Thursday, June 10, 2010

(empo-tymshft) On Tetrox

In a previous post I included a small reference to Tetrox. Let me - carefully - explain what Tetrox is.

Back in the mid-1970s I attended several Boy Scout camps near Goshen, Virginia. Since we were living in tents and cooking over a campfire, we needed a way to clean our cooking utensils. The Boy Scouts helpfully provided us with a product called Tetrox, along with this warning - if you ingested Tetrox, it YOU out.

During my first trip to scout camp as an 11 year old, I became convinced that I had gotten Tetrox poisoning. Lord Baden-Powell would not have been proud to know that I started crying.

The adults were trying to figure out what I was crying.


"He's probably been eating a lot of fruit," said one adult.

"Maybe he's homesick," said another.

"I'M HOMESICK!" I blubbered.

Eventually I calmed down, but you can be sure that the name "Tetrox" stuck in my mind, even if I never truly ingested the stuff.

Now I never went to the famous Philmont Scout Camp in New Mexico (although I passed by it last summer on my cross-country train trip), but Tetrox was apparently popular there also. Daniel P. Bestul described it for people who weren't familiar with it.

Specifically, an industrial strength detergent. Back in the day of cooking over an open fire, crews mixed up a paste of the Tetrox powder and water, and smeared it on the outside of the cooking pots. The paste cooked up to a nice, crusty shell that cleaned off relatively easily.

Ingesting a very small amount would do an equally good job of cleaning out your gastro-intestinal system, hence the "Tetrox Trots"

Dr. Bob Klein told a Tetrox-related story:

In one of the more ridiculous occurences of my first Phil-trek ('72), one of our Crew members tetroxed himself to get off the trail, so he could go back to Basecamp and play cards with all the other members of "F" Troop. My Advisor was not a happy camper....

Actually, he was unsuccessful, having added only enough to make his canteen a little foamy. And the taste was apparently so lousy he couldn't stand to complete the dirty deed after all. He got some extra sessions in the latrines, and a lot closer supervision from our Advisor than he wanted, but other than that his misery continued unabated.

Dr. Klein shared a link to a material safety data sheet (PDF) for Tetrox, including the line "May cause stomach distress, nausea or vomiting."

The implication is that Boy Scouts aren't using Tetrox any more, and if I'm reading Bestul correctly, even open campfires seem to have gone away. I found an article about a possible E. coli outbreak at Goshen in 2008, which, while noting that contaminated meat was the suspected culprit, also mentioned:

Some Scouts at Goshen cook their own food, but Scout officials said they increased supervision over cooking after the start of the outbreak.

Hmm...only some Scouts cook their own food? Back in the 1970s we all did.

The article also describes how the outbreak was discovered:

Scout officials learned that at least two more campers who attended Goshen last week were also showing symptoms of the bacterial infection, which include bloody diarrhea, vomiting and nausea.

Now, are they sure it was the meat?
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