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June 30, 2008
Volume 86, Number 26
p. 96

The Seamy Chemical Underbelly Of The Internet

The Internet is an invaluable tool for everyone for entertainment, conducting research, and keeping in touch with friends and family. But it is also being used to spread the latest in a series of suicide fads in Japan, which has one of the world's highest suicide rates. The number of how-to websites that include chemical suicide recipes skyrocketed earlier this year, according to Japan's National Police Agency. The agency appealed to Internet providers to remove the websites in order to help curb the new suicide fad. In April, at least 50 people in Japan took their own lives by mixing household chemicals, such as cleaning products and detergents, that generate hydrogen sulfide.

Smelly Signs: The deadly gas H2S is characterized by the smell of rotten eggs.

If inhaled, H2S—a colorless gas often used in chemical manufacturing and petroleum production and characterized by the smell of rotten eggs—is fatal at about 800 ppm. H2S binds to iron in enzymes such as mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase, preventing oxygen from bonding to iron, thereby blocking cellular respiration. The dozens of people who have committed suicide in Japan by this method have also exposed hundreds of neighbors and family members to H2S, which can cause eye irritation, loss of the sense of smell, and respiratory failure at subfatal levels.

H2S is not the only suicide agent that affects bystanders. For example, last month in Kumamoto, dozens of people became ill as a result of one farmer's chemical suicide. While in the emergency room being prepared for stomach pumping, the farmer vomited. He had swallowed chloropicrin, a chemical used in organic synthesis and in agriculture as a soil fumigant or as a pesticide. Chloropicrin was also used as a chemical weapon during World War I because it irritates eyes and lungs and induces vomiting. The fumes from the farmer's regurgitate hospitalized 10 people and sickened 44 more.

The Japanese government plans to provide $220 million in funding for antisuicide programs to help cut the country's suicide rate by 20% over the next 10 years. Part of this plan includes filtering websites that promote suicide.

A website offering far less lethal instances of gut reactions comes from marketing strategist Noah Brier. His site, brandtags.net, asks visitors to record the first word that pops into their heads when presented with major brand and company logos. The site displays the collective impressions of the masses on a results page that puts the most popular responses in large type and rarer responses in proportionally smaller sizes.

Think Fast: What word pops into your head when you see this logo?

The site has logged thousands of responses, and the outcome has been interesting, to say the least. For some chemistry examples, the big words on Pfizer's page include "drugs," "Viagra," and some off-color terms, most likely related to the effects of Viagra. Meanwhile, despite supporting multinational research efforts in food science and nutrition, Nestlé mostly calls to mind "chocolate." British Petroleum lands in a confusing place, reputation-wise, with words such as "clean" and "green" popular but also with "evil" and "big oil" showing up.

It would be an interesting experiment to see a chemistry-oriented version of this site, perhaps with a bigger range of science and health-related companies, or even academic departments. A particularly fascinating variation on that theme might be to compare the connotations of the words "chemical" and "chemistry." Our completely unscientific suspicion is that the word chemical tends to have a negative vibe, but the term chemistry evokes compatibility, camaraderie, even romance. Having "good chemistry," to most people, doesn't mean that your reaction methodology is robust. There are enough Web-savvy chemists out there that setting up such a site would be easy. It's finding a way to make it catch on that will be the modern-day alchemy.

This week's column was written by Carmen Drahl and Kenneth Moore. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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