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Infatuated With Chemistry

“Why are you so infatuated with chemistry?” A radio host asked as he was preparing to interview me about my new book “Superfoods, Silkworms, And Spandex,” set to come out in May. I’m not sure “infatuated” is the word I would have chosen, perhaps “fascinated” is more to the point. And that fascination is multi-factorial.

The fact that virtually everything in our life, be it digesting our food, using medications to treat disease, producing the clothes we wear, and even the grinding of our mental gears can be described in terms of chemical reactions is fascinating enough.  But what has probably enthralled me the most, is that all these chemical reactions that involve various molecules engaging with each other, can be explained and understood without anyone ever having seen a molecule! Our knowledge comes from inferences drawn by brilliant chemists about what happens on the microscopic scale based on observations of changes on a macroscopic level. As Sherlock Holmes cleverly said, “from a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.”

Perhaps even more amazing is chemists’ ability to synthesize molecules that are copies of ones that occur in nature as well as new ones that have never existed before. I find it astonishing that the molecular structures we draw to represent molecules that nobody has ever seen, can be used to predict the outcomes of reactions that have never been carried out before. Only someone who has ventured into organic chemistry can appreciate the brilliance of synthesizing a complex molecule such as vitamin B12 through a series of reactions from simple starting materials.  And how amazing it is to be able to extract some substance from petroleum and convert it into nylon for a parachute, aspirin for a headache or a detergent for a washing machine.

Chemical reactions have no morality. But people have. Or not. It is very disturbing for anyone who is enamored of chemistry, (there, I found another good word) to see it misused, as is the case with those underground labs in basements or those operated on a large scale by Mexican cartels in the woods that crank out smokable crystal meth, or “ice” as it is commonly known. The proper chemical term is “methamphetamine hydrochloride.” Why do they crank it out? To profit from people’s desire to get high. Crystal meth will do that, producing euphoria for hours, much longer than the fleeting 20-minute buzz from crack cocaine. But that is not all it will do. “Meth” can lead to addiction, heart attacks, violent paranoia, phantom conversations, conspiracy theories and homelessness.

The simplest way to make “ice” is a chemical reaction that traces back to 1919 when Japanese chemist Akira Ogata discovered that treating ephedrine with red phosphorus and iodine yields methamphetamine that can then be converted into methamphetamine hydrochloride by adding hydrochloric acid. The required ephedrine was extracted from the Ephedra sinica plant, long known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a stimulant and asthma treatment under the name “ma huang.” During World War II, both the German and Japanese military supplied methamphetamine as a stimulant to soldiers and pilots under the name “Pervitin.” When in the 1950s it was determined that “meth” also reduced the appetite, it found a market in the U.S. as the diet pill, Obetrol. It wasn’t long before authorities became aware of the drug’s addictive potential and severely restricted its production and use.

Then in the 1980s, biker gangs realized that there was profit to be had from producing “ice,” and discovered that pseudoephedrine, a compound closely related to ephedrine, also produced by Ephedra plants, was being marketed as the decongestant “Sudafed.” These days the compound is not extracted from the plant but is produced by a fermentation process that uses bacteria to convert a mix of dextrose and benzaldehyde to pseudoephedrine. The bikers learned that like ephedrine, pseudoephedrine extracted from Sudafed can also serve as the starting material for the synthesis of methamphetamine. This is what rogue chemistry teacher Walter White in the popular TV series “Breaking Bad” discovered as well.

Before long, pharmacists began to notice that Sudafed was flying off the shelves at a rate not commensurate with the incidence of stuffy noses. Governments, recognizing the reason for the sudden appeal, passed legislation making Sudafed only available from behind the counter. That put a crimp in the operation of the illegal labs, but not for long.

There are ways to make crystal meth without using pseudoephedrine, with the procedures readily available from clandestine publications. With a couple of simple chemical steps, phenylacetic acid, a compound that can be purchased from chemical suppliers, becomes crystal meth. Mexican cartels quickly realized that this method, known as “P2P” (from phenyl-2-propanone, an intermediate in the synthesis), produced much higher yields than the phosphorus, iodine “Nazi reaction,” and set up large scale production labs.

Crystal meth produced by the P2P process turned out to have effects that go beyond those of meth made from pseudoephedrine. Doctors called the schizophrenia like symptoms, massive memory loss, jumbled speech and waves of psychosis a “cerebral catastrophe.” What made this crystal meth different hasn’t been determined, but some sort of impurity introduced during synthesis is suspected. When authorities noted increasing demand for phenylacetic acid, the starting material, restrictions on its sale were imposed. But it is tough to deter criminals when piles of money to be made are in their sights. And something else that is in their sights now is ephedrine that is being produced in Afghanistan by extraction from Ephedra plants that grow readily in the region. Afghanistan is notorious for the production of opium, but with the government clamping down on growing opium poppies, ephedrine extraction is becoming appealing. That ephedrine is finding its way to America to be made into the curse that is “crystal meth.”

This bothers me not only because of the misery it brings, but also because of the dark shadow it casts over the science that I have been singing the praises of for decades. And those praises are justified. Advances in chemistry, mostly made within the last hundred years, have increased the quality of life dramatically. The ease of transportation, the abundance of food, the prevention of disease by vaccination, the effective treatment of diabetes, medications for pain and the wonders of electronics, all of which we take for granted, are the fruits of chemistry. Admittedly, so are nerve gases, nuclear weapons and crystal meth. But that doesn’t mean chemistry should be vilified. Or exalted. Chemistry is just a compendium of knowledge that is neither good nor evil. The same cannot be said for people. It is up to us to decide to what purpose we put the science with which I am, well, maybe “infatuated” isn’t that far off the mark.  


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