The Fly in the Ointment

ECW Press
Schwarcz, Dr Joe
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Erin Creasey
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ECW Press
Dr. Joe Schwarcz is a Chemistry professor and director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. In 1999, he won the American Chemical Society’s Grady-Stack Award for interpreting Chemistry to the Public. He hosts a popular weekly syndicated radio program and writes a column for the Montreal Gazette.
Books by Dr. Joe Schwartcz have sold over 100,000 copies in Canada. From Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman: “Joe Schwartcz’s magic is in convincing us that there is verve and value in real chemistry.”
Dr. Joe Schwarcz blends quirky anecdotes about everyday chemistry with engaging tales from the history of science in this series of books.
Dr. Joe investigates explosive subjects and demystifies the science that surrounds us, delivering the unbiased, scientific facts readers need to make informed decisions in their everyday lives. Why do some people drill holes in their heads for “enlightenment”? How did a sheep, a duck, and a rooster usher in the age of air travel? Whimsical though these questions may be, their answers are revealed in an accessible scientific fashion. Ranging from the esoteric to the everyday, Dr. Joe tackles topics including the ups and downs of underwear, zombies in Haiti, and little Mikey's exploding stomach. Learn from Dr. Joe’s investigations into aphrodisiacs, ddt, bottled water, vitamins, barbiturates, smoked meat, and “mad honey.”
Separating sense from nonsense and fact from myth, Dr. Joe’s surprising, educational, and entertaining commentaries show the relevance of science to everyday life.
Books by Dr. Joe Schwarcz include: Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs; Fly in the Ointment; Dr. Joe and What You Didn’t Know; Genie in the Bottle; That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles; and, Let Them Eat Flax.
Our narrator through the whole series is Dr. Joe Schwarcz, a likeable and humorous doctor who relates these science anecdotes to us easily and accessibly. He is dedicated to demystifying science for the general public, and he succeeds in that task, relating funny case studies and giving readers the answers to questions they didn’t even think to ask.
Because this book is a work of non-fiction, there’s no over-arching theme or plot arc. The common element in all of Dr. Joe’s mini-essays and explanations is that they all stimulate the readers’ curiosity as he informs and entertains by explaining the mysteries of everyday science.
Because the answers to each question are short and concise, they would be a great fit for a series, fitting a few of Dr. Joe’s answers into each episode, showing the readers accessible science and answers to both bizarre and everyday questions.
Male Tweens
Female Tweens
Male Teens
Female Teens
Men 18–34
Women 18–34
Men 35-54
Women 35–54
The nature of this book is similar to the Discovery show Mythbusters. The show brings up a few questions each episode and works through solving them, similar to Dr. Joe and his answering of everyday science questions in a way that everyone can understand.
I knew something was going on when I listened to my messages
one morning. The first caller wanted to know if it was
safe to keep using Teflon dental floss and the second inquired
about the best way to dispose of her Teflon cookware. The
third wanted to know if it was safe to keep wearing a Tefloncoated
hat. It didn’t take me long to find out that the scare had
been triggered by a segment on the abc news program 20/20,
which had addressed some concerns about Teflon the previous
night. This issue follows on the heels of the closely related
“fabric protector” story. Let’s start with that one.
Back in 1952, Patsy Sherman, a young chemist at the 3M
Company, was assigned the problem of finding a material that
was flexible and could stand up to the corrosive nature of jet
aircraft fuels. Gaskets and hoses commonly deteriorated and
had to be frequently replaced. Sherman was familiar with the
chemical-resistant properties of fluoropolymers such as Teflon
and began to experiment with similar substances. The research
seemed to be going nowhere until one day Sherman’s assistant
accidentally spilled a few drops of a novel compound on her
new tennis shoe. She became frustrated because neither water,
alcohol, nor any other solvents were able to remove the stain.
