All posts by E.A. Thackaberry

A Company is Selling “Used” Tissues to Prevent Colds, and We Have Several Questions

A Company is Selling “Used” Tissues to Prevent Colds, and We Have Several Questions

A company called Vaev is selling facial tissues that it says “contains a human sneeze”. As in, someone else’s sneeze, that you then expose yourself to by using the tissue. The company claims these tissues will help you by getting you sick “on your terms”, and that it’s safer than “using needles or pills.” I swear we are not making this up.

You using that tissue?

It is our duty as a science advocacy website to state for the record that this is a terrible idea. It will not “replace” a flu vaccine – there are over 200 different kinds of flu viruses, and flu shots protect against many of them, while a filthy diseased tissue would potentially protect against only one of them. I say potentially, because you would have to survive the flu or cold or Ebola or whatever you come down with first. Flu shots don’t give you the flu, which is good because the flu is dangerous, Purposely giving yourself the flu is just plain stupid.

This idea is so crazy, soOOoo preposterous, and we have questions. So many questions!

1) This couldn’t possibly be serious, right?

Right? It sure seems like a joke, but apparently it isn’t. Most of what we found online about Vaev are from people writing about how surprised they are that is isn’t a joke. The website doesn’t provide a contact phone number, and no one has been able to get an interview with the yahoos who run the company to date.

2) Who do they hire to sneeze into these tissues?

No word on this. You’d have to find sick people, but not people who are too sick. Which brings us to…

3) So do they have quality control on the organisms in the tissues, or could you end up with Ebola?

We are confident in saying that this company does not have the resources (or the skills) to identify the organisms it’s selling. You probably won’t get Ebola, because they probably aren’t getting anyone from Sub-Saharan Africa to sneeze into their tissues. However, you could certainly end up with more than the flu. There are a whole bunch of nasty diseases you can catch from a dirty tissue, and there are no vaccinations available for a lot of them. You could catch Severe Acute Respsiratory Syndrome (SARS, remember SARS?), pneumonia, tuberculosis, bird and/or swine flu, shingles, herpes (!), and numerous forms of meningitis, among many others.

4) So… someone thought this was a good idea, and maybe even convinced investors to give them money?

I know right? Sometimes this world makes us sad.

5) How much will one of these disease-ridden tissues cost?

A single filthy disease-ridden tissue will cost you $80! If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Luckily, you can’t actually buy these tissues right now. They are all sold out, which means that either these filthy tissues are very popular, or (fingers crossed), the folks a Vaev are just not very good at managing their supply chain.

6) So what will happen when someone gets really sick or dies from this?

I guess the lawsuits will put them out of business? Let’s hope that the FDA shuts them down before then. This can’t possibly be legal…

Holy crap! A Harvard physicist thinks we might have just seen an alien spacecraft!

Holy crap! A Harvard physicist thinks we might have just seen an alien spacecraft!

A little over a year ago, on October 17, 2017, scientists at the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) in Hawaii made a incredible discovery – they saw an object moving through our solar system at over 196,000 miles per hour. Incredibly, the trajectory of this object indicated that it originated outside of our solar system, which made it the first ever interseller object observed in our solar system. The scientists named it ‘Oumuamua, which means “messenger from far away” in Hawaiian.

That’s super cool, but it gets even cooler. ‘Oumuamua demonstrated nongravitational acceleration, which means it sped up more then would be expected based on normal gravitational pull as it moved through our solar system. That’s intriguing, but it could be explained by off-gassing if ‘Oumuamua was a comet. However, ‘Oumuamua doesn’t seem to be a comet – it has no obvious tail of debris behind it, and no coma, which is a hazy cloud of material around the leading edge of the comet.   ‘Oumuamua’s shape is unusual too – it’s long and thin, which is kinda… weird.

The path of ‘Oumuamua through our solar system.

Now a new paper by the chair of the Harvard department of astronomy, Dr. Abrahman Loeb, suggests that maybe ‘Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft, or at least part of one. The author’s reasoning is based on solar wind. Solar wind is a stream of charged particles (mainly protons, electrons, and alpha particles) emitted by the upper atmosphere of the sun. Dr. Loeb hypothesizes that ‘Oumuamua may be solar sail, or at least part of a solar sail from a damaged craft. Acceleration from solar wind could explain the movement of ‘Oumuamua. A solar sail works much like a sail on a boat, except that the charged particles of the solar wind provides the kinetic engery to move the craft forward. In fact, such a concept has already been proven by three human-designed space craft: Japan’s IKAROS, NASA’s NanoSail D-2, and the non-profit Planetary Society’s LightSail. All of these crafts used solar sails to travel long distances across our solar system.

