Friday, November 23, 2007



Jack Dini

Free to choose what we believe, Americans choose myth over reality every time, says Dayton Duncan. (1) He adds, “Americans are dreamers, and a myth after all, is merely a dream of the past rather than the future. Our national dreams have always edited out any nightmarish realities and rewritten popular history whenever our actions fall short of our ideals.”

Some examples: In the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Senator Ranse Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) returns to the city of Shinbone in the Wild West to go to the funeral of his friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard is something of a celebrity in this town having spent time there before eventually moving to Washington. When talking to some journalists, who are wondering what the senator is doing in Shinbone, he reminds them how his career started as ‘the man who shot Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).” He goes on to tell the press that it was John Wayne who really shot and killed Liberty Valance. The press folks say- we will never report this- you’ve become a legend and when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

We’re all familiar with the image of the wild west during the years of the cattle boom. Gunfights, lawlessness, and so on, gave places like Dodge City its fame and this lives in our memories. Much of this is a myth. In all the years of the cattle boom, fewer people were shot or stabbed in Dodge City then died violently in New York City in three days. There were 15 homicides in Dodge City during the years of the cattle boom; about 5 people a day died of violence in New York City in 1987, the year Ian Frazier reported these facts. (2) One reason Dodge City got its fame was the fact that the town had several weekly newspapers chronicling each gunfight and its aftermath in detail. This was then picked up by other media in the rest of the country. Eventually, Hollywood got into the act, and as Paul Harvey would say, ‘that’s the rest of the story.’

Another myth that has become accepted wisdom is that we should drink at least eight glasses of water a day. This universal advice that has made guzzling water a national pastime is more urban myth than medical dogma and lacks scientific proof, reports Joel Best.(3) The 8 x 8 rule is lavishly followed. Everywhere, people carry bottles of water, constantly sipping from them; it is acceptable to drink water anywhere, anytime. A pamphlet distributed at one southern California University even counsels its students to “carry a water bottle with you. Drink often while sitting in class.” This had its origin in an analysis that did, in fact, recommend the eight glasses level of water intake. But the analysis also noted that most of this water would ordinarily come from food (bread, for example, is 35 percent water), and meats and vegetables contain even higher proportions of water. However, the notion that food contained most of the water needed for good health was soon forgotten, in favor of urging people to consume the entire amount through drinking. (3)

Myths, if they die at all, die slowly, stubbornly, clinging tenaciously to life even in the face of incontrovertible facts. We see and hear a lot of this today in the areas of health and environment. High doses in animal testing provide myths about the so-called dangers of foods. When rodents are tested for exposure to chemicals and food additives they are often given very high doses, averaging 380,000 times the dose humans would be given. A person would have to drink 800 cans of diet soda in a day to equal the saccharin dose given to rats, or a 155 pound person would have to eat 82,600 slices of bread every day for a lifetime to be exposed to a dose of furfural comparable to that which causes cancer in rodent tests. One could go on and on with many of these types of examples, and I have in a previous column. (4)

The beloved ‘good old days,’ a pristine pre-human landscape, frozen in time and space as a sort of base point from which to measure change is as good a myth about the environment as you can find. (5) This pastoral idea, embodying the belief that a simple life, without technology, commerce, or industry, was man’s natural state, ensuring peace, health and happiness, and that it had existed in a Golden Age from which society had deteriorated, simply never existed. (6) The ‘good old days’ simply weren’t that good. The past world was in no way spared the problems we consider horrendously our own, such as pollution, addiction, or urban blight. This subject alone could cover an entire book. For a shortened version see my column in the June 1998 issue of this journal. (7)

Another example of an environmental myth is the tropical rain forest. As Philip Stott reports, “Tropical ran forest does not exist as an object: it is a human construct and is thus subject to myth making on a grand scale.”(8) He adds, “Our attachment to the tropical rain forest has grown over the past hundred years from a minority colonial pursuit to mainstream environmental obsession. The tropical rain forest has variously been assumed to be the world’s largest repository of biological diversity and the lungs of the planet.” (9)

Stott and others say there is not one shred of recent scientific evidence to support the powerful historic and mythic language employed about ‘rain forests.’ Bjorn Lomborg observes that we will not lose 50 percent of all species as claimed by many, but more like 0.7 percent. (10) James Trefil adds, “For the record, I think it would be truly astonishing if something as far-reaching as the effect of human activity on the planet didn’t drive some species to extinction. Whether the rate of extinction is truly unprecedented, however, is not so clear. I have to confess that I have this sneaking suspicion that animals have probably been becoming extinct at a high rate for hundreds of millions of years. After all, an animal so specialized that it can only survive on one part of one kind of tree is not a good bet to win the Darwinian sweepstakes. And, of course, since we have no idea how fast they became extinct in the past, we have no way of knowing whether their extinction rate is going up or down today.” (11)

The ‘lungs of the planet’ claim is also mythical. Lomborg explains that plants produce oxygen by means of photosynthesis, but when they die and decompose, precisely the same amount of oxygen is consumed. Therefore, forests in equilibrium neither produce nor consume oxygen in net terms. (10)

More from Stott; “The Northern environmentalists conception of the tropical rain forest is far removed from the ecological realities of the places it purports to denote. Most of the ‘million year old forest’ to which environmentalists sentimentally refer turns out to have existed for less than 20,000 years. During the last ice age the tropics were colder and drier than today and probably more closely resembled the savanna grasslands of East Africa. (9)

Yet, here’s an example where the statement about “millions of years old forest” is used. It’s from a 1992 textbook by Chris Park, Tropical Rainforests, which is widely employed in schools and colleges throughout the UK.
“Tropical rainforests are the most complex ecosystems on earth. Rainforests (better known to many people as jungles) have been the dominant form of vegetation in the tropics for literally millions of years and beneath their high canopy lives a diversity of species which is unrivaled anywhere else on earth.” (12)

E. F. Bruenig, Emeritus Professor of Forestry, Hamburg University, says this, “Knowledge of ecology and forestry is poor among the public and understanding of ecosystem properties is almost absent while myths abound especially with respect to tropical rain forests and their peoples. There is a certain unwillingness to bridge the knowledge gap and abandon inherited or newly developed myths if they serve self-interests.” (13)


1. Dayton Duncan, Out West, (New York, Penguin Books, 1987), 55

2. Ian Frazier, Great Plains, (New York, Penguin Books, 1989), 151

3. Joel Best, More Damned Lies and Statistics, (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2004), 20

4. Jack W. Dini, “Of Mice and Men,” Plating & Surface Finishing, 91, 30, September 2004

5. Steven F. Hayward, Index of Leading Environmental Indicators 2005, (San Francisco, Pacific Research Institute), 9

6. John Lenihan, The Crumbs of Creation, (New York, Adam Hilger, 1988), 30

7. Jack W. Dini, “The Good Old Days,” Plating & Surface Finishing, 85, 88, June 1998

8. Philip Stott, Tropical Rain Forest, (Lancing, West Sussex, Great Britain, Hartington Fine Arts Limited, 1999), 8

9. Philip Stott, Tropical Rain Forest, 4

10. Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001), 115

11. James Trefil, Human Nature, (New York, Times Books, 2001), 122

12. Chris C. Park, Tropical Rainforests, (London & New York, Routledge, 1992), 1

13. E. F. Bruenig, Paper presented at Oxford University, May 15, 1998

Is Environmentalism Dead?