Sherman was quite taken by the material’s repellant properties
and shifted the focus of her research. By 1956, with the help of
fellow 3M chemist Sam Smith, Scotchgard Protector made a
triumphant entry into the marketplace as a virtually magical
substance that repelled water and stains from clothes, carpets,
and furniture fabrics. Scotchgard was an immensely successful product line, with
active ingredients being manufactured by the millions of
pounds annually. Then, all of a sudden, in May 2000, 3M made
a startling announcement: it was phasing out the manufacture
of perfluorooctanyl sulfonate (pfos), the key chemical used to
produce Scotchgard products. The company’s chemists had
found that Scotchgard can degrade to release pfos, which was
turning out to be more persistent in the environment than they
had previously believed it to be. It had been detected, albeit at
very low levels, in the blood of seals, dolphins, minks, bald
eagles, and, most important, humans. For years the company
had been monitoring blood levels in employees working with
the chemical and became concerned that uptake of pfos was
exceeding the body’s ability to excrete it. But the problem came
to a head when pfos was found in samples from blood banks
that were to be used as control samples for the workers’ blood.
It soon became clear that all humans had some pfos in their
blood. How was it getting there?
Studies have shown that about one-third of a sprayed product
is lost into the air, ready to be inhaled by people. Given that
discovery, and the fact that huge amounts of the repellant chemicals
were used in products ranging from fast-food packaging
and linens to tents and upholstery, it comes as no surprise that
remnants show up in human blood. Of course, just because a
chemical is present in the blood it does not mean that it presents
a danger. In the case of pfos, however, there was an indication
from rat and primate studies that excessive exposure may be
of concern. No human health problems have ever been linked
to pfos and 3M maintains that its withdrawal of the chemical
was based on environmental concerns. Perhaps. Or maybe
the company saw the writing on the wall and decided to take
action before being forced to do so by the us Environmental
Protection Agency (epa). In any case, 3M has been successful in developing alternate formulations for many, but not all, uses
of Scotchgard. The new key ingredient is a smaller molecule,
perfluorobutyl sulfonate, which, we are told, is nontoxic and
When 3M phased out pfos, it also stopped production of
perfluorooctanoic acid (pfoa), which it sold to other companies
for use in the production of Teflon. There is no viable
substitute for this compound in the manufacture of Teflon, and
Dupont now produces large volumes of it. Like pfos, it too has
been found throughout the environment. In this case, the
source is not obvious because finished Teflon products do not
contain any pfoa. One possibility is that another type of stainrepellant
material made of short-chain fluorinated polymers,
called “telomers,” breaks down to release pfoa.
Most people had never heard of pfoa until 20/20 focused on
it. Highlighting the case of an unfortunate young man born
with one nostril and a deformed eye, the piece noted that his
mother had worked in Teflon production while pregnant and
inferred that exposure to pfoa was responsible for his defects.
Birth defects are not uncommon and it is unscientific to make
such a link without more evidence. The program also went on
to describe how heating Teflon to temperatures above 290°C
(554°F) can cause the release of fumes that are toxic to birds
and can cause a reversible “polymer fume fever” in humans.
But these facts in no way mean that Teflon dental floss, hats, or
cookware used properly present a risk to consumers. The persistence of pfoa is an issue, and the epa is looking into it. But
the agency’s investigation has nothing to do with using the pots
and pans in your kitchen. Just use Teflon cookware as it is meant
to be used and don’t fry foods at extreme temperatures. In any
case, if you are heating foods to 290°C (554°F), you had better
worry more about the toxic compounds formed by the heating
process than the ones released by Teflon. This type of cookware
actually lets you cook foods with less fat so that the end product
is healthier. On that note, I think it’s time to have some
lunch: stirfried vegetables—cooked in a Teflon pan, of course.
After lunch I’ll use some Teflon dental floss. And if I had a
Teflon-coated hat, I’d happily sport it.
Dr. Joe appeals to people who wonder why we do things the way that we do, or those who have an insatiable curiousity about the inner workings of everyday life. Dr. Joe explains the science behind our everyday routines in a funny and entertaining way, helping his audience understand the answers to some of the world’s most fascinating questions.
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