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'Pharmacies should start selling chemicals again to excite the youth'

"Pharmacists have become more uncomfortable handling chemicals"

Community pharmacies should return to their chemistry roots by dispensing safe chemicals to encourage young people to carry out experiments, says Malcolm Brown

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


Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

Just remembered another one - get some silver nitrate and add ammonia to make a lovely mucky precipitate then add more ammonia to redissolve the precipitate. Leave it to stand overnight then these lovely crystals form on the inside of the vessel which are silver nitride and explode at the lightest touch. I blew up a pyrex beaker in my hand doing this one. How I didn't get shredded is beyond me.

Graham Morris, Design

I had hours of fun with Calcium Carbide. I survived! Snowflakes pay attention!

Female Tech, Pharmacy technician

I think you can tell who the millennials are on this thread. Even I had a chemistry set in my youth, experimenting is superb fun. If was smarter I'd have done chemistry at college, and perhaps uni.

Pharmacists are not chemists anymore I'm afraid.

Too busy with PQS, NMS, risk assessments, EPS sign ups, SOPs, signposting recording, intervention recording, appraisals, cd balance checks, MDS trays and many other fun activities.

I've been qualified 16 years and unfortunately my A-Level chemistry knowledge hasn't been used for so long, there isn't much left. I advise anyone now to go into pharmacology if they are interested in pharmacy but want a more research based career.

David Moore, Locum pharmacist

Totally with you, Malcolm Brown, and Lucky. Elf n safety has wrapped today's kids in cotton wool, to the extent that they no longer recognise dangers.
Glycerin and potassium permanganate is less
dangerous than a gallon of 4 star and a match.
Although one pharmacist down my way did end up in A & E when he poured petrol into the barbeque. Thought he would have known better.

Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

That's just make me thing of the old joke, how do you make a cat bark? (half a gallon of four star, a match and it goes woof....)

RS Pharmacist, Primary care pharmacist

"I worry that today’s pharmacists have not experienced the smells and other fun that hands-on experiments at home offer,"

This is what the school, college or uni science lab is for without blowing up your bedroom or a visit to A&E.... what a load of...

Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist



Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

I am absolutely with you on this one, although with a bit more control than back in the day. When I was a pre-reg, I was given the typical pre-reg job of sorting out all of the old chemicals from an ancient pharmacy my company had just bought. As I was moving them, the lid of one jar came off in my hand, so I thought I ought to see what it was. Sodium cyanide......

I did, however, get an AWESOME chemistry set out of it! I'll probably die of some hideous industrial disease in a few years but it was well worth it to see red mercuric chloride forming in front of your very eyes.

Dodo pharmacist, Community pharmacist

Is it April the first?

Robert Mitchell, Community pharmacist

Ah the innocence of crushing up some pseudoephedrine with red phosphorus 

Clive Hodgson, Community pharmacist

Interesting thoughts from Mr Brown.

I am sure many were led to careers in chemistry and pharmacy by personal experimental chemistry in more innocent times years ago. I read only this week that some universities were struggling to fill chemistry degree courses. I suspect this may be due to the prior lack of opportunity for hands on chemistry.

In my youth I was particularly interested in ‘energetic’ chemical compounds and their effects. I remember well, whilst in the third form, the triumph of successfully booby trapping the form teacher’s lectern with a generous quantity of nitrogen triiodide. No difficulty then in obtaining the precursors from the local pharmacy.

David Moore, Locum pharmacist

We sprinkled the solution on the corridor outside the chemistry labs at my old school.

Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

Wow, you pair must be even older than me! The most dangerous thing we were allowed to do at school was to hold liquid mercury and poke it around on a table with our fingers. It still fascinates me to this day. Perhaps that's the reason I'm going mad, not the fact that I'm a pharmacist......

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