Chemistry Based Practical Jokes


Before I start this ranty post, I want to state up front that I make a habit of making chemistry fun. I’ve let off controlled explosions in demonstrations, used naked flames in demonstrations and have sent rockets so high in the sky, air clearance was obtained. I love doing this. It’s fun and demonstrates a lot of abstract ideas beautifully.

I also love it when chemistry gets a mention in mainstream media. No wait, I mostly like it when mainstream media covers chemistry. There are times when all I can do is yell obscenities at my computer monitor when I see articles titled, “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbour” like I did over at Gizmodo. The only reason why I’m linking to it even though it irks me to do so is because it has high visibility and you have probably read it anyway. It is also what I’m about to rip into.

Halloween is around the corner. I live in Australia and in my neighbourhood with the absence of American expats, it’s mostly a non-event. However this doesn’t preclude me from filling with rage as I read some of the Halloween pranks that Eric Limer has suggested to Gizmodo readers. Rage because it’s ridiculously stupid purposefully harmful moronic pranks that make it that much more difficult to conduct a fun chemistry demonstration in schools in the name of education.

Let’s start with the suggestion of a sprayable stink bomb. A mixture of match heads soaked in household ammonia. Limer admits that ammonia is potent all by itself. No kidding. It’s so potent that I use gloves in a well ventilated space when using it around the home. I’m not even in a lab with extraction hood going when I take those precautions. Quite frankly, I don’t want to have red and runny eyes while wishing for clear air to breathe. It is absolutely nasty stuff and not something you want to get anywhere near your eyes.

There’s no logical explanation why anyone with any sense of responsibility would suggest soaking match heads in ammonia to create a smelly solution to load into a water gun to spray on other people. Every single time I have been involved in a water gun fight, water has gotten in my eyes and all over me. Think of all the areas with sensitive skin, eyes, nasal passages, ears, mouth. Awful huh? Now extend that to the nether regions. Yeah. I had to go there.

Try explaining those chemical burns in the emergency department to the attending doctors and nurses repeatedly because everyone will ask why you’re there. Maybe even one day, your story will become one of those emergency department stories told as a moral teaching to stave off acts of stupidity.

The prank that had me checking that I hadn’t slipped into an alternate reality accidentally where dangerous pranks are acceptable was Limer’s suggestion was to use methylene blue to change the colour of other people’s urine to blue. Just slip a tablespoon of the stuff into a 2L bottle of cola drink. I don’t even use a tablespoon of the stuff in titrations. I have only ever used drops.

Methylene blue has a wide range of applications. It’s an excellent fungicide in aquariums as well as treating fish infected with ich. It also has a wide range of medical uses and because of this, methylene blue has a list of medications that should not be used in conjunction with. Limer does point out,

“For the vast majority of people a tiny dose of methylene blue is harmless”.

True but how are you going to know whether someone else is on any of these medications:

  • meperidine (Demerol);
  • diet pills, stimulants, cold or allergy medicines, ADHD medication;
  • migraine or cluster headache medication such as almotriptan (Axert), frovatriptan (Frova), naratriptan (Amerge), rizatriptan (Maxalt), sumatriptan (Imitrex, Treximet), or zolmitriptan (Zomig);
  • medication to treat Parkinson’s disease or restless leg syndrome, such as carbidopa or levodopa (Lodosyn, Parcopa, Sinemet), pramipexole (Mirapex), or ropinirole (Requip);
  • an “SSRI” antidepressant such as citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem, Symbyax), fluvoxamine (Luvox), paroxetine (Paxil), or sertraline (Zoloft);
  • an “SNRI” antidepressant such as venlafaxine (Effexor), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), or duloxetine (Cymbalta);
  • a “tricyclic” antidepressant such as amitriptyline (Elavil, Vanatrip, Limbitrol), clomipramine (Anafranil), desipramine (Norpramin), doxepin (Sinequan), imipramine (Janimine, Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), protriptyline (Vivactil), or trimipramine (Surmontil); or
  • other medications used to treat depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions, such as bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban, Aplenzin), buspirone (BuSpar), maprotiline (Ludiomil), mirtazapine (Remeron), nefazodone, trazodone (Desyrel, Oleptro), or vilazodone (Viibryd).

or have either of these conditions:

  • kidney disease; or
  • glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency.

Also, pregnant women should also avoid drinking methylene blue. It isn’t known whether methylene blue will harm an unborn baby. And nor is it known whether methylene blue passes through into breast milk.

Do you ask? (I would part with money to watch you ask all of the women of reproductive age whether they are pregnant.) Do you label your methylene blue laced 2L cola appropriately during the party? If there is alcohol at the party, how do you ensure guests or even yourself don’t mix up the bottle with innocent bottles? All these questions for one prank because if you don’t ask, you could well end up with a guest needing a hospital stay.

Then there is the suggestion to make a homemade dry ice powered PVC cannon. Do I need to point out that law enforcement agencies do not take kindly to homemade cannons? And even with the suggestion to aim skyward for safety, just how many people will keep to that operating advice?