NASA’s Nanosail D-2

While ‘Oumuamua is long and thin, it would have to be really thin to work as a solar sale – less than 1 milimeter thick. Loeb and his postdoctoral co-author Shmual Bialy make the case that it would be possible for such a solar sail to survive the long journey from wherever it came from, and also that a coating of cosmic dust might make it less reflective than it really is.

Dr.’s Loeb & Bialy didn’t prove that ‘Oumuamua is an alien space craft – far from it. However, just the possibility is cool. We may never definitively know if ‘Oumuamua was of alien origin, especially since it is speeding out of our solar system as we speak. However, the prospect of being able to identify an alien spacecraft in the future means we should keep a close watch on the sky.


Why did it take so long to ban Infowars from social media?

Why did it take so long to ban Infowars from social media?

If you read the news regularly, you’ve probably heard that Alex Jones and his company, Infowars have recently been banished from social media – specifically Facebook, Youtube, Spotify, Vimeo, and others. Pretty much everyone other than Twitter (which gave him a timeout) has pulled the controversial conspiracy theorist from their platforms. The reason for this was ostensibly his repeated violation of policies against hate speech and inciting violence – activities that Jones and Infowars have gleefully been engaged in for years.

But while hate speech and incitement of violence are undoubtedly awful, it seems like social media platforms are overlooking – or perhaps just ok with – the batshit insane list of anti-science conspiracy theories Jones and Infowars have been promoting for years. So while the rational world celebrates the small victory of removing a voice of hate from the social media (if only for now), let’s also reflect on the impact Jones and Infowars has had on the propagation of science-related misinformation over the years.

Jones has frequently suggested that fluoridation of water is a government plot to poison us and control our minds – a ridiculous and all too common conspiracy theory. He also supports the disproven theory that vaccines cause autism, and advocates against life-saving vaccinations. From there it only gets weirder. Jones has suggested repeatedly that the US government has machines that can create tornadoes, and bombs that can turn people gay. According to Jones, the government is also trying to poison us using chemtrails, a theory so insane it seems to require a break from reality. Together with “Big Pharma,” the government has also turned frogs gay and created HIV, according to Jones. And if Jones is to be believed, Bill Gates, whose foundation has spent almost 70 million dollars to develop cures for neglected tropic diseases, is running a eugenics effort.

It may surprise you to know that Jones probably makes most of his money selling dubious health supplements. He spends a considerable amount of his air time on Infowars giving health advice and promoting his dietary supplements. He claims to have pills that will boost your “vitality,” just like an old-timey snake oil salesman. Naturally, Infowars sells a fluoride-free toothpaste for those who don’t want their mind controlled by the government. My favorite Infowars supplement, however, is the Survival Shield. Third parties have tested it, and it contains only iodine, an important element you can literally get by putting salt on your fries. Yet Inforwars describes it like it’s the most advanced supplement ever invented:

“Derived from ancient sea salts found more than 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface, the evolution of Survival Shield is here and much stronger than our original formula.* Every drop contains 650 micrograms to keep you in prime form. 

Feel the relief and strength of the next step in proprietary nascent iodine, developed using our Thermodynamic Pressure Sensitive High Energy Sound Pulse Nano-Emulsion Technology that allows for a highly unique and powerful nascent iodine that is both concentrated, and free of unwanted additives and genetically modified ingredients to make sure that your organic nascent iodine supplements are the best for your body.  During our quality control phase, we screen for any harmful additives – even up to radiation.”

I have so many questions!!!! How did Jones GET 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface? Does he own a Dr. Evil-style giant drill? Is he the first person to ever use the words “nascent” and “iodine” consecutively, and why? How could you “add” radiation to something? How do you genetically modify iodine? Then there’s the term “Thermodynamic Pressure Sensitive High Energy Sound Pulse Nano-Emulsion Technology” – a masterclass in pseudoscience technobabble – it sounds cool, while actually meaning nothing. Jones might be the greatest snake oil salesman ever.

Can this get 7,000 feet into the earth?

Jones and Infowars even went so far as to make up a nonexistent fungal epidemic – one they conveniently have the cure for! Two bottles of the stuff will cost you about $100.

It’s easy for rational people to make fun of this kind of tomfoolery, but we need to remember that Infowars has been around since 1999. They are still on the radio today, and their website is active. While I’d like to think we live in a world in which the majority of people who hear his crazy claims think of them as entertainment only, I don’t think we can be naive enough to believe this. Millions of people visit the Infowars site every year, and they sell a lot of useless supplements.

