baudrunner's space: The bad and good of hydrogen peroxide
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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The bad and good of hydrogen peroxide

In a previous post about prion diseases I referred to a graphic slide show on a website targeted at inquiring young minds who want to know more about their recreational drug use titled My purpose in linking to the presentation was to point to the behaviour of overstimulated receptor sites but the real education that the site provides is about the damage done to the brains of regular users of the drug ecstasy. In short, when all of the serotonin that has been released into the synapse through the drug's action has been taken up into the serotonin re-uptake channels and broken down by the enzyme monoamineoxidase (MAO) the re-uptake channels are still receptive to taking in more molecules, and invariably dopamine enters into the channel and is also broken down by the action of MAO. One byproduct of that reaction is hydrogen peroxide which acts to break down cell walls, in effect destroying the serotonin dedicated neuron and in the process releasing the hydrogen peroxide into the glia between neurons to continue breaking down the walls of other brain cells in a vicious chain reaction. Needless to say, the damage is serious over the long term and chronic users of real ecstasy will suffer severe irreversible cognitive impairment over the course of time. In other words, hydrogen peroxide, while very effective for disinfecting and treating small wounds and scrapes and thereby assisting in their rapid healing, creates disaster when it occurs in the brain. I discourage the use of ecstasy as a recreational drug because of this fact.

Now scientists are finding that hydrogen peroxide is "over-produced" by diseased cells and that the compound may serve as a marker for identifying disease in the preliminary stages. To that end researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University have developed nano-particles which contain a fluorescent dye which luminesces in the presence of hydrogen peroxide. If these nano particles are found to be completely safe and non-toxic they might provide valuable insight allowing early treatment of diseases before they become more difficult to manage.

Hydrogen peroxide has the chemical formula H2O2 so it would not be a mistake to call it hydrogen dioxide. It occurs naturally through the action of rainwater on ozone (O3) in the atmosphere and in this diluted form is beneficial to plant growth. In fact, reactions between pollutants in the atmosphere and H2O2 are preventing normal amounts of its precipitation from reaching the ground and some farmers have taken to irrigating crops with diluted H2O2 to compensate, thereby increasing crop yields. H2O2 is rich in oxygen. A pint of 3% solution that can be bought in drug stores contains 10 pints of oxygen.

H2O2 is very quick to react with other compounds and will readily release one of its oxygen atoms leaving behind water. The free oxygen atom is an oxidizer and is beneficial in fighting infection and foreign invaders in the body. The white blood cells are responsible for defending the body against attack and they manufacture hydrogen peroxide for the purpose of destroying bacteria, viruses and fungi. Antioxidants are therefore to be considered counterproductive when administered to persons with infection or disease. Hydrogen peroxide is the principle ingredient in many tooth-whitening products. That the waters of Lourdes are said to have miraculous healing powers should not be too readily dismissed as myth because those waters contain hydrogen peroxide.

Hydrogen peroxide can be used as a rocket fuel in concentrations of 90% or greater. It is highly reactive with silver, and some rocket engines which use it force H2O2 vapor at high velocities through fine silver screens causing explosive reactions which provide thrust and release exhaust in the form of steam and oxygen. Other H2O2 rocket engines use catalysis to release and combust the oxygen with alchohol-based fuels. The land speed record of 365 mph for a two-wheeler was set by Richard Brown on his 26 ft long Gillette Mach 3 Challenger rocket-powered motorcycle using this type of engine.

Some amateur chemists often place themselves at great risk when manufacturing higher concentrations of H2O2 by distilling readily available low concentration products. At concentrations over 70% H2O2 gives off vapors that can detonate at normal atmospheric pressure if the temperature is over 70°C causing a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion of the remaining liquid. When spilled on flammable materials H2O2 will evaporate water increasing the concentration of the spill until it spontaneously ignites the fabric in clothing or treated leather which contains metallic particles from the tanning process and which can combust almost immediately on contact. Vapors from the distilling process will explode on contact with greases. Even low concentration products that are readily available will discolor and bleach dyes in clothing and on surfaces.

Hydrogen peroxide is serious stuff -- not to be taken internally.

Addendum (Friday, August 24th):

Newspapers published an article today concerning the possibility that life might yet exist on Mars based on experiments conducted on Earth in regions approximating the surface of the Red Planet and which used the same soil sampling techniques that were used by the Mars Viking landers thirty years ago. Gas spectrometry tests could not find life in the test regions on Earth even though the soils were teeming with microbial life forms. This was revealed in an article written by Ker Than, staff writer for and posted on that site in October, 2006.

Joop Houtkooper of the University of Giessen, Germany thinks that there is a possibility of life existing on Mars based on a new analysis of the results from the 1970's Viking tests which now reveal that the Viking's Gas Exchange Experiment (GEx) detected rises in Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide gas in Martian soil samples and that this would result from the breakdown of organic material together with hydrogen peroxide solution. Organisms specially adapted to the low temperatures found on Mars would be based on hydrogen peroxide and water. The H2O2 would act as an antifreeze, preventing crystallization at low temperature extremes and since it is a water attractor would allow the organism to scavenge water from the Martian atmosphere. If true, this life would bear no resemblance to Earth based life since this type of organism would self destruct in a humid atmosphere due to over-hydration and this process would explain how the Martian organisms might have broken down and produced those gases.

Norman Pace, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado, is skeptical. He bases his incredulity on the fact that the presence of hydrogen peroxide in human cells is disastrous, causing breakdown of the cell walls. True, but Earth is not Mars.

Perhaps NASA's Phoenix Mars mission will clear the air on the subject.

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