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The leaves have turned, and there’s a chill in the air. Summer is over and fall is well underway. Fewer people are outside tending to gardens and lawns, which means fewer incidences of poison ivy, oak or sumac exposure. That’s a huge relief for the more than half of all adults who are allergic to the oils of these plants.


Exposure to the “toxic trio” of plants is more than a nuisance to some people. Thousands of people get such a bad rash that they have to see a doctor and can’t go to work or school. And very little of the oil is necessary to cause problems — it takes only 0.04th of a drop to trigger a reaction. The oil remains active for five years or more, even on dead plants. The oil is not only on leaves, but on the stems and roots of the plants, and it is invisible.


In a recent paper in The Journal of Organic Chemistry, researchers report that they’ve developed an inexpensive spray that could show that poison ivy, oak or sumac oil is on your skin, tools, the family pet or on leaves of suspicious-looking plants. That would allow you time to wash off the oil or avoid further contact altogether.

They describe the development of a spray that, when applied to leaves of poison ivy, oak and sumac, reacts with urushiol, the toxic oil produced by those plants. When exposed to an ordinary fluorescent light, the spray glows if urushiol is present, revealing the location of the oil. “This constitutes the groundwork for the future development of a spray to detect urushiol to avoid contact dermatitis,” the scientists say. They also say that the spray could have biomedical applications in detecting substances similar to the compounds in the oil, such as neurotransmitters involved in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“Urushiol Detection Using a Profluorescent Nitroxide,” The Journal of Organic Chemistry



The image on the left (a) shows fresh poison oak leaves. After the researchers exposed the leaves to the new spray, they pressed the leaves against a paper towel and produced an imprint (b) that shows the location of the urushiol using a fluorescent light.

Credit: American Chemical Society

Get a comment. Use a quotation from an expert who discusses the significance of the discovery or the event. From my first days writing broadcast news for a small radio station in upstate New York through a long career as a newspaper science editor in the National Press Building here in Washington, DC, it’s been an axiom. “Get a quote.” A quotation from an expert adds substance and credibility to a story. It advances the story. And if the expert speaks simply and colorfully, he or she brings life to the story and invites the audience to continue reading. A successful quote also helps the reader remember the article.


That need for direct quotations and expert comment is the driving force behind the ACS Office of Public Affairs’ efforts every October to provide journalists with comments on the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announces the prize in Stockholm at 5:45 a.m. Eastern U.S. time. Some journalists, like Karl Ritter and Louise Nordstrom of the Associated Press, must file their stories immediately and need comment on the significance of the research behind the prize as soon as possible. Others have more leisurely deadlines ― maybe a couple of hours.


Touching bases with an expert on such short notice can be difficult. But it is one of the elements of deadline reporting that can be handled in advance. To meet that need for the Nobel science awards, the ACS Office of Public Affairs offers journalists a comment from the Society’s president. ACS is, after all, the world’s largest scientific society, and a comment from its president can enhance a story in all the ways that direct quotations do. We also offer to schedule live telephone interviews with the ACS president, who this year is Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To carry through, our team settles into the office by 5 a.m., monitors the announcement online from Stockholm and puts the comment into a press release that goes to thousands of journalists. The press release also appears online.


We are proud to have helped so many journalists in this way with their coverage of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Our press release was in the email boxes of almost 4,000 journalists around the world within 30 minutes of the announcement and online as well. Shakhashiri did more than a dozen phone interviews with reporters, such as David Brown of The Washington Post; Dan Vergano of USA Today; Eva von Schaper of Bloomberg News; Ken Chang of The New York Times; Julie Steenhuysen, Reuters; Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal; Nell Greenfield Boyce, National Public Radio (NPR);  and  Rachel Ehrenberg, Science News.


The ACS Public Affairs office can help with comments and quotations on other stories, as well. Please let us know when we can help.



It’s 2012. You can travel almost anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. You’re probably carrying a miniaturized computer in your pocket. But when the next major oil spill happens, like the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 that spilled enough oil to fill 300 Olympic-size swimming pools, will we really clean it up with corncobs and straw, as we’ve done for decades?


Spill response teams are still using low-tech absorbents like those mentioned above. That could change thanks to a new superabsorbent material that can soak up 45 times its own weight in oil. It’s described in a paper in ACS’ journal Energy & Fuels.


Current absorbents, like plant matter, can only hold about 5 times their own weight in oil, and they tend to absorb water at the same time, unlike the new absorbent. After doing the job, the oil-soaked corncobs and straw become industrial waste that is either buried in special landfills or incinerated. That can be expensive, and the process raises additional environmental concerns.


Authors T.C. Mike Chung and Xuepei Yuan describe a new polymer absorbent, one pound of which can absorb about 5 gallons of crude oil. The resulting gel is stable enough that it can withstand waves and sun as it floats on the surface, and strong enough to then be picked up and collected. Afterward, a refinery can recover the absorbed oil.