Jack Dini
Livermore, CA

An April 20, 2004 Gallup poll showed that only 1 percent of Americans believe the environment is the most important problem facing the nation today. That finding followed a 2000 poll reporting that 41 percent of Americans believe environmental activists are ‘extremists,’ up from 32 percent in 1996. (1)

A recent online report, The Death of Environmentalism, by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus offers some thoughts about the reasons for the American public’s declining support for environmental activism. They say activist groups today are too extremist, too polarizing, and too lacking in credibility to achieve the broad-based support of the American people. “The institutions that define what environmentalism means boast large professional staffs and receive tens of million of dollars every year from foundations and individuals. Given these rewards it’s no surprise that most environmental leaders neither craft nor support proposals that could be tagged ‘non-environmental.’ Doing otherwise would do more than threaten their status; it would undermine their brand.” (2)

In reviewing the report, Orson Aquilar agreed, ‘Environmentalists give ‘I Have A Nightmare’ speeches and offer technical proposals far removed from the lives of ordinary Americans.” (3) Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, added, “While our movement does much good, and conservation measures actually did well in the recent elections, we should be mindful of our failings, be they real or perceptions increasingly held by the public. Environmentalists are often viewed as detached from the lives of regular people, and in a public interest movement, this is very bad news. Most people wake up in the morning trying to reduce what they have to worry about. Environmentalists wake up trying to increase it.” (4)

The Gallup results mentioned earlier closely tracked a BBC poll in Britain, where respondents ranked global warming last among a list of issues including health care, crime, and education. (5) A tie-in with this is The Copenhagen Solution (Consensus) which was developed by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg. The Consensus is an attempt by leading economists (including three Nobelists) to set priorities for spending using traditional cost-benefit analysis. The group explored opportunities for addressing ten of the most serious challenges facing the world today: climate change, communicable diseases, conflicts, access to education, financial instability, governance and corruption, malnutrition and hunger, migration, sanitation and access to clean water, and subsidies and trade barriers. They were asked to address these challenge areas and answer the question, ‘What would be the best ways of advancing global welfare, and particularly the welfare of developing countries, supposing that an additional $50 billion of resources were at governments’ disposal?’ Challenge papers, commissioned from acknowledged authorities in each area of policy, set out more than thirty proposals in descending order of desirability. In ordering the proposals, the panel was guided predominantly by consideration of economic costs and benefits. (6)

The results? Compared to other opportunities such as communicable diseases, malnutrition and hunger, sanitation and water, and the rest, climate change ranked last on the list. (7) Vernon Smith, Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University, provided this summation, “It is clear from both the science and the economics of intervention that those of us who care about the environment are not well advised to favor initiating a costly attempt to reduce greenhouse gases build-up in the atmosphere in the near future based on available information. Although the ultimate danger may turn out to prompt action, the current evidence indicates that it is much too soon to act relative to the many other important and pressing opportunities that demand immediate attention. (8) (Note, the italics are Smith’s, not mine.)

Back to The Death of Environmentalism report. As might be expected this caused considerable uproar among the environmental movement community. Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director, was ‘deeply disturbed and angered by it.’ (9) Other leader of environmental groups also expressed varying degrees of dyspepsia over the fracas. (5)

An interesting point is that both Shellenberger and Nordhaus run consulting businesses that ‘strategize for foundations’ and ‘craft strategic initiatives aimed at reframing old debates.’ William Tucker notes, “It is not insignificant that The Death of Environmentalism was released at the retreat of the environmental Grantmakers Association in Kauai last October [2004]. What’ really at stake here is the millions of dollars that liberal foundations hand out each year in search of a cleaner environment. Far from re-examining the purposes of environmentalism, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are making their own pitch.” (10) Here’s some of what they offer in the report:
“One tool we have to offer is the research we are doing as part of our Strategic Values Project, which is adapting corporate marketing research for use by the progressive community…Readers of this report who are interested in learning more about Strategic Values Project…should feel welcome to contact us.” (11)

So is environmentalism dead?