Infowars was rightly pulled off of the air for hate speech against victims of unspeakable tragedies. This is a victory for everyone concerned about the impact of “fake news” on our society. However, we have a long way to go in this regard. Sites like this still makes millions of dollars promoting anti-science theories that can be easily disproved, and by selling supplements that provide no health benefits at all. We can’t ban sites from social media just for lying to make a buck – but we can educate our friends and family and spread the word of science. Maybe someday, Jones will run out of people to take advantage of.

Ask a Scientist: Did the EPA Really Change Their View on Asbestos?

Ask a Scientist: Did the EPA Really Change Their View on Asbestos?

Welcome to Ask a Scientist, where we answer questions from our readers on a wide range of scientific topics. Got a scientific question? Drop us a line.

Q: I saw an article that the EPA recently changed their view on asbestos and also made it easier for companies to get asbestos-containing products approved. Is that true? How dangerous is asbestos? – AD, Hamden, CT

Thanks for the question, AD. Here’s the deal:

Asbestos is really, really dangerous. When you go to toxicology school (yes, that exists), one of the model chemicals they teach you about is asbestos. We know asbestos causes cancer, and we even know how it causes cancer. Read our talc post here for an earlier description of the mechanisms of asbestos toxicity. There is no scientific debate about the relationship between asbestos and cancer – asbestos is nasty stuff, and you don’t want to be breathing it in. Asbestos was briefly banned in the US in the late 80’s, but came back on the market in a very limited number of products in 1991 thanks to lawsuits by manufacturers. All new uses have remained banned. These companies argued (correctly) that as long as the asbestos in asbestos-containing products is not broken up into dust (technically, fibers) which can be inhaled, it’s use is safe. This is technically true for the people using asbestos products. However, in order to make these products people need to be around raw asbestos, and that can be dangerous if you don’t take your protective equipment very seriously. 55 countries have banned asbestos outright, and most developed countries no longer allow it to be mined.

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Chemophobia and the myth of buzz-word marketing

Chemophobia and the myth of buzz-word marketing

If given the chance, which of these two bottles of water would you choose?

If you chose the one labeled “natural”, you’re not alone. Labeling a product as “natural”, “organic” or even “alternative” has become code for “healthy” or at least healthier compared to other, non-natural products. But is this really true, or is it just a way to sell products?

We have covered the term “organic” before. Organic has a very specific meaning in terms of food, legally speaking. However, despite what many people may think, organic food is not healthier than non-organic food, it is not pesticide free, nor is it better for the environment. The power of the label “organic” has been recognized to the point that the USDA felt it necessary to define exactly what it means, thereby preventing everyone from using the term and rendering it meaningless. This hasn’t stopped the misconception that organic equals healthy, however, and numerous companies use this to their advantage in their advertising.

Another successful marketing buzzword is “natural”. The USDA defines “natural” food as food that does not contain artificial ingredients. However, they are pretty lenient with what constitutes an artificial ingredient. Things like antibiotics and growth hormones are allowed, as is some degree of processing. While some may think, based on the labeling above, that the “natural” spring water is healthier than the regular water, the truth is that there is absolutely no difference between these products. Water is water, and all water contains electrolytes. It is certainly possible to synthesize water, but no one would ever do this at a commercial scale – it would be prohibitively expensive. The water in both bottles came from the ground, and while there may be slight differences in their mineral content, they are both equally “natural” and healthy. Some companies have taken things a step further and marketed “raw water”, which is completely untreated or processed. While this may sound to some to be a “healthier” option, it actually much worse for you, because while it is nutritionally the same (water is water), it carries a risk of disease carrying micro-organisms that the filtered or processed waters above do not.

How is a “herbal” iron supplement better than a regular iron supplement? It costs much more, includes thousands of unknown chemicals from the herbs they use, and requires a higher dose. So… it’s actually much worse.

The success of “organic” or “natural” products stems from chemphobia, or the fear of chemicals. Just the word “chemical” has a negative connotation for many – something that is synthetic, un-natural, or even dangerous. Advertisers use this to their advantage. In addition to natural and organic, they use words such as “gluten-free”, “GMO-free”, “alternative” or “homeopathic” to suggest their products are somehow healthier then “regular” products.

We have highlighted a couple of these misleading add campaigns in the past. PUR water filters ran a series of ads playing on people’s fear of lead in their water, arguing that their product made water “safer” by lowering lead levels below those considered safe by federal regulations. This was a particularly cynical ad to run during the Flint water crisis, in which thousands of people were exposed to high lead levels in their drinking water due to a combination of government corruption seemingly willful ignorance.

Stonyfield yogurt ran a series of ads using kids to sell their organic yogurt by calling GMO foods “monstrous” and using the “fish-tomato” as an example when it has nothing at all to do with GMO food safety or their product. The Stonyfield products are verified GMO-free, but they are only labeled as “organic”, and not “100% organic”, which means that up to 5% of the ingredients in their products can be non-organic, something that Stonyfield doesn’t feel it necessary to address in their ad campaign.

This salt is labeled as GMO-free. There is no such thing as GMO-salt. Salt is not (nor does it come from) an organism.

The non-GMO project verification is touted by Stonyfield and others as proof that their products are somehow healthier than others, but consumers need to be aware that this is not necessarily the case. Some companies selling products for which there is literally no possibility of using GMO ingredients, such as bottled water or coffee, have paid to have the non-GMO certification label added to their products. Since GMO water, tomatoes, and coffee do not exist (nor do GMO blueberries, apples, or oranges), the only reason to pay to add such a label to your product is marketing. These companies are trying to win customers by making their products seem healthier or safer when they are not.  There is no data suggesting that non-GMO foods are any healthier or safer than GMO foods.

This water is advertised as organic and non-GMO, neither of which apply to water. This is just a marketing strategy to make consumer think it is “healthy” or “safe”.

The gluten free label is one of the most abused, since the absence of gluten from the diet is not inherently healthy (unless you have celiac’s disease), and some products labeled as “gluten free”, like water – would never, under any circumstances have gluten in them. The term is used so often because people respond to it, equating gluten free with a healthy choice, even when it is not.

Let’s be clear – just like “organic”, “GMO-free”, and “gluten-free” products, “natural”, “alternative” and “homeopathic” products offer no health advantage over other similar products labeled otherwise. Just like water is water, a chemical is a chemical whether it comes from “natural” or an unnamed commercial sources. They are chemicals either way – everything you eat is a chemical, and you are made of chemicals. Advertisers are taking advantage of consumers by using these labels, and the confusion they create by suggesting over and over again in their ads that “natural” is healthier makes it very difficult for science-advocacy groups and blogs (like UYBFS) to counter popular opinion.

This company is advertising their coffee as verified GMO-free. There is no such thing as GMO coffee, so by definition all coffee is non-GMO.

The most dangerous manifestation of chemphobia is the distrust of modern medicine. The reasoning often given for belief in so-called “alternative” or “homeopathic” remedies is that they are natural, and that modern medicine, with it’s use of chemicals is somehow “bad”. This could not be farther from the truth. Without exception, alternative medicine does not work. That’s because once it has been shown to work, it’s no longer considered “alternative” – it’s mainstream medicine. There is a certain irony in the chemphobic belief that an unproven alternative therapy is “good” because it’s natural, while as soon as the same therapy been shown to work in controlled trials and it looses the “alternative” label, it would be treated with skepticism because it is “man-made medicine”.

Does ingesting made-made extracts from plants count as “natural”? We aren’t sure, but we are sure this “alternative” energy booster doesn’t work.

The fear of chemicals and the trust of products advertised as “natural” is a product of chemphobia and poor science education. While a consumer’s tendency to buy “natural” or “organic” foods will likely only negatively impact their wallet, people can and do die because of trust in natural alternative or homeopathy therapies. This is chemophobia taken to it’s extreme. As far as “natural” things go, just remember: there’s nothing more “natural” for humans than being infected by an intestinal parasite or eaten by wolves. Natural isn’t always good.

So the next time to instinctively reach for the “natural” product – consider why you are making this choice. While it is reasonable to buy these products if you like the brand, or the taste, it is a mistake to think products labeled this way will necessarily be healthier for you. A chemical is a chemical, regardless of where is can from, and chemicals are nothing to be afraid of.









Why Does My Urine Smell When I Eat Asparagus?

Why Does My Urine Smell When I Eat Asparagus?

Welcome to Ask a Scientist, where we answer questions from our readers on a wide range of scientific topics. Got a scientific question? Drop us a line

Q: Why does my pee smell when I eat asparagus? – D.T., Rutland, VT

A: OK, maybe this isn’t an important scientific question, but it’s kinda of interesting. So here’s the science behind asparagus pee.

