Posted by: Green Knight | June 20, 2011


It was Father’s Day yesterday, and I had a nice chat with my own dad.  The father of toxicology was a guy named Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, which is why we call him by his nickname, Paracelsus.  He was a Swiss alchemist, botanist, mineralogist, physician, and astrologer who was active in the early 1500s.  He named the element zinc.  He invented laudanum.  He made the first psychological reference to the unconscious.  One of his most famous lines is: “Alle Ding’ sind Gift, und nichts ohn’ Gift; allein die Dosis macht, daß ein Ding kein Gift ist,” which roughly boils down to “the dose is the poison.”

That’s the whole point.  Everything’s toxic in the right dosage; some things are just a lot worse for you than others.  As I said yesterday, all it takes with some compounds is one whiff to kill ya, like the nerve gases, or pentaborane.  There are trace nutrients that you need a certain amount of in your diet, and would get really sick without, but too much would mess you up as well.  Selenium is one where the gap between how much you need and how much is too much is pretty narrow; I wrote about that element on here months ago.  Even H20, also known as water, can produce toxic effects if overdone.  There have been a few fatalities related to a fraternity initiation ritual and a radio contest which both involved chugging massive quantities of water, as much as you could hold.  This causes hyponatremia, which is basically a condition where your blood chemistry gets so thinned out that sodium (aka natrium) can’t do its job of transferring energy between neurons, and your autonomic nervous system shuts down and your body forgets how to breathe or keep your heart beating.

Some things are systemic poisons, meaning that they mess up your whole organism.  Others target specific organs, like lungs, kidneys, liver, skin, whatever.  Some materials either mess you up or don’t, no in-between.  Others have a cumulative effect over time.  Does this mean you should freak out and get rid of everything in the garage?  Or have your WATER cut off?  No, it just means that you should read the label first and follow the instructions.  So many people don’t aerate the place when spray-painting, or whatever.  Soldering without a respirator is asking for trouble; even the unleaded kind has other toxic metals in it.  The anti-mildew additive for latex paint is usually a mercury compound; yeah, sign ME up!  Mixing bleach with anything else, especially ammonia, has you inhaling chlorine and trashing your respiratory system…welcome to the trenches of the Great War.  And a student of mine told me about his spouse seeing a cockroach on the kitchen counter, spraying Raid all over the place, and then chopping onions for tonight’s stew on that same surface a half-hour later.  As a favorite science-fiction writer of mine says, “stupidity carries the death penalty.”  Or in the words of another one, “think of it as evolution in action.”

So, rule #1 is “don’t panic!”  Instead, take a deep breath, read the label, and THINK.  That’s what that meat computer on top of your neck is FOR.  If you have further questions, well, that’s why I’m here.  Apparently my phone number is one digit off from that of Burger King, so I’ve been getting calls for them lately.  On my Facebook page I’ll tell as many Whoppers as I can get away with, but the Hot Sheet is for the truth…varnish will cost you extra.

[I’ve added tags for those interested in the father of industrial medicine, and an old story that was probably inspired by him.  Nobody else seems to have ever made that connection.  Ah, well, I sit and ponder for those who are too busy to do so.]



  1. I have been guilty of mixing certain cleaning products together, never ammonia, as I do not have any, but definitely bleach. My worst habit is using straight bleach without proper ventilation, then later, being able to smell my “nose meat!” EW!

    Anyway, this is good advice, especially for a single gal with a shed full of paint, gasoline, weed killer and so on!

  2. Yeah, if I had a name like that I’d definitely go for Bombastus, what a missed opportunity that was! Paracelsus indeed!

    BTW, if a Whopper, coke and fries don’t qualify for “toxic” I don’t know what should ;>

  3. Yeah, after that you’d be needing some Alkaseltzus.

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