Among the many uses for zinc, boosting the immune system to fight the common cold is possibly the most commonly known.

This bluish-silver metal is also used for rust protection, die-casting, and many other medical purposes. The use that was most compelling to me, however, was as a sustainable building material.  A zinc roof can last 100 years (compared to a few decades for asphalt shingles) and is much less likely to wind up in a landfill compared to traditional roofing materials because zinc can be recycled indefinitely without loss of physical or chemical properties. As a nod to how eco-savvy zinc can be, this piece includes some recycled elements of its own, including scraps of old neckties and wrapping paper.


Vicky Bogart

Tin foil was once common wrapping material for drugs and foods, such as chocolate. Replaced by aluminum foil, tin foil is still used as a generic term for silver metal that comes in thin sheets. Tin cans, tin ceiling panels, and corrugated building sheathing are more often made of steel or aluminum with a coating of tin to inhibit rust.

Tin is alloyed with copper to produce bronze, and with copper, antimony and lead to produce pewter. If someone called you a “tinnie”, you might be one who enjoys a can of beer.


Gallium, as represented in this original cartoon drawing, is based on one of the tales told in Sam Kean’s book The Disappearing Spoon and other tales of madness, love and the history of the world from the periodic table of the Elements. Kean does a remarkable job sharing the stories behind the discovery of the elements in an interesting and very readable book, even for those of us non chemistry majors.

Gallium has one of the lowest melting points of any of the elements at 84 degrees Fahrenheit and was used as a practical joke by chemists when they molded spoons out of the metal and then watched the spoon disappear as their guests were served hot tea or soup. Today, other applications for gallium include electronic uses as a laser light in CD players, in LEDs and as a semi-conductor in computer chips.


Chemistry – it’s all Greek to me!  The Greek word Thallos, or ‘green twig’ is what Thallium was named after by Sir William Crookes,an English Chemist who observed a bright green line as he inspected sludge leftover from sulfuric acid with a spectroscope.


The margin is very “narrow” between toxic applications of this element and its beneficial use.  For example, it was used to treat skin infections but also to kill rodents and ants!  It has been banned from household use since 1974.


Lead deserves its bad reputation.  We’ve been exposed to the dangers of this heavy metal for thousands of years, from early Roman-built lead pipes to contemporary lead-based paint.  Only recently in the last half of the 20th century have scientists explained that there is no known amount of lead that is TOO small to cause some bodily harm.  Consider a fatal dose of lead when it’s fired from the barrel of a gun.

So keep your eyes open for clues to the ubiquitous nature of lead, especially if you’re in the library and Colonel Mustard is in residence.


Bismuth keeps some bad company. One element to the left is lead,  notable for causing the most important environmental illness existing today. To the right is polonium, a deadly radioactive poison used in genocide. In between sits the completely nontoxic pretty-in-pink bismuth, the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol, which we pull from drug store shelves to sooteh our queasy tummies. Makes me think a good game of musical chairs on the periodic chart is in order so the good guys can avoid hanging out with the bad.