Synthetic Colours Are Dazzling But Disturbing

By Joe Schwarcz, Author, USASEF Expo Performer, AT&T sponsored Nifty Fifty program speaker & Director, McGill University Office for Science and Society - Montreal, QC, Canada

i-a2e1dd9aba10ed79522bbfa16dbed276-Joe_Schwarcz2.jpgThanks to chemical ingenuity we lead a colourful life. Synthetic dyes have served up a feast for the eyes but they may leave us starving for good health. Our reliance on these chemicals exposes us to a host of unnatural wavelengths that can affect our body chemistry.

Until about a hundred and fifty years ago we had no choice but to rely on natural dyes. If you wanted red, you had better know where to find a madder plant. Blue came from indigo, purple from a type of mollusk. Why the different colours? Let's just cast a little light on the nature of light.

Light from the sun is composed of all the colours of the rainbow, as is readily demonstrated by passing it through a prism. Each colour represents a different wavelength and since the different wavelengths are bent to a different extent as they pass through the prism, we see a rainbow of colours. The colour of any substance is determined by which of these wavelengths are absorbed and which reflected. Madder root extract is red because the alizarin it contains reflects wavelengths that correspond to red and absorbs all other wavelengths.

Throughout most of our history we were exposed to only natural colours, in other words, a mix of natural wavelengths. All of that changed in 1856 with William Henry Perkin's breakthrough discovery of synthetic dyes. Engaged in a futile attempt to make quinine, the young fledgling chemist accidentally discovered that chemicals in coal tar could be converted to dyes that had never been seen before. The mauve he produced took the world by storm, especially when it gained favour with Queen Victoria.

Soon a variety of other dyes were produced from coal tar and human eyes had to confront wavelengths for which evolution had not prepared them. Why should that matter? Because the eyes are windows to the brain, and the brain controls our biology. Depression, for example, can be triggered by reduced exposure to daylight and flashing lights are known to cause seizures. Remember that we actually see with our brain, the eyes are only messengers. A stroke can completely destroy vision even though the eyes still function perfectly well.

Our brain also controls the production of certain hormones and neurotransmitters such as melatonin, serotonin and dopamine. Simplistically, one can say that "rest and repair" hormones are activated by a lack of light, while "coping with stress" hormones are produced when light is abundant. But the situation is actually more complicated. Hormonal activity is governed by messages sent from the eye in response to specific wavelengths and problems arise if there is exposure to an unnatural mix of wavelengths, termed the "unnatural wavelength effect" (UWE). This is characterized by an imbalance between "day hormones" like cortisol and insulin and the "night hormones" such as the antioxidant melatonin and the immune system enhancing prolactin.

The major problem, however, is that the unnatural wavelengths trigger the production of the recently identified compound, "esnesnon" (pronounced ez-neeze-ah-znon), a chemical that in the laboratory has been shown to have a yen for certain receptors on the surface of brain cells that have accordingly been christened "yenolab" (yen-oh-lab) receptors. Stimulation of these receptors has been linked to impaired central nervous system activity, which in turn affects all body functions. Because virtually all the dyes used today are synthetic, we are at increased risk for UWE. Whether we are gazing at clothes, furniture, our lacquered fingernails or our bed sheets, we are exposed to a range of wavelengths with which our ancestors never had to contend.

Luckily there is a way to overcome the UWE. Exposing the eyes to an abundance of natural wavelengths can curb the production of esnesnon and reduce the chance of illness. Fluitex (flower and fruit exposure) therapy involves placing a variety of coloured flowers and fruits around the house to ensure our eyes are constantly exposed to all the natural wavelengths in the 600-700 nanometer range, effectively blocking the light waves reflected from synthetic dyes.

Subjects undergoing Fluitex therapy report an enhanced feeling of well being, a resolution of aches and pains and a brighter outlook on life. The effects appear to be directly proportional to the variety of colours displayed, with a spectrum provided by red roses, yellow daisies, blueberries, green apples, purple plums and oranges being especially therapeutic. Fluitex therapy is devoid of side effects. Of course it is also devoid of any sense. "Esnesnon" is nothing but nonsense spelled backwards. As far as "yenolab" receptors go, well, just reverse the letters. I made it all up. It's all a bunch of nonsense and baloney! Did I snare anyone? Probably.

