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Traveling to customers can cause severe wear and tear on your body. When I was in my forties it would be a treat to visit new cities, smile on fresh faces and hear interesting stories. Now I make these trips for AHV apprehensively.

This week I am in Texas again visiting a half dozen oil companies that use the power supplies I have designed. It is a goodwill trip. By the end of the week with all of the restaurant food I have consumed, the kind you can’t get in Elko (like German and Indian), my insides are in a knot and ready for a good dose of relief with a swig of Pepto-Bismol.

The small Barbie-pink bottle I carry in my luggage promises my stomach some relief from gathering indigestion. Don’t know what I’d do without it. A product of the Procter & Gamble company, Pepto-Bismol has a long and interesting history that extends over a hundred years.

Bismuth, the 83rd element in the periodic table, is its active component and has been known since ancient times. Although not really a soft metal, it was often confused with lead and tin when mined. In 1753, Claude François Geoffroy from France demonstrated that bismuth is actually an individual element.

The word bismuth itself is derived from the German word ‘wismuth’ meaning white mass. Once regarded to be the heaviest stable element in the periodic chart, it was discovered 15 years ago that its only natural isotope, Bi-209, was very slightly radioactive and an alpha particle emitter with a calculated half life of 1.9 x 10%5E19 years — a period of time much longer than the age of our universe.Despite this lengthy time you would still see about 10 radioactive decays a day in a normal bottle of Pepto (because there are just so many atoms present) where an atom of bismuth transmutes into an atom of thallium-205 – a violent poison.

Bismuth is mainly found in the ores bismuthinite (bismuth sulfide) and bismite (bismuth oxide). It is commonly obtained as a by-product in copper, lead and tin mining, and is therefore relatively inexpensive for a rare metal with the world’s production about 15,000 tons per year. Pure bismuth typically sells for $20 a pound.

Although bismuth is considered a heavy metal, it is remarkably harmless for humans to ingest (even less toxic than sodium chloride) and is widely used in medical applications for its good antibacterial properties.

The earliest use of bismuth compounds in medicine appears to have been in the Middle Ages when it was first used to treat microbial infections such as syphilis and colitis. The first full account of the internal administration of a bismuth compound was in 1786 by Louis Odier for the treatment of dyspepsia, the pain or uncomfortable feeling in the upper middle part of your stomach.

Sometimes bismuth is employed in the cosmetic world also, especially if you want to impart a silvery sheen to makeup. Bismuth oxychloride, sometimes known as BIRON powder, does the trick because when light reflects from its surface, the plate-like crystal structure displays wave interference patterns, producing a soft, pearly iridescence.

Sometimes this compound finds use in catheters for diagnostic and surgical procedures due to its radio-opaque nature (being a heavy metal).

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But the most well-known bismuth-based medicine in the world is Pepto-Bismol, the widely available over-the-counter medicine used for common stomach disorders. The active ingredient is bismuth oxide salicylate, called simply bismuth subsalicylate on the active ingredient list.

First developed by a doctor in his home in the early 20th century to cure “cholera infantum,” an inflammatory disorder that afflicted infants suddenly, causing diarrhea, the exact mechanism of its action is still not well understood, but it is believed to work by covering the abdominal walls with a protective coating that prevents further irritation.

Because salicylic acid is usually associated with aspirin, bismuth subsalicylate displays anti-inflammatory properties as well. It can also be used as an antacid.

Originally Manufactured by Norwich Pharmaceutical Company of New York under the name “Bismosal,” it was renamed Pepto-Bismol in 1919. That company was acquired by Procter and Gamble in 1982.

The pretty pink color is due to a combination of Red dye No. 22 and 28.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at or


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