If that’s not enough, you can finish the night with a bang by lighting a balloon filled with hydrogen gas for any remaining guests and neighbours to marvel at. Lighting up a hydrogen gas filled balloon is fun. I have done it but then I wasn’t on a mission to annoy everyone in my neighbourhood thinking no one would think to call the police over a loud bang and ensuing ball of fire.

Limer walks through how to make and collect hydrogen gas. No big deal but when you have to write,

“If you don’t know what hydrochloric acid is, or where to get it, then don’t try this in the first place.”

perhaps you shouldn’t write about this stuff in the first place. Regardless whether people know about it or not, they will now in all likelihood seek it out and probably not bother to read the MSDS before using it. I am even less thrilled with the suggestion of how to light a hydrogen filled balloon.

“Using a long fireplace match (and still wearing your gloves and glasses), ignite the balloon by poking it. You should experience a surprisingly brisant and startling explosion.”

Umm….no. Just no. A long fireplace match is NOT something I would use to light up a hydrogen filled balloon. What I’ve used in the past is a long pole where a match is attached to the end to light the balloon. That startling explosion Limer mentions is not one you want to be within arm’s length of.

And finally, how does one dispose of the acid?

“To dispose of the acid, keep your rubber gloves on, and pour the contents of the bottle into a toilet bowl or sink. Flush everything down the drain with water.”

Down the toilet? Really? No. A world of no. When handling acid, you want to know exactly where that acid is at all times to prevent injuries, namely burns. I mentioned sensitive areas earlier and it’s the same situation here. Your sensitive groin area is very much exposed on a toilet seat. Thanks to Murphy’s Law, any remnant of acid on the seat will be found most painfully.

It would be best to neutralise the acid first before disposal but if you don’t know how to do this, you really shouldn’t be handling acid in the first place.

And after all that, the only suggestion that Limer made that I don’t have a problem with is adding baking soda to a nearly empty bottle of ketchup sauce resulting in a spray of ketchup everywhere. It is rather lame. Then again, pranks are lame.

Would it not be better to use basic chemistry to spice up Halloween where no one was at risk of getting hurt or is that not the in thing these days?

If you do want to do chemistry at home without ending up in an emergency department or having the local law enforcement visit, it is possible. Check out Try This at Home.

[UPDATE]: Royal Society of Chemistry has just issued a press release condemning the methylene blue prank.

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7 Comments

Filed under chemistry365

7 responses to “Chemistry Based Practical Jokes

  1. Reblogged this on Doctor Galactic & The Lab Coat Cowboy and commented:
    I was going to blog about that ridiculous and infamous Gizmondo article that came out recently, but frankly Philosophically Disturbed say what I want to say and probably a with a tad more eloquence.

  2. Glad to see someone else having a go at Gizmodo. I posted about it yesterday http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2012/10/27/practical-jokes-and-chemistry-dont-mix/ . Plus I sent the editors of Gizmodo an open letter earlier today. No response yet.

    p.s. Thanks for the link to my ‘Try This At Home’ blog.

  3. Pingback: Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » When Practical jokes and chemistry don’t mix.

  4. adasds

    yet another article written by the modern generation of bubble-wrapped safe scientists lacking a firm grasp on reality. PVC cannons are legal. ammonia and matches is fine. conc. acid drain openers are sold and used all the time. hydrogen balloons are loud but harmless. a regular match would be fine. the only experiment here that is bad is the methylene blue because it is a douche move to mess with someones food.

    • Here is the difference between you and I. I use my real name on the internet and when I criticise something I use facts to back it up instead of resorting to personal attacks and name calling.

      PVC cannons are legal. Really? I seriously doubt that this is the case worldwide. This is because every version of the PVC cannon that has ever come to the attention of the local law enforcement in my neck of the woods has always led to some sort of warning and even confiscation.

      Hydrogen balloons are loud and harmless. I agree but only when done so safely or did you miss that part?

      I know acid is sold and used on a daily basis. Heck it’s actually used every second of every day but this does not mean that every application of it is safe. My biggest concern is safety because quite frankly every time safety is ignored and someone ends up injured, it becomes that much harder to use whatever chemical that has been incorrectly blamed for causing the injury. In the education system that I work with there is a list of approved chemicals allowed in the school environment, anything outside of this is not allowed, even for education. Increasingly it is becoming far easier to turn to Youtube to view a demonstration than to perform or run one in schools. This is the reality I and a lot of other people live in however removed from yours.

      Ammonia and matches are NOT fine when the solution has every real possibility of landing in your eyes. I know that my eyes would not cope and would require the requisite minimum 15-20 minutes to flush them before needing to getting them checked by a medical professional for chemical burns. This isn’t an over reaction. It’s actually the recommendation on the MSDS for ammonium hydroxide and something similar is likely on the container that your household ammonia comes in.

      And just so you know, any further ill informed inflammatory nonsense from you will be vetted. I do not have the time nor inclination to tolerate people who choose to be wilfully ignorant and disrespectful.

  5. Hydrogen balloons are fine when done safely. Otherwise this happens http://www.h2incidents.org/incident.asp?inc=280

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