A famous quote of Mark Twain sums up my view. “The report of my death is greatly exaggerated.” I surely don’t think environmentalism is dead. The international environmental movement is now a $6 billion per year industry and it will not just fade away. (12)

The major upset for the movement at present is that global warming, to them the mother of all environmental scares, hasn’t been taken more seriously. As The Wall Street Journal has noted, “Adopting the Kyoto Protocol to curb carbon dioxide emissions, for instance, might reduce warming to 6.1 degrees C by the year 2300, compared with an anticipated 7.3 degrees warming if nothing is done. This ‘achievement’—a world that is on average 1.2 degrees cooler than it otherwise would be in 300 years—comes with a price tag of about $94 trillion (in 1990 dollars). The benefits of tackling climate change are far into the future and the substantial costs are up front and immediate. The uncertainties associated with both the projections and the consequences of change cannot compete with other urgent issues we confront. (13) Obviously, one could help a lot of hungry folks with poor sanitation for $94 trillion 1990 dollars rather than spend is on something that may or may not be a problem many years down the road.

I’m encouraged that some folks in the movement seem open to change. Being green is no longer as simple as it used to be. Some major conservation groups are beginning to realize that the old hard-line protectionist approach simply doesn’t work. (14) One example; the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace apparently have reversed their long standing opposition to the use of DDT to fight malaria. (15)

Fred Pearce notes, “The WWF is just one among many science based environment groups that are engaged in a savage reappraisal of their philosophy. In their self imposed task of saving everything from rainforests and medicinal plants to elephants and whales, they are coming to a heretical conclusion: conservation- at least in its hard line forms- is its own worst enemy. Far from saving endangered species and their habitats, it often accelerates their destruction, because it alienates local people and forces trade underground. You would never guess this upheaval was going on when you read the organizations’ promotional literature on the fight to preserve the planet’s last wilderness. But the truth is they are beginning to think that banning hunting and fishing, erecting fences around the forests to keep out poachers, and outlawing trade in endangered species are about the least effective ways of saving threatened species. Sometimes the best way forward is to dismantle existing protection laws and start again.” (14) So, we get mixed messages from these organizations. I wish I could be more optimistic about the directions of the environmental movement, but I still have a lot of doubt. Regardless, environmentalism isn’t dead.


1. James M. Taylor, “Death of Environmentalism Essay Ignites Dissent,” Environment & Climate News, 8, 13, June 2005

2. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, “The Death of Environmentalism,” September 29, 2004, page 11. This report can be downloaded at;

3. Orson Aquilar, “Why I am not an environmentalist,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2005, Page B9

4. Rick Johnson, “The Death of Environmentalism,” ONEList online, December 7, 2004

5. Steven F. Hayward, Index of Leading Environmental Indicators 2005, (San Francisco, Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 2005), 16

6. Global Crises, Global Solutions, Bjorn Lomborg, Editor, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), 605

7. Global Crises, Global Solutions, Bjorn Lomborg, Editor, 606

8. Global Crises, Global Solutions, Bjorn Lomborg, Editor, 635


10. William Tucker, “Environmentalism’s Nervous Breakdown,” The American Enterprise online,, April 19, 2005

11. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, The Death of Environmentalism, 7

12. Paul Driessen, Eco-Imperialism, (Bellevue, Washington, Free Enterprise Press, 2003), 134

13. “The Copenhagen Solution,” Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, June 11, 2005

14. Fred Pearce, “A greyer shade of green,” New Scientist, 177, 41, June 2003

15. Nicholas D. Kristof, “It’s Time to Spray DDT,” New York Times, January 8, 2005

A Strong Antiseptic that Became a Famous Mouthwash

Jack Dini
Livermore, CA

An antiseptic that could only be used with great care lest it damage the surrounding tissue went on to become America’s must advertised mouthwash. It all stared when physician Joseph Lister realized that fractures that broke through the skin would often become infected, whereas those that did not pierce the skin healed nicely. He also became aware of Louis Pasteur’s work which had shown that rotting and fermentation could occur in the absence of oxygen as along as microorganisms were present. Heat killed the microorganisms but Lister knew that heating a patient was not a viable approach, so he tried some phenol (carbolic acid). It worked, and soon Lister was washing his instruments with phenol. He also developed a sprayer which allowed him to disinfect his operating room. The results were immediate: the mortality rate from amputations dropped from 50 to 15 percent.(1)

