CLOSE

8 Dangerous Items That Used to be Allowed in Kids' Chemistry Kits

Although children’s chemistry kits were first manufactured in the 18th century, it wasn’t until around the time of the Great Depression that they became a popular toy. The marketing was simple: chemistry kits paved the way for kids to have a career in science.

As Rosie Cook of the Chemical Heritage Foundation told Smithsonian magazine: “Coming out of the Depression, that was a message that would resonate with a lot of parents who wanted their children to not only have a job that would make them money but to have a career that was stable. And if they could make the world a better place along the way, then even better."

That's all fine and good, but unfortunately, as early versions of these chemistry kits were bolstering a child's career prospects, they were also posing a serious threat to their health. Many sets contained items that would horrify modern consumers, and it wasn't until the Federal Hazardous Substances Act of 1960 that the ingredients in chemistry kits started to become closely regulated. Here are a few of the shocking inclusions. 

1. BLOWTORCH

There are an infinite number of reasons why a blowtorch in the hands of a child is a bad idea, but early chemistry kits included them so kids could produce flames for their experiments. This illustration from a chemistry manual shows one such example. The budding chemist ignites sodium bisulfate with blowtorch of the literal variety—powered through a mouth-blown tube. If that’s not scary enough, there was an entire kit devoted to glass-blowing, because Mom and Dad definitely want you to be doing that at home.

2. IODINE SOLUTION

Iodine solution was originally included in these kits because it can be used to test for starch, but chemicals can multitask, and this one can also help make methamphetamine. On top of its potential for the unlawful, if more than 2g of pure iodine are ingested, it can be lethal.

3. SODIUM FERROCYANIDE

If the "cyanide" in the name doesn’t give it away, this was not a safe chemical. That's not to say it isn't useful—it can create Prussian blue dye—but it’s no longer in chemistry kits because it’s slightly toxic in high enough levels … and it has a scary name.

4. RADIOACTIVE URANIUM ORE

Uranium dust was often included in "nuclear" and "atomic energy" kits common in the 1950s. It was intended for use with a spinthariscope, a device through which a young chemist could see radioactive disintegration. "By today's standards, they're terribly dangerous but they're fascinating nonetheless,” Cook told the BBC.

5. THREE "VERY LOW-LEVEL" RADIOACTIVE SOURCES

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab came with radioactive sources that emitted alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Young scientists could watch the alpha particles travel thanks to the cloud chamber that was also included in the kit, and while it might not have been Marie Curie-levels of exposure, but it certainly could not have been good. 

6. POTASSIUM NITRATE

Some kits even allowed young scientists to deviate from the curriculum and create smoke bombs. A key ingredient in the mix is potassium nitrate, which is also found in gunpowder, fireworks and some older solid fuel rockets.

7. COPPER SULFATE

Copper sulfate can be used to deposit a thin layer of metallic copper on metal surfaces, which might look nice but comes at a price—the stuff is poisonous if ingested, though immediate vomiting usually helps combat its toxicity. 

8. CALCIUM HYPOCHLORITE

Calcium hypochlorite is an oxidizer that can create chlorine gas which can be toxic and can irritate the respiratory system. Not exactly the sort of fresh air you want the kids to be getting during their playtime. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
When You Feel "Chemistry" With Someone, What's Actually Going On?
iStock
iStock

We know chemistry when we feel it with another person, but we don't always know why we're drawn to one person over another. Is it just a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones conspiring to rush you toward reproduction? Is it attraction borne of a set of shared values? Or is it bonding over specific experiences that create intimacy?

It's probably a combination of all three, plus ineffable qualities that even matchmaking services can't perfectly nail down.

"Scientists now assume, with very few exceptions, that any behavior has features of both genetics and history. It's nature and nurture," Nicole Prause, a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, tells Mental Floss. She is the founder of Liberos, a Los Angeles-based independent research center that works in collaboration with the University of Georgia and the University of Pittsburgh to study human sexual behavior and develop sexuality-related biotechnology.

Scientists who study attraction take into consideration everything from genetics, psychology, and family history to traumas, which have been shown to impact a person's ability to bond or feel desire.

THE (BRAIN) CHEMISTRY OF LOVE

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, Match.com's science advisor, and the author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, breaks down "love" into three distinct stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. In each stage, your body chemistry behaves differently. It turns out that "chemistry" is, at least in part, actual chemistry. Biochemistry, specifically.

In the lust and attraction phases, your body is directing the show, as people can feel desire without knowing anything personal about the object of that desire. Lust, Fisher asserts in a seminal 1997 paper [PDF], is nothing more than the existence of a sex drive, or "the craving for sexual gratification," she writes. It's a sensation driven by estrogens and androgens, the female and male sex hormones, based in the biological drive to reproduce.

Attraction may be influenced less than lust by physiological factors—the appeal of someone's features, or the way they make you laugh—but your body is still calling the shots at this stage, pumping you full of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, effecting your brain in a way that's not unlike the way illicit substances do.

Fisher has collaborated multiple times on the science of attraction with social psychologist Arthur Aron, a research professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Aron and his wife Elaine, who is also a psychologist, are known for studying what makes relationships begin—and last.

In a 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers proposed that "romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction, seen cross-culturally today."

