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Vinyl in chewing gum?!! July 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Mercy on us. Silence Dogood here. Chewing gum is not something that makes an appearance here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We both have too many fillings to risk pulling one out with gum, and besides, we don’t really want to go around looking like a couple of cows chewing their cuds. We’re not tempted even when we read health reports suggesting that gum containing xylitol chewed after meals or snacks can help prevent tooth decay. We’re especially not tempted when we see someone snapping her gum at a funeral or popping his brilliant blue gum while waiting on customers. Eeeewwww!!! What are they thinking?!

However, even our general gum aversion didn’t prepare us for an article in the Wall Street Journal that had nothing to do with gum but mentioned in passing that an ingredient in some cooling jacket, vinyl acetate, was regularly used in chewing gum. 

Say what?!! Unfortunately, it’s true. “A substance used to make chewing gum could soon be declared toxic by the federal government after an international agency found that it might cause cancer in lab rats,” a Canadian news release noted way back in May 2008. The substance? Vinyl acetate, “also used in the production of perfumes, deodorizers and paints and sealants, among other things,” according to the report. Furious lobbying by the chewing gum industry caused the Canadian government to drop the proposed ban on vinyl acetate in gum in 2009. 

Even if you love the thought of chomping on the equivalent of vinyl siding, you might think about the effect it has on the environment: Like the siding itself, “The modern chew[ing gum] is non-biodegradable,” an article in The Ecologist noted in 2010. And it can contribute to everything from diarrhea to cancer, ADD, epileptic seizures, and even brain damage, thanks to its “alphabet soup of potentially toxic ingredients.” Gum manufacturers who’ve tried to eliminate the effect of its permanence in our environment have unfortunately replaced the vinyl with phthalates, which have been shown to cause birth defects. God have pity.

The article in The Economist pointed out that chewing gum isn’t a 20th-century phenomenon, as I’d always assumed, but a human habit going back thousands of years, in which humans chewed on the naturally produced gums of various trees, presumably to curb the ever-present hunger that dogged most of humanity and to keep the saliva flowing and thus ward off dehydration during long, hot, dry travels, typically on foot over hostile terrain. Another classic example of humans using their inherent ingenuity to solve a problem that threatened their survival.

Today, though, chewing gum may have outlived its usefulness. Gulping a sports drink, or just regularly drinking some water, will keep us hydrated as we go about our day. And we’re far less likely to imbibe bizarre toxins or look like morons while we’re doing it. Certainly, we won’t be threatening our dental work. And maybe, just maybe, instead of using our mouths as a mindless receptacle for trash, we could redirect them to a better use: communicating, reaching out, expressing our ideas and thoughts, our hopes and dreams. Using our mouths to express what ultimately makes us human, and what makes being human such a wonderful thing.

              ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

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1. mr_subjunctive - July 27, 2011

Okay, I had a bunch of stuff written about what’s wrong with this post before I realized the actual problem. And then I wrote a bunch of new stuff. Sorry for the length.

“Vinyl” refers to a particular arrangement of carbon and hydrogen atoms.[1] Depending on what’s attached to the vinyl group, one can get vinyl chloride, vinyl benzene (=styrene), vinyl acetate, or any number of other things, each with different melting and boiling points, different behavior when combined with other compounds, etc.

The reason the vinyl group is important is that under the right conditions, it can rearrange itself to form single molecules which are long chains of repeating units. For example, vinyl chloride (CH2=CHCl), with two carbon atoms, can form polyvinyl chloride, a huge molecule with a repeating structure of (~CH2-CHCl~), which may have 4000-5000 carbon atoms per molecule. Such large molecules are called polymers. Vinyl acetate and polyvinyl acetate have very different properties, which is the whole point of polymerizing.

Chewing gum is made of polyvinyl acetate, the polymer formed from joining together many molecules of vinyl acetate, Vinyl siding is made of polyvinyl chloride, the polymer formed from joining together many molecules of vinyl chloride. (It would be more accurate to call it “polyvinyl siding.”) This post does not distinguish between polyvinyl acetate (gum), polyvinyl chloride (siding), and vinyl acetate (the chemical being discussed in the articles you’re talking about).

Therefore, the post is more or less meaningless scaremongering, because you aren’t talking about what you think you’re talking about. Chewing gum will not give you cancer/epilepsy/brain damage. If it did, we’d have figured out the connection a long time ago. Vinyl acetate might, but vinyl acetate isn’t what’s in chewing gum.[2]

The main concern about vinyl acetate should be for those people who have to work with it occupationally (like, e.g., chewing gum manufacturers), who are exposed to higher concentrations over longer periods of time, not people who chew gum containing a different compound that happens to have a similar name.

I also have some problems with your sources. The Ecologist article, which I tracked down, contains a lot of what are called “weasel words,” as do parts of your post here.

* Potentially toxic is kind of meaningless. Surely what matters is whether or not it is toxic in real people under normal conditions, not whether it might be.

* Full of preservatives is an outright lie — the gum on my desk contains one preservative, BHT (related to BHA, which the article mentions), which is in the “contains less than 2% of” list. (If these people consider 2% “full,” I would enjoy watching them “fill” their gas tank sometime.) Preservatives may or may not be dangerous, but what this tells me is that the author is more concerned about getting an emotional response from me than in telling the truth, which is (or should be) a sign that s/he is not to be taken seriously.

* Also used in the production of perfumes, deodorizers and paints and sealants, among other things is an attempt to besmirch something by association. The whole point of using substance A “in the production of” substance B is to turn substance A into something else. At which point the qualities of substance A are wholly irrelevant. It’s sort of like saying that manure can be used in the production of any number of deadly poisonous plants (Datura, e.g.): it isn’t untrue, but it tells you nothing about whether manure is dangerous.

* Some evidence suggesting that vinyl acetate caused tumors in rats is not the same thing as overwhelming evidence that vinyl acetate reliably causes tumors in rats. It’s not like I’d be surprised if it did, but it’s not relevant to me unless the amounts of vinyl acetate in the experiment are comparable to the amounts present in chewing gum. All kinds of experiments find tentative connections between chemicals and conditions, genes and diseases, which turn out not to be reproducible. “Suggesting” means “needs more study.” And that is all it means. Were there evidence for a strong link, the author would have chosen a different word. And, again, vinyl acetate hasn’t even been demonstrated to be present in chewing gum, so this could all be talking about a situation which is completely irrelevant to the real world of gum chewers.

* All regulatory authorities believe aspartame is safe. Nevertheless it has been dogged by health concerns from the outset. is an attempt to smear something as unsafe which has been used safely for 25 years, while acknowledging that there’s near-universal consensus that it’s safe. One admires the chutzpah.

* Aspartame’s two major constituents, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, can cause brain damage in very high doses neglects to mention that phenylalanine and aspartic acid are two of the twenty amino acids from which all proteins in the body are constructed, and are surely present in the body at much higher concentrations than would be influenced by someone chewing a stick of aspartame-sweetened gum.[3]

* As the Environmental Working Group has noted, most of the current patents for non-stick gum [rely] on a base of dimethyl, diethyl and dibutyl phthalate: I clicked the link to the EWG and found instead that “Even patents relating to gum, candy, and pharmaceuticals taken orally propose DBP as an ingredient.” “Propose” is a weird word to use there, and makes me think that no actual patents utilizing DBP have been issued yet, contrary to what The Ecologist is saying. I was unable to find any actual articles elsewhere mentioning phthalates in chewing gum, though in fairness I didn’t spend much time looking ’cause, appearances to the contrary, I can’t actually spend all morning on a comment for one blog post.

And so on.[4] All of which makes me question whether The Ecologist is interested in delivering accurate and useful information, or just in decrying all “chemicals” everywhere and getting people upset for no reason. As some of the links in the article don’t actually support the claims being made, a few claims have no discernible basis whatsoever, there’s a lot of conflation of vinyl acetate with polyvinyl acetate, and most of the plausible claims are hedged by “possible,” “suggesting,” etc., I think this is more smoke than fire, except possibly as it relates to occupational exposure.

If you’re anti-gum, fine, be anti-gum. I can respect that as an opinion, and I promise not to chew gum around you.[5] But if you could google the chemicals before writing posts about them, I’d take it as a kindness.

[1] two carbons, double-bonded to one another, with two hydrogens on one of the carbons, one hydrogen on the other, and a free bond which can attach to something else on the carbon that has the one hydrogen. Usually represented as -CH=CH2, in organic chemistry.
[2] During polymerization, it’s not unusual for some of the small molecule to remain unpolymerized, loose in the polymer. However, the amounts in question would be much smaller than the amounts the lab rats were exposed to, and because it’s a volatile chemical, in a product which has to be worked over considerably in order to mix in colorings, flavorings, sweeteners, etc., much of it would probably work its way out of the gum before it was packaged and shipped. I realize this is what the gum manufacturers said, but that doesn’t make it untrue. (I forget who said it, but I saw a quote many years ago that I think of often in cases like this: “The world is round, even if Hitler says so.”)
[3] One could even say that aspartic acid and phenylalanine are “used in the production of plants, animals, and all other natural organisms,” if one wanted to be ridiculous about it.
[4] I actually share The Economist‘s bad feeling about sucralose, it should be noted.
[5] The main reason I do, incidentally, is because chewing gum helps keep my stomach acid under control: as I’ve gotten older, more and more things seem to bother it, and I have a lot less indigestion, heartburn, acid in my throat, etc., if I chew gum occasionally.
I’m also trying to cut back on the foods that give me problems, but it’s tough, because basically everything I like seems to cause me problems (coffee, tomato, citrus, mint, chocolate?, pickles, soda, oregano?, broccoli?, peppers?, alcohol), and I’m more willing to part with some of them (citrus, mint, soda, alcohol) than I am others (coffee, tomato, pickles, chocolate).

Hi Mr. S.! Thanks for checking in. I thought I might hear from you on this post if you had a chance to read it, since your knowledge of chemistry is far better than mine and your tolerance for sloppy research is low. Your comments and corrections are much appreciated! And I’m so sorry about your list of problematic foods. I think I’d hate to give up the tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, citrus, and herbs more than the others, but I am partial to pickles and the appropriate use of soda can certainly perk up a good alcoholic beverage like a Pink Paloma! If gum makes it possible for you to indulge in any or all your problem foods, by all means go for it!


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