My First Blog Post

The Biden crime bill and Crack

— Oscar Wilde.

In the late 1980’s, cities in this country were confronted with a new drug fad involving cocaine; namely, “freebasing”. Traditionally, cocaine is abused by “snorting”; the user inhales the powder up the nose. This can be somewhat uncomfortable, In that the individual crystals are rather sharp, and repeated use can damage the septum, the membrane between the nostrils.

I hate to do this, but we need to consider some chemistry here. Cocaine, along with most other drugs, fall into a category called “nitrogeneous bases”, substances that contain nitrogen in the molecule. These are frequently messy, smelly liquids (think of ammonia). As such their physical properties render them unfit for ingestion. What is generally done about this is to convert them chemically to acid salts, usually the hydrochloride (HCl). This dramatically alters them to a more suitable form for use in the body. For instance, the conversion makes them dissolve better I n water, which makes up most of us. Another property which changes is the melting point; it is much lower in the freebase form. One can smoke the stuff, which gives a quicker high, and avoids damage to the nose. Win-Win!

In a pervious life, I worked in DEA forensic labs. I was once called upon to do a dog-and-pony show for agency higher-ups. I took a gram of cocaine HCl , added an ounce or so of water and a teaspoonful of baking soda, stirred briefly, and a white solid dropped to the bottom of the beaker. I poured out the water, and voila! Crack cocaine!!

In so doing, however, I increased the penalty for dealing the mere gram of coke (as the HCl salt) to what it would have been for a kilo. Talk about value added!

Evidentally, Joe Biden, then a senator, had some responsibility for drastically increasing penalties for trafficking on crack, vis a vis cocaine as the HCl salt. This had the unintended consequence of filing jails with low level druggies, mostlyminorities, with no effect to speak of on cocaine trafficking by the organized crime cartels, who rarely fooled with crack.

The crack epidemic was a crisis in many large cities at the time. Whether this did any good to deal with the problem is well above my pay grade. The law was modified in 2010 to reduce the sentencing disparity from 1,000 to 18. It is probably still too great, but a baby step in the right direction, maybe.

The Worst Ever

He never thought he’d win. ( I lived in New York City many years ago; I remember a mayoral election where conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr ran as a third party candndate. Somebody in the press asked him what would be his first act as mayor if he was elected. Without hesitation, he replied “Demand a Recount). I don’t think he ever really wanted the job; he doesn’t seem to do much, anyway.

Our election system (other than the Electoral College) serves us well – until it doesn’t. Since we are not a European parlimentary system, we cannot remove a president by a mere “No Confidence” vote Even if we could, we’d still be stuck with Mike Pence (could he have picked someone else? Probably not. Would you want to work for him?).

I knew we were in trouble as I listened to his inaugural address (probably the most disgruntled in history). This was followed by the flap over the size of his inaugural crowd, vis a vis Obama’s. We learned some new terms: Fake News, and Alternate Facts.

Current mysteries: What does Vladimir Putin have on him? What does he have to hide? What is in his tax returns he so desperately fights to keep secret? (Despite his distaste for the job, he appears to want a second term if only to keep from going to prison).

The administration is blessed with skilled, loyal family members in high places. (seems almost Mafia-like, doesn’t it)? Jared the all purpose go-to guy recently coined the phrase “overconfident idiot” (takes one to know one). If you are not part of the family, chances are you’re “acting”. At least several of his cabinet secretaries are serving illegally, having had their 210 days expire. Does anybody care???

The recent spate of appearances of Bob Woodward on cable talkies lead me to wonder: Is this for real? Woodward is the absolute master of the art of getting folks to speak their minds (or spill their guts). Did he really think he was going to charm Woodward? (see overconfident idiot, above).We did learn some interesting stuff about (to paraphrase Senator Howard Baker) “what did the president know, and when did he know it”. He seems to have handled Woodward about as skillfully as he handles Putin.

In the midst of a pandemic, why the desperate and continuous attempts to abolish Obamacare? Might it have to do with pressure from insurance companies? And, by the way, the “great job” he’s doing to manage the virus has resulted in the death of over 200 thousand Americans (that we know of).

