Heavy metal contaminants: “Evidence” that homeopathy works

Homeopathy remains the perfect quackery because it is nothing but water. Even homeopaths seem to recognize this implicitly. If they did not, then there would be no need for all the mental mastubation they engage in to imbue their magic water with “memory,” such that, as Tim Minchin so famously put it, it “remembers” all the good stuff it’s been in contact with but forgets all the poo that’s been in it. Truly, it is magic. Alternatively, homepaths will try to claim that the process of dilution and vigorous shaking between each serial dilution (or, as homepaths refer to it, succussion) somehow change the structure of water to produce such fantasmagorical creations as “nanocrystalloids.” Clearly, the mental contortions homeopaths can undergo would make their brains eligible to get a job with Cirque du Soleil.

Sometimes, homoepaths even try to write scientific papers that “prove” these things, such as the “memory of water.” Of course, these articles are virtually invariably crap. However, analyzing them from time to time, I still argue, is a useful excercise because it gives me insight into how homeopaths think, if thinking you can call it. Gaining that insight then helps me to recognize other forms of pseudoscience. Besides, when I see an article being shoved in my face as “proof” that homeopathy is more than just water, it’s very much akin to waving the veritable red cape in front of a bull, which is why I give my readers a word of advice: Don’t do it. At least, don’t do it unless you want me to go all not-so-Respectfully Insolent on it.

Like now, with today’s target topic, an article by Prashant Satish Chikramane and his colleagues at Department of Chemical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, India. Entitled Extreme homeopathic dilutions retain starting materials: A nanoparticulate perspective. Basically, the investigators…well, it’s too easy to give away the results in a sentence or two; so let me pontificate a little more before I do.

First off, this article appears in the journal Homeopathy. Yes, there is indeed a journal called Homeopathy. Given the level of pseudoscience that must be within the pages of a journal called Homeopathy, I fear a block hole of woo, which will suck all real science into its event horizon, leaving nothing behind but more woo. Personally, though, I like to think of Homeopathy as one of those fake journals designed to put a patina of science in the form of science-y sounding jargon and the appearance of using the scientific method but without actual science. Either that, or the articles within do actually adhere to the scientific method, but in the end they are nothing more than what Harriet Hall likes to call “tooth fairy science.” Given that homeopathy violates several known physical laws and that, for homeopathy to work, not only would scientists have to be wrong about huge swaths of well-characterized science they’d have to be spectacularly wrong.

So let’s see how Chikramane et al try to justify homeopathy. After all, I love reading introductions to homeopathy papers. After having declared homeopathy to have “stood the test of time,” Chikramane et al then go on to level this howler:

However, a major lacuna has been the lack of evidence of physical existence of the starting material. The main difficulty in arriving at a rational explanation stems from the fact that homeopathic medicines are used in extreme dilutions, including dilution factors exceeding Avogadro’s number by several orders of magnitude, in which one would not expect any measurable remnant of the starting material to be present. In clinical practice, homeopathic potencies of 30c and 200c having dilution factors of 1060 and 10400 respectively, far beyond Avogadro’s number of 6.023 × 1023 molecules in one mole, are routinely used.

Many hypotheses have been postulated to justify and elucidate their mechanisms of action. While some hypotheses such as the theory of water memory,formation of clathrates, and epitaxy are conjectural in nature, others such as those based on the quantum physical aspects of the solutions and have not been sufficiently tested, either due to complexity in validating the hypothesis or due to non-reproducible results. The ‘silica hypothesis’ is the only model that proposes the presence of physical entities such as siloxanes or silicates resulting from leaching from the glass containers. Following a dearth of credible and testable hypotheses to identify any physical entity responsible for medicinal activity, most modern scientists continue to believe that homeopathy at best provides a placebo effect.

Ah, those “modern” scientists! Those nasty, skeptical, reductionistic “modern” scientists! How could they not see the beauty and power of homeopathy? Whatever the reason, I chuckled heartily as I read the above two paragraphs. They look so much like the real introduction to a scientific paper. The authors have the style down cold. Too bad it’s all in the service of measuring the molecular composition of fairy dust. Of course, we’ve heard of “clathrates” before as a woo-ful justification for why homeopathy “works,” but I hadn’t heard of the silicate hypothesis. But, this being all science-y and all, there should be a testable hypothesis, and apparently the authors do have what appears to be at estable hypothesis. In any case, the apparent hypothesis is that there would be structural differences in the homeopathic remedies. So our intrepid investigators went out and obtained a bunch of homeopathic remedies from various Indian manufacturers of homeopathic remedies at three different potencies (how I hate ot use that word in this context), including 6C, 12C, and 30C, all of them in 90% ethanol. They then analyzed these physico-chemical aspects:

  1. The presence of the physical entities in nanoparticle form and their size by Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) by bright-field and dark-field imaging.
  2. Their identification by matching the Selected Area Electron Diffraction (SAED) patterns against literature standards for the corresponding known crystals.
  3. Estimation of the levels of starting metals by a 500-fold concentration of medicines, followed by chemical analysis using Inductively Coupled Plasma-Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-AES).

The homeopathic remedies were chosen to have been based on various metals “so chosen that the metals would not arise either as impurities or as contaminants.”

Huh?

Did the investigators think that metals couldn’t find their way into these homeopathic remedies somewhere along the way in the manufacturing process? Another problem with the paper is that the investigators used as their control HPLC-grade ethanol and Milli-Q water. How on earth did they know that the manufacturers were so fastidious as to use HPLC-grade ethanol and Milli-Q water, the latter fo which is distilled, highly filtered, and then deionized to a ridiculously high electrical resistance? I use Milli-Q water all the time for molecular biology experiments because it is so pure and free of electrolytes. So, right off the bat, we see the investigators using a dubious control that isn’t equivalent to their manufactured homeopathic remedies purchased from “reputable” firms, meaning that any differences they observe can’t necessarily be attributed to the homeopathic dilutions of the metals. Not surprisingly, the investigators found differences, and, their being believers in homeopathy and all, they immediately made all sorts of ridiculous conclusions:

Zincum met, Aurum met, Stannum met and Cuprum met 30c and 200c were analyzed by TEM. The results are given as photomicrographs (Figure 1(a)e(p)), which clearly demonstrate the presence of nanoparticles and their aggregates. Due to extreme dilution often only a single nanoparticle or a large aggregate is seen. Hereafter, the term ‘particles’ collectively refers to the nanoparticles and their aggregates. We noted a high polydispersity of the particles in the solutions.

And this is what they saw:

i-1b0c8f1f9828170f92929b5b531f6adb-nano.jpeg

Perhaps an inorganic chemist out there can tell me if I’m wrong, but there doesnt’ appear to be any thing particularly special appearing about these particles. Looking at them, it also just occurred to me that there’s another possible explanation for these particles, one in which it is the authors themselves who introduced them into the homeopathic remedies:

The residues of Cuprum met, Stannum met, and Zincum met were acidified to solubilize the particles of their respective starting metals by addition of concentrated nitric acid. Similarly, aqua regia (concentrated nitric acid and concentrated hydrochloric acid in the ratio 1:3) was added to residues of Aurum met, Argentum met, and Platinum met.

I was a chemistry major, and, even though it was 25 years ago, I still remember that concentrated nitric acid had a fair number of heavy metal impurities. For instance, it can have 5 ppm iron and 10 ppm heavy metals. That’s a lot more heavy metal than a homeopathic dose. On the other hand, the authors report that their analyses were consistent with the metals used in the starting materials. This leads them to conclude:

The confirmed presence of these crystalline species of starting materials or those derived from them (as evident from the SAED patterns) despite the ultra-high dilutions such as 30c and 200c was astounding, proving that the starting materials were retained even with extremely high dilutions.

Actually, I’m a bit less than astounded. An alternative, more plausible, explanation, particularly given the propensity for ayruvedic herbs and other “alternative” medicines produced in India to be contaminated with heavy metals is that the manufacturing plants were thoroughly contaminated with the heavy metals that were supposedly the original starting material for the homeopathic remedies that they manufacture.

Of course, I haven’t even gotten to the most howlingly hilarious flaw in the whole study is where the authors:

During our analyses we also noted the plateauing effect of the concentrations of the starting metals per se in a particular concentration range in potencies 6c, 30c and 200c, in spite of 30c and 200c potencies being 1048 and 10388 respectively more dilute than 6c. It is interesting to note that the plateau for non-noble metals showed a higher metal content than for noble metals. Our ICP-AES results suggested that the asymptote effect commences around 6c potency

Did it ever occur to the investigators that the reason the asymptotic effect occurs is because maybe, just maybe, that’s about the level of contaminants that are naturally in the plant and/or the water being used to dilute and succuss the homepathic remedy at each step? That maybe, just maybe, it’s impossible to figure out whether those particles they detected were there all along as contaminants in the diluent water used? The authors don’t even consider that possibility, nor do they do any experiments to test for it. Rather, they simply assume that the manufacturers got it right and that these particles are truly a result of the homepathic dilution and succussion process. They speculate wildly about “nanobubbles” and “nanobubble-nanoparticle complexes” as keeping the metal particles from being diluted and succussed way to nothing through 30 100-fold dilutions. Even if this were true, there is no explanation how these particles could have any biological effect. Rather, it is merely assumed that they do and that their very existence somehow validates the woo that is homeopathy, so that the authors conclude:

We have found that the concentrations reach a plateau at the 6c potency and beyond. Further, we have shown that despite large differences in the degree of dilution from 6c to 200c (1012 to 10400), there were no major differences in the nature of the particles (shape and size) of the starting material and their absolute concentrations (in pg/ml).

(I can’t help but again ask the authors if they ever considered that the reason tha tthe concentration of nanoparticles didn’t change in concentration or appearance was that they are natural contaminants of the water used to produce the homoepathic dilutions. Apparently not.)

How this translates into change in biological activity with increasing potency needs further study. Concrete evidence of the presence of particles as found by us could help take the research in homeopathy a step forward in understanding these potentised medicines and also help to positively change the perception of the scientific community towards this mode of treatment.

Uh, no, it’s more like this: This sort of work will lead to well-deserved ridicule from chemists who wonder how analytical chemists can’t remember the first thing about doing proper controls. The authors, however, are surpassed in even their level of nonsense by a commentary that accompanied the article, entitled Do serial dilutions really dilute? The entire essence of the editorial is summed up in one paragraph:

The identification of nanogram amounts of the starting minerals in 200c remedies is both astounding and welcome. To quote Thomas Pynchon, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers”. The skeptics have gotten the homeopathic world so busy trying to defend various theories of water memory that we have overlooked the possibility that some of the material somehow actually persists in highly diluted homeopathic medicines. If these findings are independently replicated, we can perhaps turn to the more relevant questions of how a remedy may interact with the individual organism based on the Principle of Similars and, beyond a certain threshold, how much the potency matters.

Here’s the problem. Once you get into nanogram quantities, however they got there, you’re in a realm that pharmacology can easily study. No, those nanogram quantities of heavy metals almost certainly didn’t get there because of “nanobubbles” or “nanocrystals.” They got there through a much more prosaic and dull process, more than likely through contamination of the homepathic remedies during their manufacture. Even so, nanogram quantities of compounds can be measured and their effects quantified using quite standard techniques in analytical chemistry and pharmacology. It’s not magic anymore. Only the beliefs and rituals that homeopaths impose on them are.

In the end, it’s truly amusing how a group of homeopaths can take a result that almost certainly is nothing more than detecting heavy metal contamination in homeopathic remedies manufactured in India, a country known for having heavy metal conatmination in herbal remedies and ayruvedic medicines it manufactures and then run with it straight off the end of the plank into a sea of woo.