It may be a cliché to refer to Robert Koch (1843-1910) as the father of bacteriology but it isn’t wide of the mark. The meticulously documented work of this Nobel Laureate demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge, ceaseless curiosity and gives us just a peek into his inventive mind. What it doesn’t tell us is whether or not, as a little one, his only child, Gertrude, had teething issues.
Purveyors of amber teething necklaces and bracelets would have parents believe that the man who isolated the mycobacterium Tuberculosis bacillus, the causative agent of TB also stumbled upon the near miraculous properties of succinic acid. Succinum is the Latin name for amber, which does, indeed, contain the chemical. Of Koch, certain websites have claimed that, “He confirmed its positive influences.” They suggest succinic acid is an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, immunity boosting and anxiolytic agent. Some insist it can help a teething baby sleep while others proclaim that it will,
“Compensate for energy drains…Boost awareness, concentration and reflexes.”
You’d think, if Gertrude had a tough time teething, her pioneering dad might have given succinic acid a go to relieve the poor child’s suffering.
Koch’s work on succinic acid made him puke.
Robert Koch devised an experiment whereby he ate half a kilo of butter daily and measured the concentration of succinic acid in his urine thereafter. This vomit inducing work formed part of his doctorate and his findings, entitled “Ueber das Entstehen der Bernsteinsäure im menschlichen Organismus,” were published in the journal, Zeitschrift für rationelle Medizin. Nowhere in this work, nor anywhere else that I can find, does the scientist extol the “positive influences” of succinic acid. In fact, while we’re at it let’s correct another point related to Koch that’s bandied about on sites shilling amber teething beads – he was awarded his Nobel Prize in 1905 and not 1866! Had to get that off my chest.
What Koch’s early work did show is that a relatively large amount of succinic acid is safe to consume. Succinic acid is used in the food industry as an additive to give a certain variety of sweetness and is commonly referred to on ingredient labels as succinate. Being a byproduct of fermentation it is also found in wines, beers and other alcoholic beverages. The pharmaceutical industry uses it to balance acidity. Additionally, it is a key ingredient in a popular alternative treatment which claims to alleviate some of the more troubling aspects of the menopause.
Get that out of your mouth!
However, to call succinic acid as found in amber an “active ingredient” is disingenuous in the extreme. Bear in mind that the beads on amber teething necklaces or bracelets are not meant to be chewed or gummed and certainly not swallowed. Sellers claim that,
“When amber is placed next to your skin, the warmth of your body releases healing oils, which are then absorbed through the skin into the blood stream.”
Now, after a beer or several I’ve been known to think I’m the Welsh Shakira – one hot momma – but not 185-189ºC hot – the melting point of succinic acid and definitely not the 350-370ºC required to extract oil of amber.
That amber delivers succinic acid transdermally in quantities capable of relieving pain or modulating the immune system is demonstrably false. In fact, in response to those in the UK (myself included) working to get amber teething beads banned, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has stated that,
“the products are not medical devices and would not be medicinal products because the transdermal effects of any remaining oils in the beads would not have a meaningful pharmacological effect.”
Consequently, as of October 2012, the Advertising Standards Authority has imposed tougher restrictions on their marketing,
“Marketers of these products should market the products on an availability-only basis unless they hold convincing evidence based on humans (Rule 12.1).”
Succinic acid is an irritant. Were it being released by the skin it would be released onto the skin. Why no warnings or reports of skin irritation after using the beads? Amber does not perceptibly break down or become more brittle with just hours or even months of continual wear, which is pretty much what you would expect if the “healing oils” contained in the beads were being extracted by whatever means.
Testimonials, fallacious and unprovable claims aside, these pieces of jewellery pose a credible danger to children made to wear them. Though many marketing these obvious strangulation and choking hazards stipulate that they are not suitable for children under 36 months old, it is clearly the parents of infants and younger toddlers who are purchasing these products. For most (though not all) children, the worst of teething is over and done with well before their third birthday.
Though manufacturers assure the safety of their products and encourage supervision at all times, no beaded jewellery, whatever its supposed purpose, is safe for young children. In fact, attempts to counter safety issues present new ones of their own. Knotted necklaces are advertised as posing a reduced choking risk as only one bead at a time can break off. The fact that seems to be overlooked is that a child can choke on just one bead. Some claim their necklaces to be exceptionally strong – this poses a strangulation/hanging risk to a child whose necklace catches on an object. Some have magnetic clasps to overcome this making the necklaces easy to pull off and so, put into the mouth. For years, charities and campaigners have been trying to make parents aware of the dangers of strangulation and hanging posed by chords of household blinds and curtains, ties on hats, bonnets and baby bibs and that work that may well have saved the lives of children is being undermined as parents introduce a new safety hazard into their children’s lives – one that amounts to nothing more than a cute, new age fad.