How Knowing Chemistry May Save Your Life

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Life or Death Chemistry Situations

Chemistry can help you distinguish between poison and medicine.
Chemistry can help you distinguish between poison and medicine. Lebazele, Getty Images

Chemistry gets a bad rap because it's a challenging science, but it isn't just about memorizing chemical reactions and playing with a bunsen burner. Understanding basic chemistry could actually save your life. Take a look at situations where a little knowledge makes a big difference.

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Chemical Structures Are More Important Than You Think

You can't tell the difference between water and sulfuric acid simply by looking at the chemicals.
You can't tell the difference between water and sulfuric acid simply by looking at the chemicals. Bert Hardy Advertising Archive, Getty Images

One of the best known chemistry rhymes is, "Johnny was a chemist, but Johnny is no more, for what he thought was H2O was H2SO4." The lesson of the rhyme is to (a) label your chemicals and (b) don't drink clear liquids that appear to be water, especially in a chemistry lab.

Knowing the chemical formulas for common chemicals can help save your life. Everyone should know water is H2O. You should also know that the similar-looking compound H2O2 is hydrogen peroxide, which is horribly lethal when it's concentrated. NaCl is sodium chloride or ordinary table salt. Contrast that with HCl, which is hydrochloric acid.

In addition to knowing what chemical formulas mean, you can save yourself some pain if you know the appearance of some elements and compounds. For example, if you see a liquid metal at room temperature, it's a safe bet it's toxic mercury. No touchy!

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Know Which Chemicals You Shouldn't Mix

Certain chemicals should not be mixed because toxic vapors or an explosion may result.
Certain chemicals should not be mixed because toxic vapors or an explosion may result. mediaphotos, Getty Images

Oil and vinegar don't exactly mix, but if you add one to the other you get salad dressing, not something dire. So, you might think mixing other household chemicals is equally safe. Not so! A little chemistry knowledge can save you from disaster. Chemicals you shouldn't mix include bleach and vinegar, bleach and ammonia, and peroxide with vinegar. Basically, don't mix cleaners unless they are made to go together.

There are non-dangerous examples of chemicals that don't go together, too. For example, the enzymes in fresh pineapple will prevent gelatin from setting.

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Prevent Accidental (or Intentional) Poisoning

While you may never encounter intentional poisoning, the accidental variety is possible if you don't understand basic chemistry.
While you may never encounter intentional poisoning, the accidental variety is possible if you don't understand basic chemistry. Leemage, Getty Images

 A little chemistry know-how can help prevent accidental poisons. Did you know uncooked or undercooked beans contain a toxin that can cause a form of food poisoning. Apple seeds and other seeds from the same plant genus contain a cyanide compound that can cause problems if eaten in excess. Even eating a mango may give you problems, if you're especially sensitive to the toxin found in poison ivy.

As far as intentional poisoning goes, if someone has it out for you and offers a drink that smells strongly of bitter almonds, you might want to decline. That's the scent of cyanide.

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Use Chemistry To Survive Chemical Weapon Attacks

Chemistry can protect you against chemical agents.
Chemistry can protect you against chemical agents. Frank Rossoto Stocktrek, Getty Images

If you know the properties of chemical agents, you can avoid or survive chemical weapon attacks. If you're ever exposed to chlorine gas, for example, it's helpful to know it's heavier than air, so you can avoid it if you climb to a higher location, like upstairs or uphill. Also, many chemical agents have tell-tale odors, so you can identify what's in the air or know to get away.

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Use Chemistry To Survive the Holidays

Holiday baking is stressful if you run out an ingredient. Use chemistry to make a substitution and save the day.
Holiday baking is stressful if you run out an ingredient. Use chemistry to make a substitution and save the day. Betsie Van der Meer, Getty Images

Using chemistry to make emergency baking substitutions won't save your life, but it could save your cake. Actually, during the holidays, getting everyone fed could seem like a life and death situation. The substitution between baking powder and baking soda is the most likely scenario, but cooking chemistry can offer several other options for ingredient switches.

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Use Chemistry To Fight Fires

Chemistry is used to identify the right (and wrong) way to extinguish a fire.
Chemistry is used to identify the right (and wrong) way to extinguish a fire. Monty Rakusen, Getty Images

You know there are different types of fire extinguishers, right? You need to know enough chemistry to not put water on an electrical fire or a grease fire. Suffocate those fire using salt or carbon dioxide. You can even make carbon dioxide using a chemical reaction to make a homemade fire extinguisher, in a pinch (or for education).