So what's the point? That total nonsense can be made to sound totally believable. I know, because I get questions all the time asking if I think this or that bit of poppycock is true. For example, recently I was forwarded an email that's going around claiming that wi-fi is dangerous because "man-made wireless signals in the microwave range are unnatural and therefore incompatible with life." Just as much nonsense as my "esnesnon." How about golf gloves equipped with a wristband to "produce negative ions to help your body's performance and recovery." Bunk! Ditto for those "energy bracelets" that contain a hologram "embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body's energy field to improve your balance, strength and flexibility." You need a flexible mind to swallow that claptrap.

Energy bracelets are sort of benign nonsense. But matters become more serious when claims are made about some liquid preparation that cures cancer by "lowering the voltage of the cell structure by about 20%," causing cancer cells to "digest" and be replaced with normal cells. Might such poppycock not distract some desperate patients from proper treatment? How about the Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface Machine, "the most advanced medical assessment and therapy device in the world today?" What does it do? Well, it "loops all 200 trillion human cells within a 55 channel biofeedback system to gather bioenergetic data at nano-second speeds, creating optical wellness." Are not some people bamboozled by such hogwash? Judging by the number of QXCI machines sold, they sure are.

And should you want to be in tune with some more nonsense, you can tap a "quartz crystal singing bowl" with a mallet which will then "transmit energy into the atmosphere, filling your aura with vibrational radiance which translates into seven main colours of the rainbow." You should also know that "through pure tone one can repattern the energy field organization that ultimately affects the cellular expression of disease and wellness."

And if that doesn't work, there are always "garments powered with infra-red technology to enhance and improve athletic performance, recovery and general well being." If you want infra-red technology, just wear clothes. Any clothes. Infrared rays are nothing more than radiated heat. But maybe you should make sure these infrared garments, some of which also emit health-enhancing "minus ions," are not coloured with synthetic dyes. You don't want to risk any unnatural wavelength exposure.


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I was thinking the same thing. But read a bit farther down, he's creatively making a point.

The story was actually really well done! Completely dry.

By michael.r (not verified) on 04 Nov 2011 #permalink

Well you almost got me, in one sense: I was all gearing up to write a snarky comment with things like "citation needed" and "this is ScienceBlogs?".

Well written though. My brain seizes up like a Yugo in salt water when I try to write stuff like that. Apparently my mind just doesn't work that way.

Ha! you got me. I was so miffed about seeing something like this on Scienceblogs that I totally missed the gag! Skimming the last part I even saw references to crystals and magnetic bracelets totally missing the context. Well done sir. Game, Set, Match. I'll read more carefully next time.

As someone exposed to the LMS photosensitivity curves and CIE XYZ color perception models, I reacted viscerally to the outrageous claims that there was a specialized hormone or neurotransmitter geared to "unnatural" illumination fields as being in conflict with everything we understand about human vision and the photoresponse of biological molecules.

I wonder if anyone else knows _why_ they felt this article sidetracked into rubbish to make a point?

nice, I smelled b.s. from the start because I'm inundated with claims like this in the hippie-granola town I live in, but it's well done. I'd like to use part of it in a critical thinking class I'm planning for next year if I may. Would that be cool? Just wanting to put it in one of a set class exercises and discussions.

@rpenner - as someone with no specialized knowledge in this area, what rang false for me was the *breadth* of the claims - all synthetic dyes made since 1856 caused this effect - as well as the breadth of the symptoms - basically all bodily functions.

The emphasis on man-made dyestuffs being responsible was a little suspicious, too - a real scientific paper would focus on the results of exposure to the dyes, not the fact that they were artificial dyes unknown for most of human history.

But if you made a narrower, more modest claim - say that preliminary studies demonstrated a possible link between insomnia and certain wavelengths of light (those in mauve and magenta, say), you could create a completely plausible-sounding claim that only an expert (or someone conducting further experiments) could debunk.

Because, like it or no, most educated non-specialists do rely on plausible sounding descriptions written by experts to understand how science (or, really, any complex field) works. The best we can do is to be suspicious of certain *types* of claims, based on experience with bogus claims, and based on a general understanding of how science works. Because, for the vast majority of even highly educated people, knowledge is just hearsay that we cannot evaluate directly.

Luckily, almost no one wants to lie about science just because; they do so because they have some sort of "angle" that they are pushing, and these types of claims are easier to see through.

By Andrew H. (not verified) on 05 Nov 2011 #permalink

Chemists can now make coloring agents brighter and more saturated (greater max. reflectivity, and more extreme contrast between absorption and reflection of different wavelengths) than ever before.

You really had me going there. I totally thought you were serious. Partly because of the insanity that is "color therapy" -- there are people who honestly do think that exposure to certain colored light can cure various ailments. There's a chiropractor who brings a display every time my company has a health fair. I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink