8 Dangerous Items That Used to Be Allowed in Kids' Chemistry Kits


Although children’s chemistry kits were first manufactured in the 18th century, it wasn’t until around the time of the Great Depression that they became a popular toy. The marketing was simple: chemistry kits paved the way for kids to have a career in science.

As Rosie Cook of the Chemical Heritage Foundation told Smithsonian magazine: “Coming out of the Depression, that was a message that would resonate with a lot of parents who wanted their children to not only have a job that would make them money but to have a career that was stable. And if they could make the world a better place along the way, then even better."

That's all fine and good, but unfortunately, as early versions of these chemistry kits were bolstering a child's career prospects, they were also posing a serious threat to their health. Many sets contained items that would horrify modern consumers, and it wasn't until the Federal Hazardous Substances Act of 1960 that the ingredients in chemistry kits started to become closely regulated. To celebration National Chemistry Week, we're looking back at a few of the shocking inclusions. 


There are an infinite number of reasons why a blowtorch in the hands of a child is a bad idea, but early chemistry kits included them so kids could produce flames for their experiments. This illustration from a chemistry manual shows one such example. The budding chemist ignites sodium bisulfate with blowtorch of the literal variety—powered through a mouth-blown tube. If that’s not scary enough, there was an entire kit devoted to glass-blowing, because mom and dad definitely want you to be doing that at home.


Iodine solution was originally included in these kits because it can be used to test for starch, but chemicals can multitask, and this one can also help make methamphetamine. On top of its potential for the unlawful, if more than 2g of pure iodine are ingested, it can be lethal.


If the "cyanide" in the name doesn’t give it away, this was not a safe chemical. That's not to say it isn't useful—it can create Prussian blue dye—but it’s no longer in chemistry kits because it’s slightly toxic in high enough levels … and it has a scary name.


Uranium dust was often included in "nuclear" and "atomic energy" kits common in the 1950s. It was intended for use with a spinthariscope, a device through which a young chemist could see radioactive disintegration. "By today's standards, they're terribly dangerous but they're fascinating nonetheless,” Cook told the BBC.


Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab came with radioactive sources that emitted alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Young scientists could watch the alpha particles travel thanks to the cloud chamber that was also included in the kit, and while it might not have been Marie Curie-levels of exposure, but it certainly could not have been good. 


Some kits even allowed young scientists to deviate from the curriculum and create smoke bombs. A key ingredient in the mix is potassium nitrate, which is also found in gunpowder, fireworks and some older solid fuel rockets.


Copper sulfate can be used to deposit a thin layer of metallic copper on metal surfaces, which might look nice but comes at a price—the stuff is poisonous if ingested, though immediate vomiting usually helps combat its toxicity. 


Calcium hypochlorite is an oxidizer that can create chlorine gas which can be toxic and can irritate the respiratory system. Not exactly the sort of fresh air you want the kids to be getting during their playtime.

This article originally ran in 2015.

Not-So-Fancy Feast: Your Cat Probably Would Eat Your Rotting Corpse

Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images
Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images

Cat enthusiasts often cite the warmth and companionship offered by their pet as reasons why they’re so enamored with them. Despite these and other positive attributes, cat lovers are often confronted with the spurious claim that, while their beloved furry pal might adore them when they’re alive, it won’t hesitate to devour their corpse if they should drop dead.

Though that’s often dismissed as negative cat propaganda spread by dog people, it turns out that it’s probably true. Fluffy might indeed feast on your flesh if you happened to expire.

A horrifying new case study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences offers the fresh evidence. The paper, first reported by The Washington Post, documents how two cats reacted in the presence of a corpse at Colorado Mesa University’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, or body farm, where the deceased are used to further forensic science for criminal investigations.

The study’s authors did not orchestrate a meeting between cat and corpse. The finding happened by accident: Student and lead author Sara Garcia was scanning surveillance footage of the grounds when she noticed a pair of cats trespassing. The cats, she found, were interested in the flesh of two corpses; they gnawed on human tissue while it was still in the early stages of decomposition, stopping only when the bodies began leaching fluids.

The cats, which were putting away one corpse each, didn’t appear to have a taste for variety, as they both returned to the same corpse virtually every night. The two seemed to prefer the shoulder and arm over other body parts.

This visual evidence joins a litany of reports over the years from medical examiners, who have observed the damage left by both cats and dogs who were trapped in homes with deceased owners and proceeded to eat them. It’s believed pets do this when no other food source is available, though in some cases, eating their human has occurred even with a full food bowl. It’s something to consider the next time your cat gives you an affectionate lick on the arm. Maybe it loves you. Or maybe it has something else in mind.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Wolf Puppies Play Fetch, Too, Study Finds

Christina Hansen Wheat
Christina Hansen Wheat

It took thousands of years of selective breeding for wolves to become the Golden Retrievers you see at dog parks today. Domesticated dogs are very different from their wild counterparts, but according to a new study, they may have a surprising trait in common. Researchers found that some wolf puppies are willing to play fetch with total strangers, suggesting that following human commands is intrinsic to canines.

For their study in the journal iScience, researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden set out to find how domestication affects behaviors in young wolves. They raised litters of wolf and dog pups separately from 10 days old and placed them in various scenarios.

When the scientists tested how the wolf puppies would respond to a game of fetch, they expected to be ignored. Chasing a ball and bringing it back requires understanding human commands and obeying them—abilities that were thought to only have emerged in dogs post-domestication.

The first two wolf groups met expectations by showing little interest in the toy, but something different happened with the third set. Three eight-week old pups went after the ball and brought it back when they were encouraged to do so. This was the case even when the person giving the commands was someone they had never met before.

Even though most of the puppies didn't play fetch, the fact that those who did belonged to the same litter indicates a "standing variation" for a retrieving trait in wolves. "When you talk about a specific trait in the context of standing variation, it means that there is variation for the expression of this trait within a given population," co-author Christina Hansen Wheat tells Mental Floss. "For our study it suggests that, while probably rare, standing variation in the expression of human-directed behavior in ancestral populations could have been an important target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication." In other words, ancient people seeking to domesticate wolves might have focused on some wolves' innate ability to follow human commands.

The first dogs were domesticated as far back as 33,000 years ago. Over millennia, humans have selected for traits like loyalty, friendliness, and playfulness to create the modern dog, but these new findings could mean that the dog's earliest canine ancestors were genetically predisposed toward some of these behaviors.

"All three litters were brought up under identical and standardized conditions across years," Hansen says of the pups in the study. "With this significant effort to control the environmental conditions, it is likely that the differences in behavior across litters to some extent have a genetic basis."

After raising the dog and wolf litters for three years and completing that part of their study, the researchers will continue to analyze their data to see if there are any other adorable (or weird) traits the two groups share.