How Microbeads in your bodywash could be helping chemicals enter the foodchain

In 1976 chemical engineer John Ugelstad invented a technique on earth that other scientists believed could only be carried out in the weightless conditions of space. His discovery enabled the mass production of monodisperse spheres, tiny microscopic spherical plastic beads. The beads were typically 0.5 to 500 micrometres in diameter, about the width of 1 to 5 strands of human hair.

These little beads enabled new advances to be made in cancer treatments and helped create alternative methods for HIV, bacteriology and DNA research. Tiny latex beads still form the basis for some home pregnancy tests today and thanks to Uglestad’s discovery the medical use of microbeads has helped move drug treatments forward.

More recently, microbeads have moved from medical additives to exfoliators found in face washes, toothpaste, body scrubs, and other everyday beauty products. The non-biodegradable solid plastic beads are commonly made from polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyethyleneterephthalate, the same plastics used for single-use shopping bags and plastic bottles.

After washing off your skin, the microbeads go down the plughole and into the waste-water treatment plant where some of them become trapped in the filtering sludge, but due to their small size some microbeads pass through into our waterways and oceans.

Because their size and shape is similar to many plankton species, microbeads are eaten by marine creatures such as shrimp and fish caught for human consumption. Plastic particles from microbeads and other plastic items in the ocean have been found in the stomachs of fish, shellfish, turtles and birds and have caused harm to these creatures.

Plastic microbeads have been found to act like magnets around organic pollutants with reports indicating a single immersed plastic particle can absorb up to 1,000,000 times more of these chemicals than the water around it. The common pollutants including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, and perfluorinated surfactants (PFCs) have been found to stick to the beads due to their large surface area and the chemistry of the plastics used.

This absorption transforms the microbeads into chemical carrying dots and new research published in the journal environmental science and technology found that when feeding on similar sized food in the water, fish also ate PBDE exposed microbeads from a commercial facial scrub. After just 21 days, 12.5 per cent of PBDE chemicals were found to have leached from the ingested microbeads into the tissues of the fish causing concern that persistent organic pollutants accumulate in the tissue of fish exposed to microbeads and other plastic debris in their environment. Research is now underway to determine the implications of this chemical exposure pathway for public health by calculating how much pollution could be entering this human food chain.

Although many large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020, they are easy to spot as plastic spheres visible in the liquid if consumers wanted to avoid them. Alternatives include sea salt, apricot kernels and ground seeds which can be used as biodegradable skin exfoliates.

Microbeads, are just one source of our oceans plastic pollution problem, and many other plastics grind down over time into small plastic pieces causing similar issues.

This year, Canada became the first country in the world to list microbeads as a toxic substance under the environmental protection act, allowing it to ban them in personal care products. The US has also moved to ban the production of personal care products and cosmetics containing microbeads from July 2017. It’s pleasing to see these other nations leading the way with their legislation, looking at the recent science research let’s hope that New Zealand will follow suit.


This post was originally posted in the New Zealand Herald



The science behind Rio’s green Olympic pool

How an accidental 160 litres of dechlorinating agent enabled green algae to thrive:

The green swimming pool has been one of the big mysteries of this year’s Rio Olympics. Why would one pool turn murky and green when the adjacent pool was still clear and blue?


Olympic pools at Rio this year, with one looking murky and green instead of clear and blue (image source)

The first official line from Olympic officials was that after extensive tests, they had finally pinpointed the reason to be a chemical imbalance caused by too many people using the water.

Mario Andrada, a Rio 2016 spokesman, said last Wednesday morning that “mid-afternoon, there was a sudden decrease in the alkalinity in the diving pool, and that’s the main reason the color changed,”

His interview with the NY Times stated that “He noted that a lot of people had been in the pools in the past week at the Maria Lenk Aquatic Center, and that their presence had touched off changes in the water’s chemical balance.”

The optimum pH for chlorinated pool water is 7.4, since this is the same as the pH in human eyes and mucous membranes and also gives good chlorine disinfection.

So could too many people in a pool make it more acidic?

Well the natural pH of skin is lower than chlorine at around 4.7 so his theory is plausible – too many people in a pool could have made it too acidic.