People have known for a long time that asparagus causes the urine of many (but not all) people to smell pungent. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote about it, stating that,” a few stems of asparagus shall give our urine a disagreeable odor.” Asparagus pee stinks, but asparagus itself doesn’t have a similar smell, even when cooked, which suggests that the chemical responsible for the smell is a metabolite – something made in our bodies out of something in the asparagus. This is definitely true, asparagus contains a chemical boringly-named “asparagusic acid.” Asparagusic acid contains sulfur, which is a stinky element, and is responsible for the rotten egg smell (among others). Once most people eat asparagus, they metabolize aspargusic acid to several small volatile chemicals, one of which, methanethiol, is believed to be the major source of the smell. Methanethiol, being a volatile chemical, has a low boiling point and therefore is freely released as a gas into the air, hence the strong smell even several feet away from your toilet. This metabolism occurs rapidly – you can generally detect the smell about 30 minutes after eating asparagus. Besides methanethiol, there are several other stinky sulfur-containing metabolites found at lower levels, including dimethyl disulfide, dimethyl sulfone, and 2,4-dithiapentane.

The metabolism of asparagusic acid

For many years it was believed that a large percent of the population did not metabolize aspargusic acid to methanethiol (and the other sulfur compounds) and hence did not experience the strong smell. It turns out this was only partially true. There are definitely many people who don’t produce the smell at all, likely due to currently-unidentified differences in their metabolism. However, there are also a significant number of people who simply cannot smell the metabolites of asparagusic acid even when they are present. This was traced to a single mutation in a gene involved in olfactory function, identified by the genetic testing company 23andMe. This breakthrough was confirmed in a 2011 study that involved asking people to smell not only their own urine, but that of other people who had eaten asparagus. Science isn’t always sexy, folks.

The exact percent of people that don’t experience the smell, either because they don’t metabolize asparagusic acid or are incapable of smelling the metabolites is a bit unclear at this time. In the 2011 study, only 8% of subjects failed to produce the odor, while only 6% failed to detect it. Other older studies have reported much higher numbers of people who don’t experience the smell – up to 50% in one study. Based on the results across populations with different ethnicities, it seems likely that there is quite a bit of variation depending on your genetic background (in particular, people from China or Israel almost all experienced the smell, while people from England or the United States were less likely to notice it. The higher rate of people who don’t get the smell in these populations is likely due to a combination of the single gene variation (for smell) and the unidentified genetic factors affecting the metabolism of asparagusic acid.

Now, if you or someone you know doesn’t experience the smell, you can easily find out if you have the genetic variation. The simplest (and cheapest) way would be to find a friend who does experience the smell and ask to smell their urine. If you still smell nothing, it’s because you are incapable to experiencing the smell. If, however, you do smell the metabolites, then your metabolism is responsible. For those unwilling to smell someone else’s urine, you could just get the DNA test through 23andMe. The variation is on chromosome 1 and is officially termed “rs4481887.” The variation appears to be autosomal recessive, which means you need two copies of the variant gene in order to lose the ability to smell these chemicals. This means that if both you and your spouse are “non-smellers”, then your children will be too. If only one of you is, then your children have a 50/50 chance if your spouse is a carrier, and zero chance if they are not. Again, you’d have to get the genetic test in order to determine if you or your spouse is a carrier. That is, if knowing the chances of your children enduring the stench of asparagus metabolites for their entire lives is something that is important to you. Which would be kinda weird.

Chemicals in our Society: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Chemicals in our Society: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Welcome to “chemicals and society”, where we highlight the current understanding of the biological effects and safety of some of the most common chemicals in today’s society.


Today’s Chemical: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

What is MSG?

MSG is monosodium glutamate. “Glutamate”is the salt of glutamic acid, which you may remember from biology class as one of the 20 amino acids that make up the proteins in our body. “Monosodium” means there is a single sodium ion associated with each molecule of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is the 6th most common amino acid in vertebrates – it makes up about 5.8% of the proteins in your body and the meat that you eat. Sodium is also very common in the diet and inside your body. Another sodium salt, Sodium chloride (table salt) is used in cooking throughout the world.

What is MSG used for?

MSG is used as a flavor enhancer, which means that while it doesn’t have a particularly strong taste on it’s own, it brings out the flavors of other foods – particularly meats and savory foods. It is most commonly used in flavor-enhancing meat tenderizers and Chinese cooking, though you’ll find it in many, many prepared foods like chips, snacks, and soups. It’s in Doritos, Kentucky Fried Chicken, most canned soups, processed meats, Chick-Fil-A sandwhiches, Cheetos, Pringles, and ramen noodles. You get the point.

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Stephen Hawking’s Final Paper was Published Today

Stephen Hawking’s Final Paper was Published Today

Stephen Hawking died in March, but his final peer-reviewed paper was published today in The Journal of High Energy Physics. As you might expect from a genius like Hawking, the data presented are… complicated. Basically, it says that if there are, in fact, alternate universes in existence (like Timecop!), they share at least some unifying laws of physics.

Read Dr. Hawking’s paper here.