The military (traditionally a GOP stronghold) has been dissed. Are they really suckers and losers? Of course, the fake news is reporting this; he never said that……

These are only the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view). I could go on, ad nauseam. Several Democrats in high places have suggested we “build back better” (Lord knows we have a great deal on our plates to rebuild). One place to start might be abolition of the Electoral College. This anachronism makes a mockery of the very definition of democracy. Our founders seemed to feel that the people could be trusted to choose their own leaders, up to a point, but needed to be protected from any rash judgments. The College, I think, was intended to assemble an elite group of (white, property owning), wise men to temper any foolishness on the part of the electorate. How has this worked out for us? In this short century we have had two presidents (both Republicans) who received fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. In the case of the current one, about three million fewer!

We continue, in fits and starts, efforts to facilitate voting for most citizens, The GOP seems to want to reduce the number of voters, perhaps in the interest of self preservation (or, maybe they are smarter than the rest of us).

FDA, Back In The Day

The Food and Drug Administration was basically founded by Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, as a successor to the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry. I was recruited out of college as a chemist. In many ways, the 1960’s were the golden age of federal government. I was well trained; although the pay wasn’t great, I was given really good scientific equipment and a wide variety of stuff to work on. I was hired into the New York office. The mission involved examining foods and drugs, as the name implies, to ensure they met labeling requirements (for example, was the stuff in the drug store really aspirin, was its strength what the label said it was, were there any dangerous impurities present).

The same year they hired me, they also hired Dr. Frances Kelsey at FDA HQ, to evaluate NDA’s (new drug applications). Dr. Kelsey’s first assignment involved a drug called Thalidomide, a sleeping pill and tranquilizer in wide use in Europe. The manufacturer wanted to market the drug in the U.S. Dr. Kelsey carefully studied the data presented in the NDA, and found a number of red flags. Despite considerable pressure from the manufacturer, Dr.Kelsey refused to allow thalidomide to be marketed. Eventually, reports began to circulate of really terrible birth defects of numerous children of pregnant mothers who had taken the drug in Britain and West Germany. The babies were born lacking arms and legs. I shudder to think of pressure which might be brought to bear in this age of Twitter and the Internet (even Dr. Anthony Fauci receives death threats these days). By saving uncounted numbers of children from this “side effect” of this otherwise useful drug, the nation owed Dr. Kelsey big time, to say the least.

In my own career, I was included with several others in an attempt to straighten out a troubled drug manufacturer. I don’t know whether the outfit is still in business. However, we had looked into complaints from consumers who had taken the manufacturer’s eyedrops containing epinephrine. In order to prevent stinging pain in the eyes of users, the stuff was formulated to keep the pH (acidity level) between 4.0 and 7.0.

Without going into the somewhat complicated chemistry, pH of aqueous solutions (water based) ranges from 1-14. pH 1 would be strongly acid, while pH 14 is strongly alkaline. Distilled water’s pH is about 7 (usually said to be “neutral”). Any formulation for use in the eye needs to be close to “neutral” ; the specification for pH between 4 and 7 is established in the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) monograph for the preparation.

Epinephrine,unfortunately, combines with oxygen and turns brown in water solutions. Nobody wants to add brown liquid into eyes. The formulation needs to be combined with a chemical which acts as an oxygen scavenger, so to speak, to prevent it from turning brown. Once the product has been formulated, it undergoes quality control testing in the firm’s lab. Initially, pH specs were within limits; however, pH levels of samples tested a few days later were measured at about 1.2, strongly acidic. Talk about stinging! Instead of recalling batches such as these, the company sold them, based on the initial pH levels, and did nothing to correct or modify procedures to stabilize them.

I brought samples back to our lab. The oxygen scavenger they were using was sodium bisulfite, which, unfortunately, reacts with oxygen dissolved in water to form sodium bisulfate, which is strongly acidic. Turns out the reaction could be stopped if the water used was de-oxygenated by simply bubbling nitrogen into it for a few minutes. Who knew? We were able to show that formulations made with nitrogen saturated water retained correct pH levels almost indefinitely.

