4 Chapter 4: EARLY PUBLIC PERCEPTION ABOUT NITRITE

Soils and Fertilizers Laboratory, Ottawa, from The Progress Report, 1912.
Soils and Fertilizers Laboratory, Ottawa, from The Progress Report, 1912.

Between the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s, industry and informed members of the public knew nitrite as an ingredient in medication [1] (Vaughn E, et al.;2010;  Jul–Aug; 18(4): 190–197) and sodium nitrite as an intermediary in the chemicals dye industry. (Concerning Chemical Synthesis and Food Additives)  Most people, however, knew nitrite as a toxic chemical that kills livestock and people if the drinking water has even small traces of it.  Such was the concern that nitrite levels in drinking water were reported in local newspapers every week to alert the public to possible contamination.  It is, therefore, no wonder that the public and authorities were very skeptical about its use in food.

At the beginning of the 1900’s, science developed a detailed understanding of the chemistry of curing which clearly showed the priority of nitrites in curing.  In contrast to this, the general public and their elected officials were against the direct use of nitrites in food.  As is many times the case, the scientific understanding was not general knowledge yet.

We now delve deeper into the story and  zoom in on developments in three parts of the world, Prague, Germany and in the USA, Chicago.  Events, dates, and places will start to overlap and two processes will become very important, the electric arc method of extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere and the Haber process.

As we do so, it is important to understand one more point in chemistry namely the close proximity of nitric oxide (CodeCogsEqn (13)), nitrous acid (HNO2), nitric acid (CodeCogsEqn (46)), nitrite (CodeCogsEqn (17)), nitrate (CodeCogsEqn (47)) and ammonia (CodeCogsEqn (48)).  All have a nitrogen atom as part of either the molecule or the ion.  The Haber process yields ammonia (CodeCogsEqn (48)) and the electric arc process, either nitrous acid (CodeCogsEqn (19)) or nitric acid (CodeCogsEqn (46)).  From any of these, nitrite (CodeCogsEqn (17)) can be formed.    (Webb, H. W.; 1923)

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Notes:

1. Nitrite as medicine.

“The organic nitrite, amyl of nitrite, was initially used as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of angina pectoris in 1867, but was replaced over a decade later by the organic nitrate, nitroglycerin (NTG), due to the ease of administration and longer duration of action.” BACK TO POST

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