This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Fear of Drugs

My wife recently recovered from a lower respiratory infection which she picked up during our trip to Missouri. The source of the infection cannot be confirmed, but the woman who sat in the adjacent row on the plane with the severe cough who couldn’t bother to cover her mouth should probably avoid any dark alleys where my wife might be waiting. Anyway, one antibiotic, two steroids, and two weeks later, the wife is back to normal. As usual, I escaped unscathed, much to my wife’s annoyance.

It’s probably best that I don't get sick very often. My wife will dutifully take any and all pills prescribed by the doctor without the slightest hesitation, while I tend to avoid medicines and drugs like the plague, especially those to which I’ve never been exposed before. Maybe I’ve seen too many doctor/hospital/ER shows where the entire episode revolved around the life and death struggle of a patient who had either experienced a rare, life threatening reaction to some commonly prescribed medicine or else experienced a common, life threatening reaction to a incorrectly prescribed medicine. (Perhaps I just watch too much TV -- but that’s another issue). But the main reason I don’t relish the idea of taking drugs is that, as a chemist (admittedly with a limited biochemical background), I have some idea of just how insanely complex the chemistry is inside our bodies. It seems utterly impossible to me that the introduction of a new chemical into our systems wouldn’t cause havoc somewhere. Just think about how easy it is for small impurities to crap up a reaction in the lab. While the general success of the pharmaceutical industry does allay my fears to a certain extent, I am still cautious since most doctors will admit that taking a drug is always a compromise. The idea/hope is that the benefits outweigh the negative effects. And if we are lucky, the negative consequences go unnoticed by the patient and are eventually repairable by the body. As a result, my doctor, the pharmacist, and myself have come to an uneasy truce over the years.

Unfortunately, that truce has become a bit more shaky thanks to a talk I attended at a local chemistry group, brewingchemistry. The lecturer was Felix Schneider, a retired FDA chemist, and his talk was entitled “What Happened to the FDA?” Without giving a lot of details, the politicalization of the FDA in the last decade, along with attempts to outsource some of its responsibilities, has led to a less effective organization (to put it mildly). It sounds as though the FDA is attempting to fix itself, beginning with a move back toward directors wiwth more of a science background, but it will be an uphill climb.

Scary fact1: Most of the large pharmaceutical companies do not make the active ingredients in the drugs we buy – they license them out to other manufacturing facilities. If I recall correctly, something like 75% of these plants are outside the United States, mostly foreign corporations. At the present rate of inspection, it has been estimated that it will require nearly 50 years before all these plants can be visited by the FDA. Just what I needed to hear, especially after hearing stories about what the FDA has found in sites they have visited.
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1Some alcohol was consumed during the talk, so take these numbers with a grain of salt -- the inorganic kind.

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