However, Lister’s discovery of antisepsis was initially ignored in both England and the United States, in part because he was a doctor working in Glasgow and England and was felt to have a limited outlook. This aspect of science was considered outside his field of expertise. Lister wasn’t the first person to be treated this way by the scientific community. As Broad and Wade report, “George Ohm, the nineteenth-century German who discovered the law of electrical resistance, was a math teacher at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Cologne; his ideas were ignored by scientists at German universities. Mendel’s genetic laws were ignored by professionals in his field for thirty-five years, in part because, as an abbe’ with an experimental plot in his backyard, he seemed to be a mere amatuer, and Louis Pasteur met with violent resistance from doctors when he advanced his germ theory of disease; they regarded him as a mere chemist poaching on their scientific preserves.” (2) So, it took time to convince others. Pasteur and Lister eventually won the battle, persuading the medical profession that germs really did exist.

In the United States, Jordan Wheat Lambert, synthesized a less powerful version and asked Lister if he could use the already famous name, Lister, for the product. Lister agreed and Lambert added the “ine’ suffix which he felt made the product sound more scientific. (3)

Lambert’s Listerine was used for much more than minor surgical procedures. It was a good floor cleaner, an after-shave, a nasal douche, a cure for gonorrhea, and even a scalp treatment for dandruff and baldness. Eventually it was discovered that Listerine was also good at killing oral germs. In 1895 it was marketed to the dental profession and in 1914 became one of the first prescription products to be sold over the counter. But there was no hint for use as a mouth deodorant because at that time there was no such thing as bad breath. Certainly at that time people had various diseases, bad teeth, unpleasant mouth odor, but as advertising scholar James Twitchell points out, “It was not considered socially offensive.” He adds, “Recall that until the 1920s, most Americans bathed only once a week (on Saturday night in anticipation of the Sabbath), and that hair was rarely washed. Soap, still made of animal fats, often smelled worse than body odor!” (4)

Enter Gerard Lambert, one of Jordan’s sons. This marketing genius was looking for an advertising hook, so he asked his company chemist if Listerine was good for bad breath. The chemist showed him a clipping from the medical journal, British Lancet, that discussed halitosis. Gerard asked; what is halitosis? He was told that this was the medical term for bad breath. A light went off in Gerard’s head. “This is something we can hang our hat on!” From Twitchell, “As it turned out, he hung more than his hat on halitosis. He hung the entire company on it. He poured money into putting halitosis into every American mouth. Lambert made a pledge to increase his advertising each month by the same percentage as the increase of his sales. He claimed he would stop this only when sales leveled off. For as long as he owned the company, they never did. From 1922 to 1929 earnings rose form $115,000 to more than $8 million. By the time of the stack market crash, Listerine was one of the largest buyers of magazine and newspaper space, spending more than $5 million –almost the exact amount of yearly profits. In all that time the product’s price, package, and formula had not changed a whit.” (3)

The ad campaign was particularly inventive. “If You Want the Truth- Go to a Child,” Twitchell asks the question,“Has there ever been an ad so deliriously nasty as this? Like a baby robin, the youngster looks up to her caregiver for tenderness and gets a whiff of foul breath instead. The body copy makes clear that here is yet another case of ‘a young woman, who in spite of her personal charm and beauty never seemed to hold men friends.’ The quizzical child, however appears determined to confront whether spinster aunt is ashamed of: Auntie is ‘broadcasting bad breath.’ No wonder men stay away. Dreaded halitosis has gotten in the way of love.” (5) Other ads took this similar tack; “Often a Bridesmaid but Never a Bride,” Halitosis Makes You Unpopular,” Could I be happy with him in spite of that?”

This was one of the first times that advertising really did create a ‘cure.’ But you couldn’t cure something unless you had a disease. “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis.”(5)

So there you have it- from a potent antiseptic (phenol) to a product (Original Listerine) that an unprecedented 99% of all mouthwash users have tried. One final footnote to this saga; phenol would save thousands of lives, but it would also end many, for scientists quickly discovered that phenol could be converted into the potent explosive trinitrophenol (TNT). (1) Gargle on this thought.


1. Joe Schwarcz, Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs, (Toronto, ECW Press, 1999), 58

2. William Broad and Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1982), 136

3. James B. Twitchell, Twenty Ads That Shook the World, (New York, Three Rivers Press, 2000), 62

4. James B. Twitchell, Twenty Ads That Shook the World, 63

5. James B. Twitchell, Twenty Ads That Shook the World, 60


Thursday, November 22, 2007

George Dantzig- Mathematical Genius and Urban Legend Hero

Jack Dini, Livermore, CA

Imagine you’re a graduate student taking a mathematics course at the University of California, Berkeley. One day you oversleep and are late for class, so late that everyone has gone. However, there are two problems on the blackboard. You assume these are homework problems and you copy them down. The problems are harder than usual and it takes you quite a while to finish them. When finished, you take them to your professor to see if he still wants the work. He tells you to throw it on his desk and you do so reluctantly because the desk is covered with a heap of papers. You fear that your homework will be lost forever. About six weeks later, on a Sunday morning you are awakened by someone banging on your front door. It’s your math professor with papers in hand, all excited. “I’ve just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it our right away for publication.” You initially have no idea what he is talking about. It turns out the problems on the blackboard which you had solved thinking they were a homework assignment were, in fact, two famous previously unsolved problems in statistics. (1)

This sounds like an urban folklore legend, and some folks have promoted it as such. It’s also been used by ministers in sermons, most famously by the Reverend Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral and television fame. Schuller embellished the story by claiming the problems were part of a final exam and that the high scorer in the test would get a job in the math department. (These were the depression years and jobs were very coveted and hard to come by). Schuller also reported that even Einstein had been unable to crack the problems. (2)

The story has also been used as the setup of the plot in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, as well as in one of the early scenes in the 1999 film Rushmore showing the main character daydreaming about solving the impossible question and winning approbation from all. (3)

Well, the young graduate student who solved the problems was George Dantzig. The unintended consequences of this action was that besides showing that it was possible to do the ‘impossible,’ the problems also led to his Ph.D. in statistics. When he was searching for a thesis topic, his advisor, Jerzy Newman, told him to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as his thesis. (1)

Dantzig went on to have an illustrious career in mathematics. He created the field of linear programming from his ‘simplex method,’ an algorithm for solving complex problems that revolutionized scientific computation. Here’s what the Stanford Magazine reported after his death in May 2005, “Combined with the calculating power of today’s computers, Dantzig’s algorithm is a tool that allows businesses and governments to identify optimal solutions to problems involving many variables. Linear programming applies to thousands of diverse applications—from pricing products, scheduling shipments and workers, assigning personnel, rotating crops and targeting weapons. Professor of management science and engineering Arthur R. Veinott, Jr. calls Dantzig’s simplex method the single most widely used algorithm originated in the last six decades.” (4) The iron and steel industry has used a Dantzig programming method to evaluate iron ores, explore the addition of coke ovens, and select products. The Federal Energy Administration is using his method to evaluate energy policy alternatives, and linear programming has also been used or suggested for controlling water and air pollution. (5)

His 1963 book, Linear Programming and Extensions, which explains his methods, is still in print 43 years later. He also co-wrote Compact City: A Plan for a Livable Urban Environment, and after retiring from Stanford in 1997, completed two volumes on linear programming and wrote a science fiction novel. In 1975, President Gerald Ford awarded him the National Medal of Science.

Besides his math legacy he leaves us with some key motivational help. Because no one had told him that it couldn’t be done, he did it. He probably would not have thought positively if he had known the two problems were famous unsolved works. A person is limited only by the thoughts that he or she chooses.


