Thursday, 20th September 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. "Healthy See, Healthy Do." Sounds good, but is it true?

A. Actually, it is, as seen in grocery store purchases where the location of store displays can influence shopping choices, says Rachel Nuwer in "Scientific American" magazine. The hotspot for sugary and salty snacks is the checkout area, and a few studies have suggested that swapping healthier options for junk food there could shift customer behavior.

To see for itself, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been working with over 1,000 store owners to stock and promote nutritious foods. Testing this idea out in the city’s dense urban checkout areas, research scientist Tamar Adjoian and her colleagues enlisted three Bronx supermarkets to give one checkout lane in each store "a healthy makeover," replacing processed snacks like candy and cookies with fruits, nuts and other lower-calorie foods. While only 4% of the 21,000 tracked shoppers bought anything from checkout, Adjoian found that those in the healthy lines "purchased nutritious items more than twice as often as those in the standard lines - and they bought unhealthy items 40% less often."

Stay tuned as department officials work to expand healthy options at checkout aisles throughout the city.

Q. Can you name any elements from the periodic table that might qualify as the worst ways to cure things?

A. Let’s start with mercury (Hg, atomic #80), used for hundreds of years as a medicinal to heal such ailments as parasites, influenza, and melancholy, say Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen in "Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything." Elemental mercury, or quicksilver, the slippery liquid once used in glass thermometers, was touted as a "cure" for syphilis, a disease that ravaged the body with foul-smelling abscesses and flesh-eating sores. The treatment, which burned the skin and produced copious salivation, was often taken for a lifetime, so "it’s unclear whether sufferers were helped by the treatment, or if the mercury toxicity killed them."

In its powdered form, mercurous chloride or calomel was used by the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Edgar Allan Poe, Andrew Jackson, and Louisa May Alcott. Also popular were calomel-containing teething powders, but unfortunately Baby might develop icy, red and swollen hands and feet and flesh that split off, intense itching and clawing, and a fever that reached 102 degrees. Not until the 1950s was calomel definitively identified as the common ingredient ingested by the sick kids.

Then there’s arsenic (As, #33), called the "go-to poison," and in its most famous form, "white arsenic," is odorless and tasteless when put in food and drink, causing symptoms that resemble food poisoning. Yet it’s been used since antiquity as an escharotic, causing skin surface to die and slough off. For conditions where skin is abnormally thickened, such as psoriasis, "it worked." But it was often applied to other skin conditions like ulcers and eczema and used to treat maladies such as stomach pain, heartburn and rheumatism; excessive use could lead to chronic arsenic toxicity. The best-known arsenical medicine, Fowler’s Solution, was created in 1786 and became a "go-to" treatment used for some 150 years, despite causing alarming symptoms such as diarrhea and confusion.

Finally, gold (Au, #79) has been taken for thousands of years in humankind’s search for immortality, and being resistant to corrosion, it was associated with long life. While in its pure form, it isn’t absorbed by the body, around 1300, gold chloride- a salt that could be mixed with water - was discovered. The 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus believed it could make the body "indestructible" and claimed it could help with mania, St. Vitus Dance disease and epilepsy. Though drinkable, gold was known to be toxic, causing kidney damage and fever, disease sufferers were often willing to take the risk.

A later proponent was Dr. Leslie Keeley, a Union Army surgeon who promised a "miraculous addiction cure." In 1880, he began treating alcohol and opium addicts in his Illinois sanatorium with an injection and daily tonics that, he claimed, contained gold. Whether they actually did is unclear, though secret testing revealed "morphine, cannabis, cocaine, willow bark extracts and alcohol." Say the authors, the gold may have been "gilding on a treatment that might have done more to sedate patients through their tough alcohol withdrawal than actually cure them."

Q. What can you learn from a whale’s giant earwax earplug?

A. Whale ears are largely sealed off from the outside, and over time, their earwax compacts into layers, forming a giant plug, reports Christie Wilcox in "New Scientist" magazine. As Baylor University mammal physiologist Stephan Trumble says, "We had one particular earplug that was 50 centimeters long and weighed about 2 pounds. And you can imagine the smell." To estimate the whale’s age, "You can cut [the plug] in half and count the rings, like a tree."

A careful sampling and analysis of the layers reveal a remarkable amount of information, including DNA sequences and stress hormone levels. "The data are kind of unprecedented," says Trumble. "To be able to show a tight correlation between 20th-century whaling and stress in whales - you could never ever in a million years do that without earplugs."

Q. On Super Bowl Sunday, where are you most apt to spot the "Winter Football"?

A. Overhead in the night sky, displaying "eight of the 20 brightest stars in the entire sky, a ring of sparkling multicolored jewels encircling the constellation Orion the Hunter," says Dean Regas in "100 Things to See in the Night Sky." Often called the Winter Circle or Winter Hexagon, they are visible on a normal winter evening in January and February around 8 or 9 p.m.

To trace out the Winter Football, start by locating the brightest of the stars, Sirius, the Dog Star, found at the pointy end of the football that is nearest to the ground. Next, going clockwise, you will find Procyon, the Little Dog Star, followed by the Gemini Twins’ head stars, Pollus and Castor. From there, go to bright Capella at the upper point of the football, then take a quick turn down toward the horizon where you’ll spot the Bull’s Eye star, Aldebaran, then Rigel--Orion’s left foot--and finally back to Sirius. At 65 degrees long and 40 degrees wide and covering almost half of the entire southern sky, the Winter Football encompasses the huge star pattern of the season.

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