However, although I’m not a pool owner, I did spend my teens as a competitive swimmer in pools all over the world.  No matter how busy they were, I’ve yet to see one turn green.

Also, you would think that seeing the Olympics is an invite only event, they would have had a heads up around how many people were coming and adjusted for that!

Perhaps it wasn’t just the presence of people in the pool, but what they did in there.

We all know from our childhood paint lessons that blue and yellow = green, so what if all of the Olympic swimmers not only swam but also peed in the pool?


We all know from our childhood paint lessons that blue and yellow = green, so what if all of the Olympic swimmers not only swam but also peed in the pool?

Well, with at least 3.73 million litres of water in the pool,and an average person peeing only 800 to 2,000 millilitres per day you would need at least 1 million people to pee their daily amount in the pool in one day to make any significant impact on the colour  overnight. As there are only 11,000 Olympic athletes in total at the event, I also don’t think pool peeing was cause of the green hue.

Leaking bodily fluids into the pool does cause other issues due to an ammonia derivative called chloramine which forms from the interaction between the urine and chlorine mix. Chloramine however doesn’t usually have a habit of turning the water green, it just irritates the swimmers eyes on contact.

During a press conference today, Rio officials stated that on August 5th, someone accidentally added 160 litres of hydrogen peroxide to the pool.
Accidentally? 160 litres?  How on earth does somebody not notice that?

This is a man standing next to a 200 litre drum.  80 % of liquid from a drum this big seems like quite a lot of liquid to have been poured into the pool without noticing. (Image source)

Hydrogen peroxide is a de-chlorinating agent, with an equation showing that 0.48 mg of hydrogen peroxide removes 1 mg of free chlorine.
Chlorine is added to a pool to kill bacterial and keep it clear.  It breaks down into hypochlorous acid and hypochlorite ions which kill bacteria and microorganisms.  Although the exact mechanism for how chlorine does this is still unclear for some bacteria, it is thought to oxidise them by attacking the lipids in cell walls, destroying enzymes within the cell.
The accidental addition of hydrogen peroxide would have reduced the ability of the chlorine to oxidize matter and kill microorganisms giving them to chance to colonise the pool.
blog-algae-green-pool-algaeAlgae spores and bacteria are constantly entering the pool, being brought in by wind or rain or on the skin or swimsuits of people in the pool.
As living aquatic creatures, algae multiply rapidly and with the addition of sunlight can bloom overnight, thriving in warm water making it look cloudy and green.

So there you go, it looks like the acidic hydrogen peroxide altered the pool water pH while chemically undoing the job of the chlorine by acting as a dechlorinating agent resulting in a pool with perfect conditions for green algae to settle in to.



What if scientists were celebrities?

As a new columnist for Villainesse, a digital magazine for young women, I have been thinking a lot about the power of influence and who our youth look up to as role models.

I remember my teenage years consisted of watching Judith Hann explain technology on Tomorrows world, and Katherine Janeway command the Starship USS Voyager.

These were smart women who were famous for using their intelligence to explain technical content, be effective communicators and show leadership skills.  To me these women were role models that I aspired to be like (yes I know one of them is fictional).

I look at how television shows have changed since then, how we’ve lost science and tech education shows like tomorrows world and instead make people famous by following them with cameras catching their extroverted personalities in shows claiming to depict reality by creating a platform for highly emotional responses.

I think about whether losing shows that educate and inform and replacing them with ones that entertain and ridicule has a much broader effect on our youth and their perception of personal qualities that they aspire to have to be successful.

Being famous, or being a celebrity comes with great power, the power to influence, to guide, to inspire.

For my first column, I ask the question:

what if science

I recently visited a high school and asked 100 students to name a famous living woman in each category:

1 – TV

2 – Music

3 – Sport

4 – Science

They easily had answers to the first three, names like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Valerie Adams, and Kim Kardashian, but when it came to number four I was bombarded with blank faces. 100% of the students I asked could not name a famous living female scientist, not one! You may not think this is an issue, but how much influence do these celebrity role models have on our health decisions and beauty purchases?

Gwyneth Paltrow has a whole section of her website dedicated to the science of detoxing and why it’s good for you; so [allegedly] good that a multi-million dollar industry has been created from it. The problem is, actual scientists state that there are no medical or scientific bases supporting the value of detoxing with juice or soup, only fasts. Our liver and kidneys are already excellent at removing toxins, so simply having a healthy diet will allow your body to work efficiently, no juice and soup detox necessary.

Alicia Silverstone wrote a book called The Kind Mama, and in it she claimed that chemicals used in tampons might cause infertility. Again, there are zero scientific studies backing up that statement and research studies actually show that tampon use seems linked to protecting women from the disease endometriosis.

How about Kim Kardashian and her highly publicised use of vampire facials, where needles filled with her own blood are injected into her face to reduce the appearance of ageing?  Yes, you guessed it, no real science showing it has any effect on facial wrinkles, yet the number of women choosing the treatment has skyrocketed since Mrs K-W posted an after-treatment photo of her bloodied face on Instagram.

So why do we believe celebrities over scientists? My guess is it’s mostly marketing.  Celebrities have fancy blogs, Instagram feeds of perfectly photoshopped photographs; they tag on to popular Twitter hashtags and have millions of followers who watch their every move. In the meantime scientists are busy in their labs, they write complex jargon-filled research papers instead of picture-filled magazine articles, and our TV screens are hardly filled with reality science shows.

In a world where public status seems to correlate to how many designer outfits you have, how low your BMI is and whether or not you have a full-lipped pout for the cameras, scientists will always lose. But wouldn’t you want to take advice from an expert rather than from somebody with absolutely no qualifications in the field, who may be getting paid to endorse a certain product?

It’s time for a new breed of celebrity; one that values cold, hard logic over cold, hard cash. One that can tell the difference between a potentially harmful fad and a scientifically-proven solution. It’s time to make celebrities out of scientists, to create positive role models for careers young women may never have considered, and to promote the value of brains over beauty.

Celebrities are created by us, the public; we decide who we watch, who we follow and who we blog about. So next time you see a celebrity endorsement, take a moment to think about whether that celeb actually has a clue what they’re talking about. Let’s think about who we’re listening to.

Originally posted here.

Public speaking, do men and women need to do it differently?

For me presenting can take the form of everything from live TV, radio or live audiences of one to thousands.

For me, presenting can take the form of everything from live TV, radio interviews or live audiences of one to thousands.

I ask myself this question as a woman in tech who is constantly working on her public speaking and presentation skills whether I’m presenting live to an audience, or for a radio or TV interview.

I watch men speak, I watch women speak, I write down what they do that I like, what seems to work for the audience, what keeps people interested and what makes people lose attention and interact with their phones.

Through studying hundreds of talks I’ve found that men and women need to approach giving talks differently, but so do introverts and extroverts, seasoned pros and those standing on stage for the first time.

What I’ve realised is that there is no “right way”, there is just the way that works and feels comfortable for you (or as comfortable as you can feel on stage).

Stage fright is part of the deal, as is feeling nervous, stumbling over your words, forgetting your lines and wondering if your message is getting through.

As I’ve navigated through trying to understand why some talks captivate audiences and some talks bore them, I’ve found different ways to prepare myself and the importance of writing a talk from the perspective of my audience rather than the perspective of my own knowledge.

What I’ve learned from my career where I’m often presenting technical data to a diverse range of audiences, is that being genuine and working towards giving the best presentation that you can possibly give is probably the most important thing.

Comparing notes with Dr James Whittaker, a person I respect for his incredible public speaking skills I found that as an introverted female, I approach presenting very differently to him an extroverted male.

So we decided to combine our thoughts and give a presentation on how to present from two very opposite perspectives both working towards the same goal.

The slides associated with the talk can be viewed here, but we agreed that the general rules to follow for a successful presentation are:

Have one key message – make sure you have a theme and stick to it

Make sure you are well prepared – this means practicing your talk before giving it

Start strong – your opening line should make people want to know more

Use props wisely – don’t let them take over the talk

Use voice control – emphasize words with your voice

Body language – too much or too little can be distracting or boring

Nail the Landing – and connect it to your opening line


It won’t help you with your nerves, but it might help you to prepare for your first or even your fiftieth public talk.