Monthly Archives: June 2018

Bezoar Stones

Bezoar Stones also called mad stones, have a considerable history in American folklore. They were thought to have the power to treat or neutralize poisons or venoms in wounds. Those wounds may be from insect stings, poisonous plants, snake bites, and even the bites of rabid animals. Treatment consisted of simply holding the stone up against the wound.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac published a story about mad stones in a 2010 edition. The story referred to a number of instances dating to the 19th and into the 20th century where the stones were used for snake bites and especially bites from rabid dogs.

Also clear from these stories is that the stone only worked if obtained directly from an animal or was received as a gift. Buying and/or selling destroyed the power of the stone, and if stolen would actually cause harm to the thief.

Bezoars are usually golf ball sized concretions of hair and calcium salts taken from the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants. Farm animals such as goats and sheep and wild deer are often a source. Hair is difficult to digest, especially by ruminants. The material can persist in the gut of these animals for months to years. Gradually calcium salts bind to a wad of hair. Peristaltic action, the muscular churning in the GI tract, forces these masses in to the shape of a ball.

The name bezoar is taken from Persian, Padzahr. This word and the concept date to the classical period of Persia, around 500 BCE (Before the Current Era), or over 2000 years ago. The Persian word means “protective against poison” A Persian pharmacopeia of the time listed bezoars as effective in the treatment of not only insect stings and snake bites, they were also considered an antidote to various mineral and vegetable poisons.

By the 16th/17th century their purported efficacy had extended to treating diseases or conditions from epilepsy to smallpox and bubonic plague. Bezoars came to be prized possessions in Europe at the time. For one special use, the stones were encased in ornate gold cage-like containers complete with a several inch long chain attached. These could then be dipped into a goblet of wine for instance, to remove any and all added poisons.

Certain Europeans, Catherine de Medici, and Lucrezia Borgia to name just two were thought to be heartless poisoners who gained and held power by poisoning their political enemies. Poisoning at the time was somewhat of an art. Arsenic was often the poison of choice, and the better poisoners knew how to disguise the poison to make it less detectable.

Interestingly there is a good reason to think that in this particular case of poisoning by Arsenic, the bezoars may have worked to prevent poisoning. Nerd alert – chemistry digression. The physical composition of a bezoar includes hair, and hair is loaded with a class of chemical compounds known as sulfides. The presence of sulfides makes for the foul odor when hair is burned. More importantly however, the sulfides are known to chemically bind to many heavy metals including Arsenic.

For a goblet of wine with Arsenic, adding the bezoar stone could adsorb the poison. Remove the stone and remove the poison.

Wrong Way President

Republicans have long been known as the party of business, both big and small. The party that believes in the free market. The party that doesn’t want government picking winners and losers. The GOP platform statement is unambiguous. “Government should not play favorites among energy producers.“

Recently Trump has floated a plan to order the electrical grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear powered electrical generators. Even though power from natural gas-fired plants is cheaper and cleaner. Even though power from wind turbines and utility-scale photovoltaic systems(solar) is far cleaner and now cheaper than coal-fired plants.

His argument which will drive up the cost of electricity is a somewhat poorly disguised attempt to prop up industries whose time has past. Twenty-five coal plants have closed since he began as president. The two largest coal plants here in Arkansas are in negotiations for closure within a decade. There hasn’t been a new order for a nuclear plant in several decades.

Meanwhile, wind and solar power are rapidly expanding. Clarksville just added its own solar array and Entergy is building two major solar plants.

The plan to help the coal and nuclear industries is couched as a national defense emergency, and if this order were to be enacted would employ a regulation normally used to respond to national crises such as weather-related disasters.

Coal and nuclear plants are referred to as baseload plants. They’re designed to be turned on and stay on, at full power. It is Trump’s position that replacing these baseload plants with renewables will somehow make the electrical grid less resilient.

Nope. Numerous studies show that a broad mix of renewable energy supplies on the grid leads to greater stability. Two countries, Germany and Denmark, have far larger percentages of their electrical energy generated by wind and solar and have an order of magnitude fewer outages than the United States. This may be in part due to better investments in the grid infrastructure, but it certainly shows that renewables don’t hurt.

The people who really know what’s best are the grid operators themselves. They view today’s grid in better shape than ever in terms of reliability. Trade groups for the oil and gas industry joined with environmental groups to issue a joint statement claiming that the plan was legally indefensible and guaranteed to raise the cost of electricity to consumers.

A similar but more subtle plan was pursued last year by Rick Perry, administrator of the Energy Department. Perry requested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to guarantee a financial return for any power plant that could store on site ninety days worth of fuel. This would, of course, mean coal and nuclear plants. The FERC earlier this year unanimously denied the request.

Trump, the purported deal maker, would be in this case increasing the cost of electricity for consumers. He would be reversing the trend towards cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, the plan would only make worse the problem with high-level radioactive waste, an issue we haven’t been able to resolve after sixty years of commercial nuclear power production.

Amphibian Pandemic

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of the human condition is our purposeful or incidental reduction of biodiversity everywhere we go. Most obvious was the elimination of large herbivores from woolly mammoths to giant ground sloths. This makes a certain sense as they were prey species which fed our rapid expansion across the planet.

Global warming, by forcing changes to the climate, impacts all life on the planet. Fauna are indirectly threatened by simple reduction of suitable habitat. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified habitat loss as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN’s “Red List” (those species officially classified as “Threatened” and “Endangered”).

A common example is when forested areas are cleared and converted to agricultural use. The destruction of diverse forests in southeast Asia for use as palm oil plantations threatens everything from Orangutans to Tigers.

An incidental apocalypse is now occurring with amphibians worldwide. The class Amphibia has existed for over 300 million years. Today frogs, toads, salamanders, and the lesser known caecilians are dispersed worldwide and exist in a number in niches from rain forests to deserts. A northern most amphibian is the wood frog of Alaska which literally freezes up during the winter. When the weather warms it thaws and goes about its business.

Compounding threats to amphibians from habitat loss and climate change is a rapidly expanding pandemic of a Chytrid fungus, specifically Batrachorchytrium dendrobatidis (BD.) The fungus has been know for over a century in parts of east Asia and Africa but only in the past few decades has it spread worldwide.

There are several hypotheses for the mechanism of dispersion. In the 1930s a British researcher by the name of Lancelot Hogben, hence the eponymous Hogben test, found that injecting urine from a pregnant woman into the the African Clawed Frog induce the frog to lay eggs. The test was faster and didn’t require the sacrifice of the animal as was the case in the rabbit test. It was used on several continents from the 1940s to 1960s.

Recent study of the DNA of numerous samples suggests the origin of the BD dispersion began on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950’s. The Korean war, with the massive movement of men and materiel in and out of the area could have dispersed the fungus. The fungus can easily be transported on any kind of moist material, in addition to the amphibians themselves.

The global trade in amphibians for foods and pets is probably responsible for the dispersion of new strains which may be even more toxic. BD grows on the skin of amphibians. Amphibian skin is responsible for much metabolic activity such gas exchange. Essential electrolytes, Sodium and Potassium are also exchanged across the skin and it is a disruption of electrolyte balance that kills them.

Of the roughly 7000 amphibian species, 200 have recently been extirpated, and another 2000 are threatened. Nearly half of all amphibian species are in decline. Defenders of Wildlife here in the United States has called for the Fish and Wildlife service to ban the import of amphibians.

The moral of this story is that we ought to leave the critters be. Transporting them from hither to you could very well accelerate the amphibian pandemic.