No big deal, compared with the prevention of thousands of birth defects. Civil servants do stuff like this almost every day, even if nobody knows. The FDA’s independence from politics is being threatened these days (we need to have a Covid-19 vaccination by November or else!). People like Dr.Kelsey are obstructionists! We need them, and in this current climate, they are becoming harder to recruit.

More Covid-19 Random Thoughts

Previously on Covid-19 (April 2020):

  • We were starting to reopen. US death toll, about 20K. Flights from Europe were largely prohibited. “Anybody who wants a test can get one”.
  • Some potentially helpful thoughts were coming out of White House (Clorox kills germs, almost immediately – couldn’t we look into getting some into bodies? Maybe if we could mitigate some of the unhelpful side effects, like corrosiveness, toxicity….)
  • Hydroxychloroquine (still that?). Just because numerous controlled trials showed it didn’t work doesn’t make it true, does it?
  • It will go away, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here in early August, some things have changed:

  • US death toll has risen to 160K, or thereabouts. MAGA, indeed!! We lead the world: Just don’t plan to fly to Europe anytime soon. We’ve gone from Shining City on the Hill to the world’s pariah. Although there are improved treatment options, no vaccine yet. Toolbox, as they say, still limited to social distancing, masks and testing, such as it exists. (It seems to have increased the number of cases, according to WH). Also, how good is testing if one needs a week or more to get results? Makes contact tracing much more difficult (what is that anyway?).

The economy seems to be getting worse. Since the number of cases has burgeoned, early opening states have had to close again, throwing more people out of work. Our solons on Capitol Hill can’t seem to agree on how (or whether) to put some Federal dollars out there, so that poor people can survive. The relief initially provided (moratorium on evictions, $600 weekly on unemployment) has expired. Throwing people out of homes benefits neither landlord nor tenant. GOP folks (some of them, at least) worry about disincentives to work if we’re too kind to the poor. In the meantime nothing gets done.

Seems to me that the nation needs to attack this situation (much as we did during WWII) on a holistic basis. Some ideas:

  1. We can’t restore the economy in any meaningful sense until we control the virus. We need to adopt nationwide steps to close down, big time, for maybe 6-8 weeks. The major means remain social distancing and mask wearing – MANDATORY – NO EXCEPTIONS! Never mind this nonsense about individualism, freedom. As the cliché says, we’re in this together. We need to enforce this, perhaps ruthlessly. Such a policy would involve significant economic suffering. We need to alleviate this by, to put it bluntly, throwing money after it. It’s long past time for the feds to put money where their collective mouths are! This will involve a few trillion dollars we can’t afford, except that we have to. It will cost less in the long run. Let the printing presses roll!
  2. We can’t open schools until we get this thing under control. If we close up until it’s controlled (see Item 1) we can open late. It’s too dangerous to open now, not only for students but teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.
  3. We can do this! We did it after Pearl Harbor. We need to take a holistic approach. Look at what needs to be done, step by step, to support people no longer working. Do we need contract tracers? Lots of them? Let’s recruit them form among the unemployed. Let’s do some infrastructure repairs while we have so many unemployed people.
  4. Don’t hold your breath about getting a vaccine anytime soon. Even if we do, it must be proven safe as well as effective. This takes time. You can’t rush this, you can’t cut corners. We do have a significant minority of the citizenry convinced, regardless of scientific evidence, that vaccines cause autism. Makes one wonder if this is a “designer” bug, as contagious and harmful as it appears to be. Hmm…

Unfortunately, we sorely need leadership, FDR style, from the federal government. The present administration seems to have given up, thrown in the towel. We can’t seem to get this chief executive to even invoke the Defense Production Act. At times like this, I wish we had a European system, where we could take a “no confidence” vote. Shutting the economy has worked in many nations (cf.South Korea, Japan); God knows we couldn’t have screwed this up any worse if we tried.

The More Things Change

The French have a saying: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same). This is well illustrated by study of the decades long battle to enact legislation to regulate the food and pharmaceutical industries in the late 19th and early 20th century. Accounts of the determined opposition to passage of a law to accomplish this is eerily similar to what goes on in Washington these days.