The polymer is a network of interlinked carbon chains and rings. Crude oil contains similar shapes packed loosely together. These molecules fill in the empty spaces in the polymer web, swelling it up to 40 times in size.


The new technology is inexpensive, too. The authors estimate that it would cost about $2 per pound when it’s being produced on a large scale. If crude oil was selling for $100 barrel, a pound of the absorbent could sop up and deliver $15 in crude oil.


Finding a better way to clean up large oil spills is important because of their often disastrous consequences. In addition to killing 11 men working on the rig, the Deepwater Horizon spill killed thousands of animals living in and near the Gulf of Mexico and cost tens of billions of dollars in losses for the regional tourism and fishing industries.


“Novel Solution to Oil Spill Recovery: Using Thermodegradable Polyolefin Oil Superabsorbent Polymer (Oil−SAP)” Energy & Fuels


The polymer (a) swells as it absorbs oil from water (b). At right (c), it has been lifted from the water with tweezers.
Credit: American Chemical Society

Fact: The potato is the most popular vegetable in the United States. So I suspect you won’t be very surprised to learn that Americans eat loads of french fries, the vast majority cooked in that sizzling oil at fast-food restaurants. They actually eat an estimated 4.5 billion pounds a year, or about 30 pounds a person. French fries may taste good to many people, but scientists agree they are not very good for you.


Not only has eating large quantities of fried food in general been linked to heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, lowered ''good'' cholesterol and obesity, but researchers have shown a connection between cancer and acrylamide, a chemical compound created by deep-frying or cooking some foods in certain ways. In fact, both the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer regard acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen.”


Now, however, there may be a way to reduce the amount of this compound in fries and other foods, according to researchers.

Although acrylamide forms naturally when certain french fries and other foods are cooked, Donald S. Mottram and colleagues still found a way to attack the problem. For the first time, they were able to connect changes in natural potato components (glucose, fructose, amino acids, moisture) that are formed during preparation and cooking with the amount of acrylamide created. The team also developed a computer model to better predict ways of reducing acrylamide levels in cooking.


The commercial process of making french fries involves selecting potatoes, sorting and cutting them, adding sugar, blanching, drying and freezing them. Then, they are fried up at a restaurant. The researchers studied many of these steps to figure out how they contribute to acrylamide formation. It turns out that minimizing the ratio of fructose to glucose (two simple sugars humans can use for energy) in cut frozen potato strips used to make french fries can lower the levels of acrylamide that end up in this fast-food staple.


The scientists reported in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that, armed with this new information on how preparation and cooking can promote differing amounts of acrylamide in french fries and other foods, they should be able to make changes in the preparation and cooking process that will cut down on the levels of this compound.

“Kinetic Model for the Formation of Acrylamide during the Finish-Frying of Commercial French Fries,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry


Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock



Few people like going to the hospital, whether it’s for major surgery or just to stitch up a cut. But a recent paper in ACS’ journal Langmuir reports a development that could make the post-operation recovery process less complicated.


In 2009 alone, surgeons performed 48 million in-patient operations in the U.S. Most of these required stitches, or sutures, to close up the operation site and start the healing process. That’s not even counting stitches for out-patient procedures, like for a deep cut near a toddler’s eye from the edge of a glass coffee table (many years later, I still haven’t forgotten that — ouch!).


Infections at surgical sites are one of the most common post-surgical complications that keep patients hospitalized longer and boost hospital bills. Some infections just involve the skin, but others go deeper to the underlying organs and body tissues. The treatment? A course of antibiotics or even another round of surgery. Of course, antibiotics have their own disadvantages, namely the possibility of developing super-bugs — bacteria that shrug off most existing antibiotics. And no one wants to undergo additional surgeries.


To solve this problem, suture manufacturers typically add an antibiotic called triclosan to the threads themselves, but its use in many consumer products over the years has led to the emergence of super-bugs that are immune to it. Triclosan also can be absorbed into the body, raising concerns about possible adverse health effects. Another downside to triclosan: It slows the growth of bacteria, but does not actually kill those already present.

That’s why Professor Gregory Tew and colleagues turned to PAMBM, a new substance designed from naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides that can kill a wide range of bacteria. And because of the way it works, PAMBM has a very low chance of causing bacterial resistance.

The report in Langmuir described laboratory tests in which PAMBM reduced the amount of bacteria compared to triclosan by 1,000 times. In a head-to-head test with triclosan-coated sutures, those coated with PAMBM were much more effective against bacteria. “As bacterial resistance to current agents continues to increase and with resistance to triclosan now documented, the discovery of new antimicrobial agents that remain active in biomedical device coatings is essential,” say the researchers.

“New Bactericidal Surgical Suture Coating,” Langmuir



Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock