Arsenic is one of the few chemical elements from the periodic table (other than gold, silver, iron and a few others) that the general public is familiar with. This is due in large part to the madcap comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, released as a play and film in the 1940s then revived on Broadway in 1986 and London in 2003. The film portrays two adorable but dotty aunts Abby and Martha Brewster who poison lonely elderly bachelors with arsenic-laced elderberry wine. 

It’s not just the homemade wine of old spinsters where arsenic can be found, as is made clear in the feature “Arsenic — a foe with many faces.” Organic and inorganic, arsenic is found naturally today not only in wine but shrimp, lobster and numerous varieties of commercial rice. Arsenic, obviously, is omnipresent, and researchers are trying to figure out how much can be safely ingested before an individual succumbs to the same fate as that of the Brewster sisters’ victims.

Death by poison isn’t the only way to go, and ACCN addresses other chemical concerns in the article “Safety Catch.” On June 1, the Canadian government brings in the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. A global regulatory mechanism, the GHS is meant to mitigate accidents in countries around the world. But, as the story makes clear, there are other safety challenges that also need addressing in industrial and academic laboratories. 

ACCN’s third feature, “Pipe Dream,” reveals that the likelihood of an Alberta bitumen spill on the West Coast of British Columbia as a result of increased tanker traffic from the proposed pipelines is extremely low. However, when one looks at the long-term environmental impact of disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, is even a tiny bit of risk worth it? 

Our regular Chemical News column offers a range of stories, including one on enigmatic boron, which continues to surprise chemists with its odd and unexpected properties. There is also good news on the environmental front. A recent study has found that the feminization of male fish, caused by synthetic estrogen (17α-ethynyloestradiol) in birth control pills flushed into the environment, is reversible. Finally, as Canadians, we don’t need to be told how good our maple syrup is. But, thanks to the application of chemistry basics like the Maillard reaction, this elixir is undergoing new permutations in everything from alcohol to butter and desserts. Bon appétit!