The 19th Century saw the introduction of food and drugs on an industrial scale, largely replacing the small mom-and pop operations which had supplied foods to the populace. This had become necessary as a much larger proportion of workers made their livings unconnected to farming, while the proportion of people living in cities increased drastically. Although numerous nations in Europe had passed laws to regulate food standards and safety, lobbyists prevented anything like this from happening in the USA.

An excellent, highly readable and entertaining account of this is found in “The Poison Squad” by Deborah Blum, one of the best science writers around, for my money, anyway. The book is about Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, one of the true heros of the U.S. civil service. Dr. Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Department of Agriculture in 1883. He had been a professor of chemistry at Purdue University. The title of Blum’s book is taken from a tactic Dr. Wiley employed to dramatize the hazards of food additives commonly used at the time.

As we well know, food spoils on storage. This problem was especially difficult in an era when there was no electric service to homes. You can’t preserve stuff without refrigeration. At best, people used ice boxes, with commercially available blocks of ice (“ice box” was an old name for fridges, back in the day). Preservatives are used to this day, but we have a much better handle on safety.

Some of the chemicals used included formaldehyde, borax (yes, 20 mule team) and salicylic acid. Formaldehyde was often used to extend shelf life of milk. Although pasteurization was a proven technology, American dairy producers were slow to adopt it because it cost too much (sound familiar?). The title of Blum’s book describes an experiment to test toxicity of some of these compounds. Dr. Wiley solicited volunteers among governmment employees to consume foods containing them. You had to be young, healthy and male. Low salaries, coupled with the high cost of living in Washington (hasn’t changed much, has it?) induced many to enjoy (albeit tainted) chow at government expense. The volunteers ate three meals per day, for a specified period; they were rotated in groups which consumed preserved food, then rotated to a similar selection without preservatives. The term “Poison Squad was coined by a Washington Post reporter, much to the chagrin of Ag Department higher-ups. Following each rotation, the men were given thorough physicals. As it happened, some of these food additives did sicken some of the volunteers. (Milk, by the way, preserved with formaldehyde was nicknamed “embalmed milk”, since the substance was widely used in funeral homes).

Indiscriminate use of preservatives was by no means the only problem with food adulteration at that time. Strawberry jam, for example, often consisted of mashed apple peelings, grass seed and red dye, and (maybe) a strawberry or two (or, maybe not).

Finally, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Although far from perfect, the new law began a process to prevent some of these abuses. In 1938, it was replaced with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which is basically the law in use today. As so often happens, the passage of the legislation resulted from a tragedy which killed 107 people who had ingested a drug, sulfanilamide, which was dissolved into diethylene glycol (still in use today as antifreeze). Plus ca change……..

Teaching (and Learning) Chemistry

Of the many things I did to earn my keep, I had the most fun teaching chemistry. I started part time (adjunct) in community college after doing my day job with DEA. (full disclosure: I was, at best, a lousy college student back in the day). For the most part, I taught adults who were trying to better their lot in life by earning credentials for occupations such as nurses or respiratory technicians. These were some of the most motivated folks I ever worked with.

After retiring from DEA, I got a job teaching science at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School. I did teach some other sciences such as physics, but for the most part I taught chemistry. Although I had a few education courses, I’m by no means an expert on teaching.

On my first day, I went to lunch in the faculty lounge. I was greeted by colleagues who informed me that chemistry is the toughest course in high school (!). They had to be kidding. I would consider calculus and biology to be much tougher. Both at the college and high school levels, however, students are scared to death of MATH! I spent a good deal of time rehashing elementary algebra. I tried to get it across to th em that it never got more involved than that – just that the numbers were funkier than they were in the math classes,

