Yep. Flu Season. Bleh.
Everyone’s talking about getting your vitamin C and L-cysteine, but there’s more to a strong immune system than that. Airborne, the dissolvable, fruit-flavored immune-support tablets-in-a-tube contain nearly 2 dozen supplements, from Vitamin A to Zinc. There’s all sorts of weird stuff (herbs, vitamins and minerals) like selenium, echinacea, and riboflavin that scientists and doctors have hypothesized could ease symptoms of an illness, or at least make it shorter. “Herbal Supplements” are plant substances used to treat and prevent illness, “vitamins” are organic chemical substances (substances containing carbon) that plants and animals need for basic functions (growth, reproduction, etc.), and “minerals” are solid inorganic substances (don’t contain carbon) that are needed for muscle control, electrolyte balance and the skeleton.
Zinc is a mineral. It’s a metal made up of zinc. It is made of zinc and only zinc, which means it’s also an element. It’s number 30 on the Periodic Table, and is symbolized by Zn. It’s atomic mass is 65.406 g/mol, which is an average of how much an atom usually weighs if you add up the subatomic particles, like protons and neutrons.
But Zinc is so much more than the numbers assigned to it : D
First: a brief history:
Zinc has been used for a really, really long time for a whole lot of reasons. The first known use of zinc was around 20 B.C. by the ancient Romans, who used it in the production of brass (copper + zinc). In 1374, it became the 8th metal known to man- ever after: Gold, 6000BC, Copper, 4200BC, Silver, 4000BC, Lead, 3500BC, Tin, 1750BC, Iron (smelted), 1500BC, and Mercury, 750BC (dates are approximate). The production of zinc metal began in India, spread to China, and made its way to Europe several hundred years later (see: 16th century Germany- a scientist named Georgius Agricola, a.k.a. “the father of mineralogy”). It took a while, but people slowly figured out how to produce pure zinc from zinc oxide ore. The British learned to smelt zinc (1743), the Germans made it even easier to smelt, the French used it to stop corrosion (1836), and the United States figured out how to produce it in 1850. Before 1916, zinc was extracted from ore using very high temperatures (pryometallurgy), but then it was discovered that electrolysis (separation of substances using an electric current) could give greater, purer yields.
And, then we could produce zinc on an industrial scale. In fact, over 11 million tons of zinc are produced every year (converted to my favorite standard measurement, that’s like 2 million elephants). Yay! But, why? You don’t exactly hear people talking about zinc, say, buying a fancy zinc ring or something. About half of all the zinc we make is used for galvanization, a fancy word I could whip out as a kid after hearing my dad talk about submarines corroding (go navy!).
So, metal corrodes, right? That’s a chemical reaction. Steel, which is made out of iron (chemical symbol Fe on the periodic table), tends to rust (rust = corrosion). When iron atoms lose electrons, they become positively charged, and start reacting with things in the environment to become neutral again, because that neutral state is where they’re happiest. Usually, the thing they react with is water with oxygen dissolved in it (i.e. moisture in the air). A new compound, called iron hydroxide, is created. It reacts with water and oxygen again, to create the classic brown rust (hydrated iron oxide).
4Fe(OH)2 + O2 → 2H2O + 2Fe2O3.H2O
Iron hydroxide + oxygen → water + Hydrated iron oxide
And that’s your basic corrosion. It causes lots of familiar problems, like a pedal falling off your bike while you’re riding it because it’s rusted through (not good). Now, back to zinc. Zinc is really good at giving up electrons. It’s so much better at reacting with water that you can actually put a coating of zinc over steel, and the zinc will corrode, but the steel won’t. So, it’s like a sacrifice to the oxygen atoms. This is super useful for metal things in water (especially salt water) and industrial cooling towers (steam + steel = rust). You just have to re-apply the zinc coating when it’s corroded so you don’t get holes in your ship (bad). This process is called galvanization. Very important.
Other uses of zinc include diecasting, which is basically pressing molten metal into fun shapes, like engine blocks, and creating bronze and brass. More uses? Check out the silly clip below from Kentucky Fried Movie….
I know, none of these things sound even remotely related to your health. Actually, corrosion and nuclear subs, and electric currents all sound kind of bad for your health. However, even though zinc makes up only a tiny, tiny part of the human body (about 0.0032%), it’s a critical nutrient. It’s such a small percentage, but zinc plays an important role in various bodily functions, such as DNA production (and deficiency in a mother can lead to dwarfism in her child). Zinc is also necessary for cell division, protein formation, and wound healing. Zinc also helps your taste buds process different flavors, so a deficiency can cause decreased appetite. White blood cells require zinc during their formation and activation, so people with zinc deficiencies potentially have increased susceptibility to illness. Some studies have even shown evidence that Zinc binds directly to the rhinovirus, and keeps it from replicating, although this result is somewhat controversial. This website has loads of information about zinc and your health : ) Oysters contain more zinc than pretty much anything.
In any case, that’s why your cough drops have zinc in them.
I hope you enjoyed this post about Zinc! Stay healthy and warm,
mineral deficiency. (1998). In Mosby’s Emergency Dictionary. Retrieved from http://ripley.sbc.edu:2680/entry/ehsmed/mineral_deficiency
mineral. (2007). In Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary. Retrieved from http://ripley.sbc.edu:2680/entry/ehsvetdict/mineral
vitamin. (2008). In The Columbia Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://ripley.sbc.edu:2680/entry/columency/vitamin
“pyrometallurgy”. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford University Press. 19 January 2013 <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/pyrometallurgy>.
Yorifuji, Bunpei. Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified. San Francisco: No Starch, 2009. 103. Print.