1.More Mathematical People, Donald J. Albers, Gerald L. Alexanderson and Constance Reid, Editors, (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), 67

2.The First Christian News, Volume 53, Issue 31, August 3, 2005

3.“Way Out Research on Obscure Topics,” Flat; accessed December 18, 2005

4.“Math Whiz Transformed Resource Management,” Stanford Magazine, September/October 2005

5.“INFORMS Mourns Death of OR Pioneer George B. Dantzig,” accessed December 18, 2005

Poison or Medicine—Toxin or Drug?

Jack W. Dini
Livermore, California

“Poison surrounds us. It’s not just too much of a bad thing like arsenic that can cause trouble, it’s too much of nearly anything. Too much vitamin A, hypervitaminosis A, can cause liver damage. Too much vitamin D can damage the kidneys. Too much water can result in hyponatremia, a dilution of the blood’s salt content, which disrupts brain, heart, and muscle function,” reports Cathy Newman. (1)

However, more and more research studies are revealing that a little bit of some poisons can be quite helpful to human health. Examples include botulinum, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and epibatidine, the toxic that native Indians use to make poison darts.


Botulinum is one of the most poisonous substances known (see Table 1 for comparisons). A gram of botulinum toxin, if dispersed and ingested could kill 20 million people (1). Yet, do you know anyone who has had Botox treatment to remove wrinkles? This is botulinum in extremely dilute form. Other applications include relief of migraines, a cure for crossed eyes, and a treatment for the spastic conditions of multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. Researchers in Britain report that the combination of botulinum, and a protein from the Mediterranean coral tree could provide a treatment for the chronic pain that afflicts millions of people, including cancer patients. (2)

Leon Fleisher, one of the world’s premier concert pianists became afflicted with focal dystonia, a misfiring of the brain that causes muscles to contract into abnormal, and sometimes painful positions. This career threatening disorder often strikes those who depend on small motor skills: musicians, writers, and surgeons. After treatments with botulinum toxin, Fleisher is performing and touring again, and recently released his first two-handed recording in 40 years. (1)

Table 1- Hold a nickel in your hand. Here’s how many lethal doses
equal that nickel’s weight*

Thallium 5
1080 Rat Poison 7
Cyanide 25
Strychnine 50
Nicotine 111
Botulinum 100,000,000
Anthrax 500,000,000

*Cathy Newman, “12 Toxic Tales,” National Geographic, 207, 2, May 2005

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is an example of a ‘pollutant’ that is important for human existence. This deadly gas that kills thousands each year offers potential help for a number of medical conditions. (3)

Although carbon monoxide inhalation can be lethal, our bodies make the molecules naturally in small amounts when an enzyme called heme-oxygenase-1 (HO-1) breaks down a portion of the blood protein hemoglobin. (4) Ventilator-induced lung injury (VILI) is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in intensive care units. The stress-inducible gene product, HO-1 and carbon monoxide, a major by product of the oxygenase catalysis of heme, have been shown to confer potent anti-inflammatory effects in models of tissue and cellular injury. Tomas Dolinay notes, “The data from this work leads to a tempting speculation that inhaled CO might be useful in minimizing VILI.” (5)

Small amounts of carbon monoxide might alleviate symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a study in mice suggests. The finding may offer a treatment for MS, which strikes when a person’s immune system damages the fatty sheaths that protect nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. (4)

Other studies of laboratory animals suggest that carbon monoxide in small doses can prevent injury to blood vessels caused by surgery. In this study, rats that inhaled carbon monoxide-laced air for 1 hour before angioplasty had much less subsequent artery blockage than did rats not receiving the gas. Rats that underwent a vessel transplant also fared significantly better if given carbon monoxide before and after the surgery. (6)

Hydrogen Sulfide

Hydrogen sulfide, the compound that gives rotten eggs their odor, can be lethal at high concentrations. Yet researchers in Seattle reported that exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas can lower the heart rate, metabolism, and body temperature in lab mice. (7) Mice in the study revived and appeared healthy when exposure to the gas ended. This is one step in helping researchers understand about hibernation and torpor in animals. (8)

