What would happen if you ate one of those silica gel packets?

iStock/bymandesigns
iStock/bymandesigns

Well, for one thing, you'd be eating a misnomer. Silica gel isn't actually a gel, but a granular form of silicon dioxide (SiO2), a compound formed when silicon is oxidized.  Silica gel is synthetic but SiO2 is also commonly found in nature (I trust you've heard of sand and quartz.)

But before we discuss the consequences of ingestion, here's a quick history lesson. Silica gel has been around since at least the 1600s, but was a scientific curiosity until its absorbent properties were put to use during World War I in gas mask canisters. Walter Patrick, a chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University, patented silica gel in 1919 and joined with Grace Davison, a Maryland-based chemical company, to further develop it. Davison began selling silica gel in 1923 but it didn't take off until World War II.

Silica gel can absorb a lot of water—about a third of its weight—without undergoing a chemical reaction or changing shape. Even when they're saturated, the granules stay dry to the touch and can be reused after heating at 250 °F for two hours. These properties make silica gel extremely useful for controlling moisture and humidity, and during the war it was used to keep medicine, military equipment and supplies dry.

Today it's packaged with leather products, pepperoni, electronics and vitamin pills and used in museums and libraries to guard against rust, corrosion, tarnishing, mildew, mold and spoilage.

Risk Assessment

So what happens if you decide to defy the warning on the packet, defy the social norms of polite society and munch on a few granules? I hate to be anti-climactic, but most likely, the answer is "¦nothing! (Of course, there are some caveats, which we'll get to in a minute.)

If you think about it, silica gel is basically man-made sand. It's non-toxic and chemically non-reactive. People who have eaten anywhere from a few beads to a whole packet have reported no ill effects. If you're curious, it's reportedly almost tasteless, like licking a postage stamp.

Why the Skull & Crossbones?

Why the warnings, then? Well, silica gel isn't completely dangerous, but it isn't completely safe. Here are a few reasons the packets come with stern warnings:

Dehydration "“ Silica gel's job is to absorb moisture, and it's going to keep doing that as you digest it. You'd have to eat an awful lot of it to dehydrate yourself, but if you did, it would dry you out in no time.

Silicosis "“ This lung disease, also called Grinder's disease and Potter's rot, is caused by inhaling silica dust and causes symptoms like scarring and nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs, shortness of breath, fever, and cyanosis (blue tinted skin).

Foreign vapors and toxic additives "“ You don't know what the silica gel was exposed to between Point A and Point B. Eating a packet that came in a box of cockroach traps is definitely not recommended, but the gel could have absorbed other nasty stuff during manufacture or shipping and absorbed it. Sometimes, these things are added intentionally and packaged silica gel might have a bit of fungicide or pesticide added to it.

Another additive to watch out for is cobalt(II) chloride, which is toxic. This is added to the gel when a visible indication of absorption is needed. The cobalt(II) chloride makes the granules blue when they're dry and turn pink when they're saturated.

And the biggest reason? Lawsuits! "“ Even if the contents of a packet are plain old silica gel with no cobalt(II) chloride, and there's no silica dust present and there aren't enough granules to cause dehydration, companies have been sued over far stupider things. They're just covering their butts.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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