Calculators have simplified the handling of numbers, but like anything else, there are issues. I can remember spending a lot of class time trying to teach folks using them for the first time. Chemistry also involves working with far-out numbers, such as Avogadro’s constant (6.02 exponent 23). So, one needs to figure out how to put exponents into a calculator (without using the exponent key, the constant looks like this: 60200000000000000 – oops, did I count the zeros right?) In case you’re wondering, this represents the number of atoms, widgets, items, you name it in a mole (not the furry garden critter) of … whatever. It is, to say the least, difficult for students to wrap their minds around a concept like this.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all calculations. Particularly for high school kids, you could do a lot of demonstrations (Mr, Canaff, can we blow stuff up??). The emphasis on problem solving and STEM stuff has crowded out much of the descriptive chemistry we old timers were taught in the pre-calculator (slide rule) age. Lab work, a crucial component of any science, has been de-emphasized in many schools, due in large measure to liability issues (yes, there is a price to pay for the overly litigious society we have evolved). I taught a course for several years (Chemistry for Nurses) in more than one college where there was no lab work at all!

I started teaching at the dawn of the Internet (although several years after Al Gore is said to have invented it….). Although I didn’t do a lot of writing assignments, one of

the things I tried to get across to my high schoolers is that just because an article appears on the WWW doesn’t make it true. I vividly remember one student doing a piece on legal status of marijuana citing something he got off the Net; turns out it was from a site for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), hardly an unbiased source!

I could go on, A useful lesson I learned early in the game was to respect my students. One day, well into my first year, when things were winding down, I had a class tell me that whatever they learned or didn’t from me, they were grateful that I had respected them. Seems strange to me that anybody wouldn’t have. Chemistry is hard enough, but can’t be compared to the difficulty of growing up (especially in this day and time).

Ensign Screw-Up

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A significant rite of passage for young men back in the 1960’s involved military service. Once one turned 18, all males were required to register for the draft. You reported to your draft board, and after a physical, you were classified with a draft status. I never knew how these were assigned their meaning, but most of us were classified “1A”, which meant full eligibility for service (self included). On the other hand, you could be classified “4F”, which meant you were ineligible for physical reasons (I never could find a doctor willing to sign off on my bone spurs…)

Having passed my pre-induction physical with the proverbial flying colors, I had several options to serve my “military obligation”. The default was service as a draftee in the Army. I had done some ROTC at City College, where I learned at least a couple of things. As one instructor noted, “when generals screw up, privates die”. Another aphorism I learned from a sergeant was that second lieutenants had the highest mortality rate in the Army. Not for me.

A friend of mine decided to join the Naval Reserve. Meetings one night per week, and active duty for training two weeks. Not a bad deal. As a Vietnam vet friend of mine put it, “3 hots and a cot”. Sure beats K rations and a tent. My first two weeks of training was boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. There had to be a better way! Since I was a college graduate, why not go to Officer Candidate School, get a commision and go in style. The only trade-off was that I had to serve three years, instead of two. I became a 90-day wonder! Ensign, USNR.

My first duty station was line officer on a ship whose mission involved laying acoustical cable on the ocean floor, enabling us to track movement of Soviet submarines. My billet on the ship was Ship’s Boatswain. One day, I took several enlisted men and a motor whaleboat on a little job in the coastal waters off Newfoundland. I actually had command of something for a workday. I don’t even remember what we did, but around quitting time, we set a course back to the ship. The channel involved a straight run for maybe an hour, then a 90 degree turn to starboard for another hour or so. Couldn’t we just take a short cut and go from Point A to Point B? I don’t remember whose bright idea this was, but it was irrelevant, since I was in command. When we ran aground, I learned that channels were marked that way for a reason. I took some well deserved ribbing around the wardroom (not to mention a scolding from my department head).

Sometime later, I was standing a bridge midwatch as Officer of the Deck (OOD). We were returning to home port (Kittery, Maine) from a deployment. The job of a OOD was to drive the ship, so to speak, while the captain slept. We had standing orders to notify the skipper (wake him up if needed) of certain potential tactical threats: a ship coming within a spcified distance (potential for a collision), sudden appearance of a Soviet warship (!), a significant drop in barometric pressure (harbinger of a storm). Also included was spotting a navigation aid (buoy or lighthouse) before or after we expected to sight it. In this instance, we failed to spot a buoy when we were supposed to. It didn’t seem of much importance to awaken the captain at 2:30 in the morning. I did, however, need to notify him later of another vessel appraching too closely. When he arrived on the bridge, he found out from the quartermaster of the watch about the missed sighting. Apparently, the ship had wandered off course (this is several decades before GPS, remember). After making the appropriate course correction, he chewed me out big-time, and ordered me to spend the next watch on the focsle (front of the ship) watching out for navigaton aids, instead of going to bed.

In the foolishness of youth, I resented having to interrupt my promising career as a chemist in the Food and Drug Administration to serve my country. In retrospect (which is often 20-20), this was one of the most rewarding times of my life. Imaging being given responsibility for driving a large Navy ship at the age of 25 or so. I learned valuable lessons in leadership and paying attention to detail (I’m not there yet, but its better than it was). Years later, I used to tell chemistry grads I was recruiting that although the salary was somewhat paltry, where else could one identify illegal drugs, and then be trusted to render expert testimony in courts of law. People often thank me for my service, a stark contrast to how it was when I mustered out in 1966. Thank me for what? Wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

The War on Drugs – Notes from the Front

Early in his first term, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. I had just joined the Drug Enforcement Administration, in whose forensic labs I spent the next quarter century. Within a year or so, I was at headquarters, where, among other pursuits, I was tasked with trying to figure out how a small coterie of barely literate French “chemists” were producing the finest heroin ever made.

Heroin was the first target in the “war”. We were interested in knowing the way the stuff was made, so that we could “remote sense” where they were cooking. Stepped-up intel had produced a recipe or two. All we had to do was translate the bad French. I knew some of the language, being of French descent (and having studied it in high school and college). The next step was to apply the best technology available at the time to find where the cooking was taking place.

Heroin manufacture starts with opium poppies, from which a sappy, milky substance is painstakingly extracted and dried out, producing raw opium. The material is then smuggled to a place where morphine is extracted from it (roughly 10% by weight of the raw opium). Morphine was then smuggled into France, where it was chemically converted to heroin. Without boring you with details (easily found on the Internet, if you need them), morphine was reacted with benzene and acetic anhydride to form diacetylmorphine, aka heroin.

Any attempt to sense a facility actively making heroin needed to zero in on volatile chemicals (those which, basically, you can smell). Benzene and acetic anhydride were both suitable. At the time (early 70’s), a contracter fitted a helicopter with a vacuum to draw vapors, sucked them into an instrument known as a mass spectrometer, which detects and identifies chemicals by measuring their molecular weight.

To try this scheme out, Uncle Sam sent me to the Mohave Desert, along with my boss and a DEA Special Agent. My task was to set up a heroin lab and start cooking, while the contractor would fly above us with the helo and mass spectrometer. (I was sent to the local Kmart to get supplies, which included a crab pot my family used for years afterward. We brought the morphine and chemicals with us from Washington; Kmart was out of stock……).

Ultimately, the attempt was a failure. The technology was not “mature” enough. I found out years later that when they tried out a prototype in France, all they detected were dry cleaners and wineries. Oh well. Nothing ventured…..(What did you do in the war, Daddy?)

Coronavirus: Random Thoughts

Clueless Red State Governors

Georgia -Just found out within last 48 hours that the virus can be transmitted even from asymptomatic people….(been common knowledge for at least two months before that utterance…Who knew?)

-South Dakota is not New York. We don’t need these closures, distancing measures, etc. (Tell that to Smithfield packing plant employees, where a “cluster” now exists…I guess there are some similarities after all….)

Government People

Coronavirus is nothing new. After all, its name is Covid-19; this is the 19th iteration of the germ (actually, the “19” in the name is the year it first appeared, making it well, new; it’s why they call it “novel”.) Perhaps Kellyanne Conway’s observations were taken out of context. Sure hope so.

Conservative Talk Show Hosts

Coronavirus is basically a common cold-type virus. Why all the fuss? (About 2 million people worldwide have caught this cold, and many have died. Medal of Freedom holder Rush Limbaugh might need to fact check, for once)

Is this even a pandemic, wonders Bill Bennett (former Education Department cabinet secretary; author of the Book of (Republican?) Virtues. If more than 2 million people in 184 countries (that we know of) have the disease, might this not constitute one?

