Will you be watching the opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games later today? I tuned in last night for the figure skating competition, however, it was difficult to find that comfortable viewing spot on the sofa. Perhaps a reason for my discomfort is the latest travel warnings issued to visitors and those planning to visit the Russian resort town of Sochi. Travelers have been warned of possible threats by terrorists that include toothpaste bombs! Toothpaste bombs?
My background in chemistry and engineering tells me that you can simulate a bomb from just about anything; however toothpaste wouldn’t be my first choice for a reactant. When there are so many restrictions on what can and can’t be carried on an airplane, my next question is what’s in toothpaste that would make it a good reactant? Here’s an answer provided by the American Dental Association (ADA) – Toothpaste ingredients typically consist of [Ref 1]:
- Mild abrasives to remove debris and residual surface stains. Examples include calcium carbonate, dehydrated silica gels, hydrated aluminum oxides, magnesium carbonate, phosphate salts and silicates.
- Fluoride to strengthen tooth enamel and remineralize tooth decay. All ADA-Accepted toothpastes contain fluoride.
- Humectants to prevent water loss in the toothpaste. Examples include glycerol, propylene, glycol and sorbitol.
- Flavoring agents, such as saccharin and other sweeteners to provide taste. Flavoring agents do not promote tooth decay. (No ADA-Accepted toothpaste contains sugar or any other ingredient that would promote tooth decay.)
- Thickening agents or binders to stabilize the toothpaste formula. They include mineral colloids, natural gums, seaweed colloids or synthetic cellulose.
- Detergents to create foaming action. They include sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium N-Lauryl sarcosinate.
This is an interesting list of ingredients, however, the average water content of toothpaste ranges from 20 to 40 %. [Ref 2] Abrasive agents, make up about 50% of the ingredients in toothpaste. However, are these active ingredients?
I make a trip to the bathroom and find my almost empty tube of Crest Pro-Health toothpaste. It is marketed as fluoride toothpaste for anti-cavity, anti-gingivitis, and sensitive teeth. By the way, it also has a whitening agent and fresh clean mint taste. Flipping the tube to the other side, I read: Active Ingredient stannous fluoride 0.454% (0.16%w/v fluoride ion). Are there enough fluoride ions in this toothpaste to spark a flame? alcohols? oils?
I look at the tube again and then it hits me – is it more about the toothpaste tube or the ingredients inside that may be the biggest threat here? My toothpaste tube has opaque packaging. I can’t see what’s inside of it. I doubt that the x-rays and other imaging equipment in most airports can differentiate if there is water, toothpaste, or an explosive powder in the tube….this is not good!
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued another warning to airlines with flights headed to Russia to be on the lookout for toothpaste bombs on Wednesday, February 5, 2014. According to ABC news, toothpaste containers “may actually hold ingredients that could be used to construct a bomb aboard a plane.” Some media outlets are also including cosmetic tubes, small purses, and cavities in computers. We have already witnessed the attempt by passengers to blow up an airline with a bomb concealed in a shoe, or hidden in underwear that they were wearing. Both incidents have occurred since 9/11.
In addition to the DHS alert, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) placed a temporary ban on liquid, gel or aerosol carry-ons for passengers boarding flights between the U.S. and Russia on Thursday, February 6, 2014.
I’m still looking forward to watching the winter Olympics in Sochi. Plans for my blog were not to write about toothpaste or toothpaste bombs. However, it wouldn’t be the first time that some unforeseen event or issue inserted itself as a post on this blog. My plans were and still are to blog about the science and engineering behind curling, bobsledding or one of the other winter sports. I also pray that there are no negative attacks on any of the athletes, visitors, organizers, and local residents.
In the meantime, it appears that those in the Olympic Village and the town of Sochi will have to purchase toothpaste after they arrive. If there is a toothpaste shortage, good ole baking soda may not have fluoride in it, but it makes a good abrasive cleanser for your teeth.
1. Source: American Dental Association, http://www.ada.org/1322.aspx
2. Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org
3. TSA: No Carry-On Liquids on Russia-Bound Flights After Sochi Toothpaste Bomb Threat, Mike Levine et. Al, February 6, 2013, via Good Morning America, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/russians-unfazed-toothpaste-tube-bomb-warning-sochi-olympics/story?id=22388856