Why is this of interest? Some animals regularly slow down their metabolic rates, or the speed at which their bodies function. Every day, certain types of hummingbirds go into a state called torpor where their heart rate drops, breathing slows, and body temperature plunges. Bears go into a similar type of hibernation for entire seasons. This type of suspended animation could offer protection for humans after a heart attack or stroke, and it could help people survive while waiting for an organ transplant. (9)


Epibatidine is the toxic chemical which a tropical frog arms itself against its predators. Not only is epibatidine very toxic, and the reason it is used by native Indians to make poison, but it also turns out to be a superb painkiller. Its two hundred times stronger than morphine.(10)

The chemical formula for epibatidine is C11H13N2Cl. Notice that it contains chlorine, which makes it an organochlorine compound. Bad stuff, let’s get rid of it, say many environmentalists. Jonathan Adler notes, “The campaign to phase out the use of chlorine, a staple of modern industrial chemistry, perhaps best illustrates environmental groups’ absolutist approach to risk assessment and their success at building political support. The anti-chloride crusade was a fringe campaign initiated by Greenpeace, but it has attracted adherents from throughout the environmental community.” It’s endorsed by varying degrees by the National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, US Public Interest Research Group, National Audubon Society, Citizens for a Better Environment in Chicago, and World Wildlife fund.” (11)

Since epibatidine comes from frogs, what do you do to get rid of this chlorine product? As John Emsley points out, “Epibatidine is an organochlorine compound, which confounds somewhat environmental activists’ belief that organochlorines are entirely manufactured chemicals that cause disease and damage the environment. Epibatidine is highly dangerous, but it is perfectly natural. It would seem a little unfair on the frogs to eradicate them because they are making a dangerous organochlorine molecule.” (10)

The epibatidine story is only just starting. As Emsley notes, “It might well end a better painkiller, or a pill that smokers can take if they want to stop smoking. It might even result in a pill that will enhance learning or improve our enjoyment of intellectual pursuits.” (10)


Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is a strong proponent of hormesis, a scientific term that means low doses help and high doses hurt. He’s concerned that if researchers don’t begin regularly probing the effects of agents at very low doses, scientists will continue to miss important health impacts—both good and bad of pollutants, drugs, and other agents. Janet Raloff points out that regulatory agencies don’t require scientists to evaluate a poison at exposures below that at which no harm is apparent. This dose is referred to as the NOAEL, for ‘no observable adverse effects level.’ (11)

Two obvious benefits can accrue from testing effects at low doses: 1- medical help might be found from material otherwise known to be toxic and 2- if traces of certain pollutants are not as dangerous as previous estimates had suggested, perhaps some overly stringent regulations could be changed. Dream on…


1. Cathy Newman, “12 Toxic Tales,” National Geographic, 207, 2, May 2005

2. James Randerson, “Botulinum toxin soothes chronic pain,” New Scientist, 178, 14, April 19, 2003

3. Liz Geltcher, “Life’s a Gas,” New Scientist, 172, 39, November 24, 2001

4. Nathan Seppa, “Good Poison?” Science News, 171, 53, January 27, 2007

5. Tamas Dolinay, et al., “Inhaled Carbon Monoxide Confers Antiinflammatory Effects Against Ventilator-Induced Lung Injury,” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 171, 1318, 2005

6. Nathan Seppa, “Carbon monoxide may limit vascular damage,” Science News, 163, 126, February 22, 2003

7. Eric Blackstone, Mike Morrison, and Mark B, Roth, “H2S Induces a Suspended Animation-Like State in Mice,” Science, 308, 518, April 22, 2005

8. “Putting a Mouse on Pause,”

9. Ben Harder, “Perchance to Hibernate,” Science News, 171, 56, January 27, 2007

10. John Emsley, Molecules at an Exhibition, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998), 84

11. Janet Raloff, “Counterintuitive Toxicity,” Science News, 171, 40, January 20, 2007