More Thoughts

Biology is not my long suit. I became a chemist, because it’s much easier to understand. What I do know is that viruses may or may not be living things (I think there is some dispute), and they cannot exist outside of a host. This one is particularly contagious. Therefore, to rid us of this plague, we must deprive it of hosts. It appears that social distancing of at least 6 feet renders it unlikely to reach another host, along with wearing facial barriers (masks) to block body emanations, such as saliva. After an unnecessarly late start, social distancing appears to be working, wherever it has been implemented.

Unfortunately, we have had to tank the economies of most of the world, which has caused untold suffering by mostly poor people and minorities. Efforts to alleviate these effects have been, at best, sporadic. Schools are closed; we are using computers to instruct. Sounds nice, except that in many school districts, relatively few have computers at home. We had a considerable disparity of quality of education, even before all this happened. This is, at best, a fig leaf which will widen the gaps between rich and poor. Are we creating a new underclass? It will buy us much trouble going forward.

Yes, we have to open up economies ASAP. We cannot do so, we are told, until widespread testing is available, and we have contact tracing in effect. For some reason, we can’t seem to get our act together to perform either function . Other countries, notably South Korea, have tested a much greater proportion of their populace, much earlier. Why can’t we? At this writing, we do not appear to have funding to hire people (around 100-200 thousand) to conduct contact tracing.

Yes, we need a vaccine. Depending on who you ask, the most rapidly we can expect such salvation is sometime in the next year. I have been struck recently by seeing interviews on CNN of the leader of the effort to develop one. A do-nothing civil servant who happens to be a woman of color. Maybe a helpful sign that we are through wasting such talent through stupid racist prejudice. One can hope.

Dihydrogen Monoxide: A Strange Substance

Dihydrogen momoxide (aka Water) is an extremely common substance we all know about – or do we? Some odd properties of water:

  • It has a much higher heat capacity than most substances. Heat capacity is the quantity of heat which must be applied to raise the temperature of a given amount of substance by, say, one degree Celsius (or Fahrenheit). For example, it takes about one calorie of heat to raise the temperature of one gram of water from 25 degrees Celsius to 26 degrees, By contrast, only about 0.2 calorie would be needed to raise a gram of aluminum by 1 degree C, and even less to do the same thing to a gram of iron. The heat capacity of air is, also, much lower than water. This is why we see highway signs telling us water on bridge surfaces freezes well before it does on road surfaces having soil under them (heat capacity of soil is greater than air). This property of water also explains why, after sundown, air temperature drops much lower in dry air, than in humid air. Obviously, this has a profound effect on climate. Think of heat capacity as the ability to retain heat. The higher moisture (water) content of humid air “holds” the heater better than dryer air.
  • Water is the only common substance whose liquid state is more dense than its solid state (ice). Ever wondered why ice floats? Density is a comparison of how much a substance weighs to the amount of room it occupies. Mathematically (don’t be alarmed, it’s simple) it’s defined as the ratio of mass to volume. One gram of liquid water occupies one milliliter (or cubic centimeter) of space. It’s density, therefore, is 1.0 gram per milliter. By contrast, a gram of ice takes up about 1.1 milliliter. Density of ice is 1.0 gram divided by 1.1 milliliter, or about 0.9 gram per milliliter. Densities less than 1.0 gram per milliliter float; densities greater than 1.0 gram per milliter sink. Because of this counterintuitive property of water, ice in lakes, ponds, or for that matter, oceans, will freeze, leaving a lower level of water beneath, whose temperature will not go below freezing, enabling marine life to survive winter.
  • Ever wonder why a steam burn is more painful than one from hot water? We probably learned the “formula” for water in grade school. H2O, right? Well, that’s something of an oversimplification. If water is simply two atoms of hydrogen bonded to an oxygen atom, the substance would be a gas at room temperature. Water is actually a loosely bonded bunch of individual H2O’s; the attractive forces holding the bunch together are called hydrogen bonds. The strength of a H-bond is only a fraction of the strength of the bonds within the molecule. When liquid water is heated to its boiling point (100 C;212 F). additional energy is needed to break the hydrogen bonds. This energy does not even register on a thermometer, but it’s there, all right. The steam has more energy to burn you as a result.
  • Once water is boiling, you can’t raise its temperature above the boiling point, no matter how much heat you (or the stove) applies. Boiling points can only be raised by increasing barometric pressure. If one constructs a pot with a tight lid, the steam has no place to go, the pressure in the pot goes up and the boiling point will increase. In a kitchen, this pot is a pressure cooker. The hotter boiling water cooks stuff much faster as a result.

