A scout organiser and GP asked his local pharmacist for potassium permanganate powder. The sale was refused because the supply was considered too dangerous.
The powder was to be mixed with glycerin: the resulting exothermic chemical reaction is officially publicised as spectacular, but safe and controlled. The resulting flame could light cooking fires while camping outdoors.
The pharmacist’s refusal to sell the glycerin shocked me. In my youth, I bought chemicals for experiments at home from pharmacies. Many youngsters did, it stimulated a love of science. Surely the community pharmacist remains the best-placed person on the high street to be a sort of ambassador for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects?
I asked a science teacher whether pupils did chemical experiments at home in 2019. He thought not – such experiments were old school, of “your generation”. Of course, there is an element of ‘chicken and egg’; youngsters can only do such experiments if they can buy the chemicals. Why can’t they?
The control of chemicals liable to misuse under a parliamentary act in 2015 was an anti-terrorist measure. Extemporaneous dispensing in community pharmacies has almost vanished, few even have weighing equipment. Pharmacy schools offer less hands-on laboratory chemistry departments, and less or no extemporaneous dispensing. Therefore, pharmacists have become more uncomfortable handling chemicals.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 and other regulations further deter pharmacists from handling chemicals. Clinical emphasis blinkers pharmacists to forget their raison d'être: expertise on the corporeal substance of the medicines themselves.
I worry that today’s pharmacists have not experienced the smells and other fun that hands-on experiments at home offer, which can help to develop the young into scientists. Other members of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Retired Pharmacists Group shared my nostalgic sadness that pharmacies now seldom sell chemicals. It matched the opinion of chemists who commented under an enthusiastic but downhearted blog by Henry Rzepa, Imperial College London professor of computational chemistry, which was published in 2015.
What can you do about this? Let me share my dream. Pharmacy windows display beakers containing sodium silicate solutions sprinkled with inorganic salts. Fantastical multicoloured “crystal gardens” grow, changing, hour-by-hour, worthy of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Signs say: “Chemistry sets and chemicals.”
“Mum, let’s go inside!”
Malcolm Brown is a sociologist and retired community, hospital and industrial pharmacist