About.com Just About Makes Me Vomit

June 21st, 2013

Whenever you search for any standard do-it-at-home chemistry demo, most of the time you will come across an entry on About.com. About.com is a site that tries to gobble up pageviews so it can attract advertisers, and one method they use for doing this is to pay “guides” to write about popular topics within a particular subject area.

The guide for chemistry is Anne Marie Helmenstine, who earned a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Tennessee. Probably sensing an opportunity to gobble up pageviews, Dr. Helmenstine jumped on the liquid nitrogen pool party story. If all she wanted to do was attract hits, that was an excellent plan. Yesterday alone, ChemBark got 21k pageviews, which is about 7-10 times what the site gets on a typical day with a fresh post. But, if your job is to educate and inform, I would not recommend writing this:

Nitrogen is principal gas in air, so it it’s quite safe on its own, but the liquid nitrogen was believed to have reacted with treatments in the pool, releasing toxic gas. How do you avoid hospitalizing your party, if you want liquid nitrogen fog? Simply add the nitrogen to ordinary water, not chemical-treated water. You’ll get fog without additional compounds. The principal risk from liquid nitrogen fog is from asphyxiation. Adding more nitrogen to the air decreases the relative amount of oxygen. This isn’t an issue so much in an outdoor pool, but should be a consideration if you have an enclosed pool. It’s safer to use a fog machine or make real water-based fog in that situation.

That is Dr. Helmenstine’s expert advice, and it is atrocious. First, there is very little chance the nitrogen reacted with the hypochlorite in the pool. Second, adding the liquid nitrogen to non-chlorinated water would have posed the same danger to life as adding it to chlorinated water. Finally, to write that this “isn’t an issue so much in an outdoor pool” is not only wrong, it is a public health hazard. The pool party disaster took place at an outdoor pool.


26 Responses to “About.com Just About Makes Me Vomit”

  1. Jessica Says:

    I’m speechless!

  2. Lila Says:

    Oh. My. God. That’s so bad, from a so-called expert. Bleh.

  3. BRateProf Says:

    And this is a corrected post apparently.

  4. BRateProf Says:

    Actually, I’m not sure if the article was changed. I might be confused with a different article.

  5. Paul Says:

    Regardless, it is a piece of excrement and certainly should be changed (again).

  6. Sheldon Says:

    I’m sure that if she just forwards her post to the chair of the biomedical sciences department, Tennessee will be more than happy to give her a refund on that PhD.

  7. mamid Says:

    And what’s worse, her English sucks (this coming from a non-native English speaker). But the content is much, much worse. Well, when it comes to chemistry, the bios as a whole have never been held in much regard.

  8. iamthealchemist Says:

    In a reasonable world, this would be grounds for having her PhD revoked.

  9. wolfie Says:

    It is difficult to show that we do not belong to the destructional sort of mankind. Is it ?

    I am not posting spam, this time.

  10. Vilsmeier Haack Says:

    Her PhD needs to be revoked.

  11. Nick K Says:

    The idea that liquid nitrogen will react with activated chlorine compounds in the pool water is fatuous. Elemental fluorine gas (vastly more reactive than chlorine) is sold diluted with nitrogen.

    As for Helmenstine, “empty vessels make the most noise.”

  12. The Iron Chemist Says:

    At my institution and many others, “biomedical sciences” is considered science-lite. Essentially, it’s what pre-meds who want to do the bare minimum in science end up selecting as a major. I am astonished that UT apparently has a doctoral program in this “field.” Helmenstine’s comments certainly do not offer it legitimacy.

  13. Vinylogous Says:

    You guys can revoke her PhD if you agree to revoke the PhD of any synthetic chemist who gives a talk and massacres the biology.

    That being said, ouch.

    Re: Iron Chemist. Lots of places offer graduate degrees in biomedical sciences. Not sure where you get the idea that the contents of an undergraduate major transfer to a doctoral program. Usually rigor depends on advisor and project.

  14. a Says:

    The point is she has demonstrated that she is NOT QUALIFIED to be writing about.com articles about chemistry. About.com should get another email about this (in conjunction with her plagiarism stuff, this is two-strikes and you’re out!)

  15. andre Says:

    As far as I can tell there is no way to contact anyone with any editorial control at about.com. The only relevant contact info that can be found is for Dr. Helmenstine herself. This, to me, does not speak well of about.com as a resource for anything (not that I ever thought it was). It kind of makes it look like they don’t care if they put up bullshit or not as long as they get their clicks (which of course IS their business model).

  16. Paul Says:

    It’s sad this post helps them more than it hurts them by virtue of generating traffic. If nothing else, I wish the part about liquid nitrogen not being a problem for an outdoor pool would be corrected. That statement is just plain dangerous.

  17. andre Says:

    I did tweet at Dr. Helmenstine (@About_Chemistry) saying advice could cause death, but I guess she really doesn’t care.

  18. Puff the Mutant Dragon Says:

    What a joke!!!!!! You don’t need a PhD to know this is wrong — you just need first year general chemistry!!!!! any sophomore chem or biochem student knows nitrogen is highly inert.

    I’m really really hoping she corrects this before some numbskull out there actually TRIES it…

  19. Organic lover Says:

    Was she thinking of mixing bleach and ammonia as far as toxic gas release? I saw she has a post on this too. Maybe it was one big mixup?? I am being naive?

  20. Greg Says:

    “If all she wanted to do was attract hits, that was an excellent plan.”

    Pretty sure that is their business model. Nail a couple of keywords and pass google’s grammar filter and you’re good to go. Chemistry isn’t the only subject on which their content is horrible.

  21. Evan Says:


  22. fevertree Says:

    Dr. Helmenstine is also a notorious plaigiarist—many of her pages are shamelessly lifted from other chemistry sites. Sometimes she’ll edit them just enough to make them wrong.

  23. Peter Says:

    ” Ethanol molecules are smaller than water molecules,”

  24. Skylar Says:

    she raped my poodle

  25. PBP Says:

    Where is the best place to go for advice for a chemical problem if we can’t rely on Dr. Helmenstine?

  26. TheeseNoots21 Says:

    Hi, I am the CEO of about.com and I will copyright strike this website so hard.

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