Hope this makes some sense. Ain’t science wonderful!

Fentanyl – A Primer

Fentanyl is an extremely potent drug, whose legitimate uses include pain relief for cancer patients. It is one of the most potent drugs in the pharmacopeia. A usual dose of 100 micrograms or less does the trick; it would take about 10 milligrams of morphine to achieve the same result. For those who are metric challenged, a milligram is equal to 1,000 micrograms. If you do the math, fentanyl is about 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1960, and made its way into legitimate medicine a few years later. It is listed in Schedule 2 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), owing to its extreme potency, making it highly prone to abuse. During my career with DEA, I never encountered the stuff until I had been “off the bench” for several years.

The CSA, along with state drug laws, has been on the books since 1970. Most of the listed drugs were “grandfathered” into it from earlier statutes. Obviously, there needs to be a mechanism for adding new substances. To do so, one needs to elucidate the correct chemical structure (not always easy), demonstrate that it has been “abused”, and then, DEA (part of the Department of Justice) can propose it for addition to the Act. The law, however, requires concurrence of the Department of Health and Human Services. Once this has been achieved, the drug can be added to the list. This can easily take months.

Unfortunately, fentanyl is relatively easy to make. Moreover, fentanyl “analogues” are also easily synthesized. As a consequence, there are numerous clandestine “laboratories” making these substances. The Internet describes several “one pot” procedures. There are at least a dozen or so of these analogues out there in the traffic. They are closely related structurally to fentanyl, and have the same effects. Only fentanyl, itself, was illegal. If someone was busted for trafficking in an analogue which was not on the list, no prosecution was possible under the CSA. What is a narc to do? Even back in the day, in my early career in the 1960’s, there were clever chemists who made analogues which were not listed (as the saying went they were staying “one carbon atom” ahead of the feds).

By now, you might be wondering what an “analogue” is. If a molecule such as fentanyl is represented by a Christmas tree, each ornament might be likened to an organic functional group. For example, a methyl functional group consists of a single carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms. If the fentanyl tree is decorated with a methyl group, an analogue is formed. This is a different organic compound from fentanyl. Its effect on the human body may be the same as fentanyl, be totally different, or, in many instances, much more potent. The position where the group is bonded to the fentanyl molecule is indicated by a number, or a greek letter. Thus, an additional methyl group may be 3-methyl fentanyl or alpha-methyl fentanyl, each of which are compounds distinct from fentanyl itself.

This issue came to a head in the late 1970’s when a new, more powerful “synthetic heroin” appeared on the West Coast, sold as “China White”. The stuff, however, caused some fatalities, always bad for business. Some of the material was submitted to the DEA Special Testing and Research lab. At first, the sample was found to contain nothing but lactose, a harmless cutting agent. When the chemists concentrated the mixture, however, they were able to detect miniscule amounts of a new (to us, anyway) substance which appeared to be similar to fentanyl. It was later found to be alpha-methyl fentanyl. (“Later” took several weeks during which many more might have overdosed).

Clearly, a speeded-up process to add stuff like this to the CSA had to be devised. Congress did pass a law, the Controlled Substances Analogue Act, in 1986. This pretty much said that if a substance was “chemically similar” to a controlled drug (if it looked like a duck…) it was illegal. This helped somewhat, but with the plethora of illegal substances flooding the market during the 2010’s, it was not adequate. In 2018, Congress passed legislation to permit DOJ to list substances by class, rather than specific name. Fentanyl analogues could be regarded as a “class” of drugs, and included in the CSA. Unfortunately, the legislation was to specified expire in two years. Congress has passed legislation to extend this provision when the current law expires on February 8th of 2020. Stay tuned…….