Issue 95

A second wave of grief, super-stable glass, and drug quarantines

June 28, 2020

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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Friend, how are you? No need to actually answer (although you’re welcome to reach me at scrapfacts@gmail.com) but I ask you to take a moment to sit and look inward to notice how you are—how you really are.

It’s okay if you’re not feeling 100%. Since I last wrote, I’ve felt restless and irritable. I was quick to cry last week.

I had no idea why until last Tuesday when I was cleaning out the Quartz DC office (those of us outside of the New York office are fully remote now). On my desk, which I hadn’t seen for months, I found old notes I had written to myself as reminders of specific compliments my former boss, Lauren Brown, paid to me in 2016. They were simple, and arguably forgettable—stuff like “Lauren said she was proud of me”—but Lauren, although immeasurably kind, was a tough editor. Her praise was genuine and rare.

I wrote down her words then so that they could serve as future encouragement, and I’m very glad I did. (In general, I’ve found that if you have moments when you don’t believe in yourself, you can borrow from someone else’s belief in you temporarily.) But seeing them again in that quiet office brought up another feeling: grief.

Lauren died last October. She had terrible genetic luck, and developed breast cancer in her early 20s. She died before she hit 40. I wouldn’t say we were great friends, but she meant a tremendous deal to me. I wasn’t expecting to feel the mix of sadness for death, anger at cancer, and warmth from her memory like that.

But noticing that those words brought up remnants of grief made me realize that it’s the same feeling I’ve had over these past few weeks—albeit in a subdued form. In the United States, where I live, case counts of Covid-19 have creeped up ominously until this week, when they spiked violently. States are halting their reopening plans. Organizers are cancelling fall activities. It feels like we’re at the start of March again. As grief expert David Kessler pointed out then to the Harvard Business Review, it’s many types of grief, but wound up in there is a sort of anticipatory grief of not knowing when the pandemic will end, which is exacerbated by the ongoing reckoning the country is having with the systemic racism that has poisoned it for hundreds of years.

It’s understandable that you’d feel sad, defeated, or powerless. But, as I wrote in Quartz’ weekend brief yesterday, it’s important to remember that while these feelings can make us feel out of control, there are some things we can control. We can still wash our hands and wear a mask. We can call our friends and families to check in. We can practice patience and kindness toward strangers. We can take civic action like calling our representatives and peacefully demonstrating. We can educate ourselves on history. We can take breaks from all of that to find little bits of joy that recharge us, so we can keep going.

If you are going through more kinds of acute grief than these general feelings, my friend, my heart goes out to you. I am so sorry for your loss, and I hope that you can find moments of peace cherishing happy memories. If you’re feeling the way I’ve been—feeling like you can’t put your finger on why you’re upset or anxious or unproductive—I want you to know that you’re not alone. We’re going to get through all of this, and hopefully make some changes for the better along the way.

And now, for a few scrap facts:

Medical-grade glass is far more chemically stable than the material we drink from.

Found while reporting: The US government is spending millions to prevent a shortage of glass vaccine vials.

The vast majority of glass is silicon dioxide—the most abundant mineral in the world, often found as sand, whose chemical formula is SiO2. (Quartz is silicon dioxide in crystal form.) But the rest of the minerals that make up glass vary quite a bit—and it turns out, these changes matter.

The glasses we drink out of are SiO2 with a mix of sodium, calcium, aluminum, and magnesium (and combinations of these elements with oxygen). Together, this glass—called soda lime glass—is sturdy enough. We keep our glassware for ages, after all.

But on a molecular level, it starts falling apart almost immediately. Substances like water, which is the base of everything we drink, interact with some of these other elements. The effect is that these elements will leach out into our drink—although it’s never dangerous for us. The only time we notice, in fact, is after decades of use when the glass becomes foggy in appearance. That discoloration is not a buildup of drink residue, but the product of a chemical reaction.

For science and medicine, that interaction will not do. Liquid drugs—like injectable medications or vaccines—have to be exactly what they’re intended to be, for safety and efficacy’s sake. No added minerals whatsoever. So glass chemists have tinkered with the chemical compound and deduced that adding more aluminum and another element called boron is a much more stable substitute—and can even withstand different parts of the glass getting hot while other parts remain cold.

It’s much harder to make so-called borosilicate glass, which is why it’s only used in medical and scientific settings. And as scientists continue to fight against Covid-19, it’s critical that the supply chain can support their developments.

Bonus fact: TikTok—yes, that TikTok—is one of the hodgepodge of governmental and corporate donors trying to ensure poor countries can get Covid-19 vaccines.

Super bonus fact: Okay not actually a fact, but look at this toddler on TikTok. He’ll make you smile.

IV drugs go their own two-week quarantine for safety purposes.

Found while reporting: Dexamethasone’s supply chain is the most exciting thing about it.

If you stumble across a life-saving drug that needs to be mass-deployed immediately, cross your fingers that it’s in pill form.

This is because as far as drug-making goes, pills are much easier to mass-produce than liquid drugs. And after you make them, it doesn’t take nearly as long to do basic safety tests on them.

It may seem obvious that pills are dry (although liquid-gels fall into a more complicated category), but still, scientists have classified them as having “low water activity.” This means that it’d be much harder for contaminating bacteria to grow in or on them.

Liquid drugs, on the other hand, have “high water activity,” which means that, “they have to pass sterility testing which typically requires quarantining the product for two weeks,” Michael Ganio, the senior director of pharmacy practice and quality at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, told me. After two weeks, if there are no other contaminants like dust particles, and there are no chemical remnants of harmful bacteria known as endotoxins, the drugs can finally get shipped for use.

The advantage of liquid drugs is that they can often be injected, which means they work faster and can be stronger because they’ve bypassed the stomach and liver, which degrade and filter anything we take in orally. Pills have to contain active ingredients that can withstand this chemical and mechanical transformation, which can be harder to make in the lab—but typically faster to mass produce and more stable on the shelf later.

That’s all for now—stay curious, friend ❤️

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Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.