In the attraction phase, your body produces increased amounts of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that is also responsible for pain relief. Using fMRI brain imaging, Aron's studies have shown that "if you're thinking about a person you're intensely in love with, your brain activates the dopamine reward system, which is the same system that responds to cocaine," he tells Mental Floss.

Earlier, Fisher's 1997 paper found that new couples often show "increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of this novel relationship."

The attachment phase is characterized by increases in oxytocin and vasopressin; these hormones are thought to promote bonding and positive social behaviors to sustain connections over time in order to fulfill parental duties.

There is no hard and fast timeline for how long each phase lasts, as it can vary widely due to gender, age, and other environmental factors, Fisher writes.

Additionally, while oxytocin has long gotten the credit for being the love hormone, Prause says that scientists are now "kind of over oxytocin," because it has broader functions than simply bonding. It also plays a role in the contraction of the uterus to stimulate birth, instigating lactation, and sexual arousal; low levels have been linked to autism spectrum disorders. 

Now they're focusing on a charmingly named hormone known as kisspeptin (no, really). Produced in the hypothalamus, kisspeptin plays a role in the onset of puberty, and may increase libido, regulate the gonadal steroids that fuel the sex drive, and help the body maintain pregnancy. But Prause says there is a lot more study about the role kisspeptin plays in attraction.

CHEMICAL AND PERSONAL BONDS

Biology may explain our initial attraction and the "honeymoon" phase of a relationship, but it doesn't necessarily explain why a person's love of obscure movies or joy of hiking tickles your fancy, or what makes you want to settle down.

The Arons' numerous studies on this subject have found connection boils down to something quite simple: "What makes people attracted to the point of falling in love—presuming the person is reasonably appropriate for them—is that they feel the other person likes them," he says. 

In the process of doing research for her book How To Fall in Love With Anyone, writer Mandy Len Catron of Vancouver became her own test subject when she came across the research the Arons are most well-known for: their 36 questions, which promote bonding.

The questions were originally designed to "generate intimacy, a sense of feeling similar, and the sense that the other person likes you," Aron explains. Romantic love wasn't the goal. "It was a way of creating closeness between strangers."

The Arons first tested their questions by pairing up students during a regular class section of a large psychology course, as they related in a paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Some students were paired with someone of the same sex, while others were matched with someone of the opposite sex. Each partner then answered a series of 36 increasingly personal questions, which took about 45 minutes each. (Question 2: "Would you like to be famous? In what way?" Question 35: "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?") Small talk during class hadn't made them bond, but the questions made the students feel closer.

In another version of the study, heterosexual, opposite-sex pairs follow the 36-question session with four minutes of staring deeply into each other's eyes.

Catron decided to test these methods out with a casual acquaintance, Mark, over beers at a local bar one night. They were both dating other people at the time, and no one exclusively. As she answered the questions and listened to Mark's answers, "I felt totally absorbed by the conversation in a way that was unlike any of the other first dates I was having at the time with people I met online," Catron tells Mental Floss.

She was ready to skip the four minutes of soulful eye gazing, but Mark thought they should try it. "It was deeply uncomfortable, but it was also an important part of the experience," she recalls. "It's so intimate, it requires you to let your guard down."

The process instilled in Catron a deep feeling of trust in Mark and a desire to know him better. Within three months, they began dating in earnest. Now, more than three years later, they live together in a condo they bought.

The Arons' questions offer "accelerated intimacy," she says, in a time of increasingly online-driven dating experiences.

A LITTLE MYSTERY, A LOT OF SHARED VALUES

Despite all that we’ve learned, scientists may only ever be able to brush up against the edge of a true understanding of "chemistry." “We understand a fair amount about what happens when [attraction has] already occurred, but we're really bad at predicting when it will happen," Prause says. "People who try to claim magical matchmaking, or that they're going to somehow chemically manipulate an aphrodisiac or something—well good luck! Because we can't figure it out.”

And anyway, what's romance without a little mystery?

If you must have a definitive answer to the puzzle of interpersonal chemistry, Prause says to keep this in mind: "The best predictor of long-term outcomes is shared values."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
The Thermodynamic Genius of the Classic Drinking Bird Toy
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you're familiar with the drinking bird toy, you know it as a cheesy knickknack that's adorned office desktops for decades. But anyone with a background in thermodynamics knows that the novelty item deserves more credit. In his video spotted by Sploid, Bill Hammack—a.k.a. engineerguy—explains the impressive science at work every time the toy takes a sip.

To pull off its famous trick, a drinking bird toy must contain a special chemical compound called methylene chloride. When stored inside the toy it looks like colored water, but its properties are unique: It can transition easily from a liquid to a gas by essentially boiling at room temperature. Evaporated methylene chloride fills the bird's head while liquid methylene chloride fills the base of its body. Pressure differences caused by the condensing gas in the head encourage the liquid in the base to rise to the top of the toy, shifting the weight so its upper half topples forward into the glass in front of it. The liquid methylene chloride drains out in this new position and the balance of gas and liquid is restored. As long as the bird has enough room-temperature water to drink, the water will cool the methylene chloride vapor and start the whole process over again.

The result is a seemingly simple toy whose principles were actually complicated enough to baffle Albert Einstein. You can watch Hammack give a more detailed explanation of the science at work in the video below.

[h/t Sploid]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios