible benefit in the prevention of heart disease — and believe it or not, help with erectile dysfunction.
Nuts are low in saturated fats, high in monounsaturates and are rich in antioxidants, so it comes as no great surprise that epidemiological studies have demonstrated a link between increased nut consumption and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Pistachios have a chemical profile similar to nuts and have therefore been studied in terms of reducing cardiovascular risk. In one small study, subjects were asked to consume either 40 grams, 80 grams or no pistachios daily. The pistachio consumers lowered their LDL cholesterol (the “bad guy”), but interestingly, there was no difference between the 40 or 80 gram consumers. So one pistachio snack seems to be enough; more is not better.
But does this extra consumption not lead to weight gain? Apparently not. A study in China examined the pistachio effect in some 90 subjects diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of disorders that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Although there are some variations in the definition of metabolic syndrome, it basically means a high waist circumference combined with any two of elevated triglycerides, reduced HDL cholesterol (the “good guy”), raised blood pressure, raised fasting glucose, or previously diagnosed Type 2 diabetes. In the Chinese study, subjects consumed either no pistachios, or 42 grams or 70 grams for 12 weeks. There were no changes in body-mass index or waist-to-hip ratio. Curiously, there was also a slight improvement in triglyceride levels in the 42-gram group but not the others.Pistachios have also been the subject of a study by Dr. James Painter of Eastern Illinois University who coined the term “pistachio principle,” referring to an effect by which the body is fooled into eating less by using visual cues. Read more
It’s hard for us here in North America to believe that gold is killing hundreds of children in Nigeria. Well, it isn’t exactly the gold that is killing them, it is the lead oxide and lead carbonate in the dust that is stirred up in the search for tiny gold nuggets. There is no modern machinery here, the miners work with shovels and hammers. They bring rocks home and pound them into dust in the quest for bits of gold that may allow for an improved life. The lead-laden dust settles on everything, including clothing and food. Water becomes contaminated as it is used to rinse away the dust. Not only has the Gold Rush increased the mortality rate in Nigeria dramatically, killing more than 400 children, it is also responsible for the rising incidence of mental deficiency, developmental difficulties and damaged organs.
Blood samples from children reveal levels of lead dozens of times higher than the international accepted threshold. Even if there were to be a drastic reduction in household lead dust, contamination of the water supply remains. Doctors working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have treated some 2,000 of the estimated 4,000 contaminated children with drugs that bind lead (chelation therapy) but this is futile if there is no effort to clean up of the contaminated villages. The Nigerian government is under immense pressure to fund and participate in a “cleanup” of one of the worst cases of lead poisoning in history. Read more
William Beaumont was an army doctor stationed at Fort Mackinac in Michigan in 1822 when an accident occurred that allowed him to make the first systematic study of the process of digestion. Alexis St. Pierre, a young French Canadian army porter was wounded in the stomach when a musket accidentally discharged. He was brought to Beaumont who was unable to close the wound. The man developed an infection for which, according to accepted practice at the time, he was bled by Beaumont. In spite of this useless treatment he survived and became a living laboratory. After about eighteen months the hole partially healed, becoming more like a valve through which the stomach contents could be sampled. And sample Beaumont did, for about nine years!
He confirmed that the gastric juices were acidic, a property previously noted by the famous Flemish physician J.B. van Helmont in the 1600s. He also showed, as van Helmont had done before, that acidity was not enough for digestion because putting food into a straight acid solution did not lead to its breakdown. There must be some other substance secreted by the stomach which was critically important, he maintained! Soon after Beaumont’s investigations laid the foundation, this critical substance was isolated and identified as the enzyme pepsin. Beaumont also showed that juice removed from the stomach and placed in a glass jar could digest food the same as in the stomach. There was no “vital force” the human body possessed that was required for digestion as some had maintained.Read more
Odour is big business. Both producing it and eliminating it. While perfume and toiletry companies battle to churn out novel fragrances to entertain our olfactory receptors, the huge odour control industry strives to protect us from the assault of nasty scents. This is actually a greater challenge. In the perfume trade you can get away with some inventive advertising and fanciful claims, but when it comes to eliminating odours, well, it isn’t hard to tell if a product works or not.
Bad smells are not rare. Pet urine, garbage, manure, sewage, mildew, sweat and the toilet bowl all waft undesirable fragrances into the air. How do you get rid of them? There are several options. The odour can be masked by a more powerful one, which is essentially what floral scented air fresheners do. Or the smelly molecules can be removed from the air. Air purifiers pass the air through activated carbon filters which can bind smelly compounds. Zeolites (aluminosilicate minerals) have an amazing ability of adsorbing molecules to their surface and are available in various formats.
Chemical reactions can also be used. Fish odour on the hands is due to chemicals called amines. But if reacted with citric acid in lemon juice, they form salts that do not become airborne. Washing hands with lemon juice therefore eliminates fishy aromas. Many undesirable smells, such as that of spoiled food, are due to organic acids, and can be neutralized by baking soda. Fragrant molecules in the air can also be destroyed by means of a chemical reaction. Ozone generators produce ozone gas which can destroy smelly compounds in the air. The smell of smoke after a fire yields to ozone. Certain enzymes produced by bacteria can also chew up foul compounds. Most pet odour eliminators are bacterial concoctions.
Molecules can also be removed from the air by interacting with other volatile substances in such a way that the resulting complex is no longer volatile. Cyclodextrin, the active ingredient in products like Febreze, is a large molecule made of glucose units joined in a ring. Malodorous compounds are entrapped in the ring, and the cyclodextrin-smelly molecule complex, because of the extra mass, now settles out of the air. Some essential oils from plants can also interact with volatile compounds in this fashion and many smell “neutralizers” are based on this principle.
But there is more to essential oils. Some can bind to receptors in our nose without triggering any action, and in the process block other molecules from interacting with the receptor. Sort of like the wrong key fitting a lock without being able to unlock it, but preventing the right key from being inserted. There has been a great deal of research trying to find specific essential oils to block specific smells, with some success. Unfortunately the information is proprietary and companies will not reveal exactly what oils they use, but the results can be effective in controlling bad smells emanating from pig manure, landfills and sewage treatment plants.
Sometimes odour control products and perfumes can work hand in hand. The Harvey Prince Company, a New York based perfume manufacturer, claims to have come up with just such a happy union in “Ageless Fantasy,” a perfume having the “smell of youth.” I bet you sniff a scam coming up. But maybe not. At least, not a total scam. The whole idea is based on the notion that as we age our body chemistry changes, and we produce novel compounds.
Japanese researcher, Shinichiro Haze analyzed the scents emanating from shirts worn for three days by subjects ranging in age from 26 to 75. One particular compound stood out. 2-Nonenal, with an odour described as greasy, grassy, “old book,” or “old person” was more prominent in the elderly. Subsequent research revealed that it was the product of bacterial action on vaccenic and palmitoleic acids, both of which are found in sweat and increase with age.Read more
Some time ago, I spent hours hammering hundreds of long nails through a plank of plywood. It wasn’t easy. The nails had to be carefully spaced, about a centimetre apart, protruding exactly the same distance from the wood. Any deviation would have made it quite uncomfortable to lie on my new bed of nails.
The point, as it were, was to demonstrate to students that you did not have to be a Hindu mystic to lie on a bed of nails. There was absolutely nothing paranormal about accomplishing the feat. It was simply a question of physics. As long as the weight was distributed over enough nails, there was no worry about skin penetration.
While this was a neat demonstration, I can’t say it was particularly relaxing. That’s why I was taken a little aback when I came across what amounted to a bed of nails being sold in a health-food store with claims of promoting relaxation and stress reduction. Not only that, it promised to energize, improve sleep, reduce pain, increase circulation and, within five minutes, provide a fresh glow and facelift effect. Meet “Spoonk,” the “acupressure massage eco mat.”
Spoonk is a flexible plastic mat that, instead of nails, features 6,210 sharp plastic stimulation points. The odd name is a whimsical version of “spunk,” a word made up by Pippi Longstocking, the fictional heroine created by Swedish children’s writer Astrid Lindgren. While Pippi attached no meaning to the word, it became associated with strength, energy and a love of life, all characteristics Pippi possessed. The apparent message is that Spoonk can bestow these very same properties. The rationale is based on the concept that the body is permeated with channels called meridians, through which a sort of life energy, often referred to as “chi” flows. Any blockage of the flow of chi means bad news.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, these blockages can be cleared either by the appropriate application of needles, as in acupuncture, or with physical pressure. Such “acupressure” is said to be the principle behind Spoonk. The little spikes are designed to produce some sort of a shotgun effect, clearing all the possible meridian blockages. Anatomical science, however, cannot detect any sort of meridian and no measurable “chi” force exists. Of course that does not mean that acupressure cannot work by some other means.
My first encounter with “acupressure” was back in the 1960s in an introductory psychology course at McGill University, although the term was never mentioned and there was no talk of any “chi.” I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by professor Ronald Melzack, one of the world’s premier experts on pain and developer of the McGill Pain Questionnaire, used by cancer clinics around the globe.
Frankly, I don’t think I really understood his “gate theory,” and I still don’t, but I know it has something to do with the spinal cord either blocking pain signals or allowing them to pass to the brain, depending on whether the signal travels via small nerves or through larger nerve fibres. Somehow by applying appropriate pressure in certain spots, the “gate” that allows a pain message to pass to the brain can be blocked.Read more
I’ve often expressed skepticism about the plethora of beverages being promoted these days that claim to energize, calm, heal or detox our chemically ravaged bodies. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” I’m often told. So, I’ve gamely downed glasses of noni juice, goji juice, acai juice, vitamin water, oxygenated water, angel tea and various homemade concoctions including the “Master Cleanse,” made by mixing lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup — as recommended by that noted nutritional expert, Beyoncé.
