Opinion: it took us many years to see how the use of certain new chemicals had unexpected and dangerous consequences

By Shubhangi Kakkar and Ahmed Metewea, University of Limerick

Throughout history, humans have always been top of the food chain. This is due to our advanced brains granting us the ability to shape and conquer our surrounding environments.

But we can be a little too confident, especially when it comes to chemistry. In the past, we have jumped on board new chemical trains because of amazing and unusual applications. With time, we have seen that dangerous and sometimes humorous consequences were waiting at the next station. Here are some  interesting chemicals it took us some years to fully understand. 

Radium

In the first half of the 20th century, radium was a fascination. From scientists to doctors to entrepreneurs, everyone wanted to use it in some way or another. It was a wonder chemical with numerous healing abilities and a marketable/useful green glow. Given this, it was used in toothpaste, drinks, children's toys and famously as watch lume allowing hands and numbers to glow in the dark. As a medicinal tonic, it was branded as Radithor, a concoction of distilled water with radium isotopes. It was advertised as "Perpetual Sunshine", curing impotence among other ailments.

A bottle of Radithor on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in New Mexico

But the negative impacts started to show after time. In 1932, socialite and athlete Eben Byers died from radium poisoning linked directly to his consumption of Radithor. Buried in a lead-lined coffin, his remains were still highly radioactive when exhumed for research in 1965. Many production workers were also impacted, with the women who were involved in watch painting suffering from anemia, bleeding gums, bone fractures and necrosis. In 1938, its use in multiple products was eventually banned or regulated.

However, there are some positives. The initial work with radium in a medicinal capacity has paved the way for modern radiotherapy treatments, which save and extend cancer patients' lives all over the world. 

Cocaine  

In the late 1800s, Vin Mariani was the largest selling wine in the world in which cocaine was a key ingredient. Pope Leo XIII always carried a flask containing Vin Mariani and even went ahead with giving its creator, Angelo Mariani, the Vatican's gold medal. The pope also appeared in a Vin Mariani advertisement in 1880 which claimed that the wine was good for "health, strength, energy and vitality".

Mariani wine with added cocaine: as endorsed by Pope Leo XIII. Image: Wikipedia

In the years that followed, Mariani was proved wrong. The combination of cocaine and alcohol actually creates a new compound called cocaethylene, which is less potent, but is significantly more cardiotoxic and neurotoxic than cocaine. 

In the same time frame, a similar cocaine chemical concoction was invented by confederate John C. Pemberton, who was wounded in the American Civil War. Given a couple of hours to live, the doctors decided to give him extensive amounts of morphine to ease his pain. Against the odds, Pemberton recovered, although he did get addicted to morphine.

With a new found zest for life, Pemberton went down the chemical experimentation rabbit hole. After nearly a decade of work, he started mixing cocaine and wine calling it "Pemberton's French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic". The tonic was a huge hit and was further marketed to cure ailments, including opiate addiction, chronic headaches and erectile dysfunction. In 1886, prohibition forced Pemberton to remove alcohol from his original formula and the product was renamed as "Coca Cola". Between 1886 and 1903, Coca Cola had 9 milligrams of cocaine per serving

An early 20th century ad for Coca-Cola. Photo: Getty Images

Lithium

Interestingly, 7Up was another drink with an interesting chemical development. The exact chemical in this instance was lithium in the form of lithium citrate, which had already been used for decades as a psychiatric treatment of manic states and bipolar disorder. In 1929, Charles Leiper Grigg used lithium citrate in a drink called "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda". His drink hit the stores and managed to survive the Wall Street crash because its mood stabilizing effect ensured its popularity. 

Grigg shortened the name to "7-Up Lithiated Lemon Lime", what we know today as 7-Up. Historians still argue about the number in the name: some say that it denotes the atomic mass of lithium while some say it stands for the seven ingredients used in the drink: sugar, carbonated water, essence of lemon and lime oils, citric acid, sodium citrate and lithium citrate. "Up" may refer to the mood lift from the lithium. 

Diamorphine (heroin)

Until the middle of 20th century, opiates like opium, morphine and heroin were legal in the United States. Over the counter and legal heroin could be found in the form of cough suppressants and syrups for teething children. Even the world-renowned drug company Bayer (the same firm who brings us aspirin today) marketed heroin as a remedy for coughs, pain, diarrhoea, pneumonia and asthma, often mixing it with sugar and spices to mask its bitter taste. They even coined the name heroin. 

Bayer's1900 magazine advertisement for heroin and aspirin. Photo: Getty Images

Methamphetamines 

Known as meth, crystal meth, crank, chalk or speed, methamphetamines have long been used as a drug before methamphetamine hydrochloride was branded as methedrine. During the 1930s to 1960s, methedrine was commonly sold for weight loss and as an antidepressant. For a while, you didn't even need a prescription for it, which resulted in methedrine becoming the largest antidepressant to be sold during this time. In addition, during the Second World War, methamphetamines were given to both German and Allied soldiers to prevent them from getting tired under strenuous war conditions, while Japanese kamikaze pilots were given high doses before suicide missions.

However, the use of methamphetamines is associated with the loss of neurons in the brain and nearly every major brain function from attention to movement. Given this, it is now illegal, but production continues due to the proliferation of "backyard chemists" and "cooks". Today, they have an estimated market value of over $28 billion.

It is interesting to look back at the chemical compounds that were common place in household and medicinal products. However, we still struggle to understand substances today. Take for example cannabis and the many cannabinoid chemical compounds that can be derived from the plant. The health impacts and effects of various strains are still being investigated and no clear answers are being obtained.

History is a great teacher and thankfully it has allowed us to harness the power of newly discovered or derived chemicals in a safe way

Today, great efforts are placed into chemical identification and potential human impact. This is especially true when the chemicals are for human consumption as both food and drug regulation costs governments and businesses around the world billions of euros. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the most well known regulatory body in this area and their approval is required before any new drug can be released to the public in the United States.

History is a great teacher and thankfully it has allowed us to harness the power of newly discovered or derived chemicals in a safe way. Fundamentally, science and chemistry has radically changed our world for the better but, as a species, we have learned to have a more careful and considered approach. 

Shubhangi Kakker is a PhD researcher with SSPC, the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals, at the University of LimerickAhmed Metewea is a PhD researcher with SSPC, the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals, at the University of Limerick.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