But I’ve drawn the line at giving “liquid gold” a shot. When I pee into a cup, it is for sending a sample to a lab to be analyzed for creatinine, blood, proteins, ketones and glucose, all of which can indicate a problem if present in abnormal amounts. But as far as “autourine therapy” goes, I opt to pass.
Mercifully, I was oblivious to this bizarre, albeit intriguing practice until 1989, when I received a letter from a woman about a therapy that “heals all human beings’ illnesses.” She had become persuaded about the effectiveness of this “elixir of life” after reading a document, a copy of which she enclosed for my perusal. Would I please help her, she implored, “to save millions of lives with this product that everybody possesses naturally and which God gave us for a medical purpose?”
Well, with millions of lives at stake, I figured I better at least have a look at the “data” I was sent. It didn’t take long before I got p***ed off.
The introduction went like this: “The human race would benefit immeasurably if the medical profession was ended. The proof will be found by observing in big cities and towns, where with increase in the number of doctors, there has always been an enormous increase in the number of patients suffering from various diseases including cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis and diabetes.”
The document then proceeded to propose a solution to the misery caused by doctors: sorrows that can be drowned with a daily swig of urine!
So why has this magic potion not been more widely publicized? Could it be that, as urophagists (that’s the technical term for urine drinkers) suggest, doctors and Big Pharma have conspired to keep the life-saving information under wraps because “with urine there is no more need for medication or surgery since it kills illnesses in such a short time that doctors are afraid they will lose their jobs?” Well, if this were so, doctors should have been weeded out long ago, because people in India and China have been imbibing from the Golden Fountain for at least 5,000 years.
And lest you think the practice is limited to simpletons, Indian Prime Minister Morarji Bhao Desai claimed in a 1978 interview on the American news program 60 Minutes that drinking urine was the perfect medical solution for the millions of Indians who cannot afford medical treatment. He went on to attribute his own good health to indulging regularly. Apparently he wasn’t harmed by the practice, living to the ripe old age of 99.Read more
For many years members of the American Society of Magicians gathered on October 31 at Machpelah Cemetery in New York to break a magic wand over the grave of the man whose name is synonymous with magic. They came to pay homage to Harry Houdini, performer extraordinaire, who passed away on Halloween in 1926, but never really left us. His exploits spawned numerous books, movies and plays and inspired countless youngsters to take up the engaging hobby of prestidigitation. I wish I could tell you that the “Ritual of the Broken Wand” will be performed tomorrow as tradition dictates, but alas, that will not happen. Machpelah will be closed on Halloween because the operators of the cemetery have sadly discovered through experience that the holiday invites acts of vandalism. Indeed, Houdini’s grave has been desecrated several times, and was severely damaged in 1993. Magicians from around the world, led by David Copperfield and James Randi, raised the money needed for its restoration.
My interest in Houdini actually stems more from his tireless efforts to foster critical thinking than from his magic or his incredible escapes. It was his mother’s death in 1913 that launched Harry on a second career that would intertwine with his magical performances right up to his premature death from peritonitis at age 52. The magician had been extremely close to his mother and was utterly devastated when he received the telegram informing him of her death. “A shock,” he sighed, “from which I think recovery is not possible.” Although he was the son of a rabbi, Houdini had no religious convictions and had never expressed any belief in an afterlife. But desperate people do desperate things. A distraught Houdini began to seek out mediums who claimed to be able to contact the dead. Instead of finding solace in the darkness of the séance room, though, Houdini found rampant fraud. Tables moved, trumpets floated in the air and bells mysteriously rang, supposedly signaling the presence of spirits. While many sitters were amazed by these phenomena, Houdini was greatly angered. He knew exactly what was going on, for the simple reason that he had performed similar effects on the stage himself. Levitations and apparitions are classic magic effects and are produced by perfectly explicable scientific means. A livid Houdini now saw his beloved art being used to defraud vulnerable people of their money and resolved to unmask the charlatans.
Harry began to give lectures on the fraudulent methods used by mediums and introduced an expose of psychics into his full evening show. The audience was first treated to magic, then to some amazing escapes, and finally, to a séance where the methods commonly used by mediums were exposed. This was a bit of a touchy business, given that Houdini served as president of the American Society of Magicians, an organization that had a cardinal rule to never expose magic tricks. But the greater good of protecting the public from scams warranted an exception, Houdini argued. In any case, he maintained that he was only revealing effects that were used in the total darkness of a séance, and therefore not of much use on the stage.
In 1924, Scientific American, the leading science magazine of the time, established a committee to investigate purported paranormal phenomena. By this time Houdini had established himself as an expert debunker of nonsense and was asked to sit on the committee. Read more