At  position #108, Hassium seems more like an empty hole in the periodic chart than a respectable element. Found in nature? Not. Industrial uses?  Zero. Melting point, density, crystalline form?  Unknown.

So, how would you recognize Hassium in a crowd? He might use a number of aliases (aka Unniloctium, Hahnium) since his official name was only recently adopted in 1997 after great pressure from German scientists who discovered him. He might be wearing the proud black, red and gold of the Deutschland flag, but he won’t be lingering by the spätzle and sauerbraten since his half-life is 0.08 milliseconds.In the truest sense of the word, Hassium is a fleeting guy in search of a reason to exist. Best to avoid.


Sitting at #48 in the periodic table, cadmium is flashy, cheap and toxic– just like a bad boyfriend who charms his way into your life and never leaves.  “C’mon baby, let’s just hang out.”  Next thing you know, kidneys get lazy, lungs grow sluggish and bones get soft. If you’re lucky, it stops with short-term degeneration called cadmium blues; if not, you could die.

Cadmium preys on children who, with their low body weight, are particularly susceptible. When the US banned further use of lead in toys in 2008, Chinese manufacturers simply substituted cadmium.

With lots of well-connected political friends in the industry, cadmium continued to lurk behind the scenes until mid-2010 when 12 million cadmium-tainted Shrek glasses were recalled from McDonalds. Seems cadmium was found in the red and yellow paint.  Reports revealed that a six-year -old who touches such a glass eight times in one day has been exposed to hazardous levels of the carcinogen.

Covert and evasive, cadmium has so far dodged enhanced testing and higher safety standards.  Only in California has a bill made its way through the legislature requiring tough cadmium testing on childrens’ products sold in the state. Sad to say, testing doesn’t begin until 2012.


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.




If beryllium, a pale, hard-to-melt metal sitting at #4 in the periodic table, were to land on your tongue in a taste test, you’d suspect sugar, but don’t try this at home! Beryllium will never be a sugar substitute in our diets since even minute doses are extremely toxic.  Exposure to beryllium can scar the lungs and produce a nasty chemical pneumonitis.  As Sam Kean writes in The Disappearing Spoon, “when it comes to the periodic table, it’s best to keep our mouths shut.”


Artists have long been smitten with a color, cobalt blue, that traveled from the mines of Persia to China.  Persians used a cobalt glaze for the blue tiles of their mosques to represent the heavens.  Thank Jacques Thenard, a 19th century French scientist, for purifying cobalt into a pigment useable in paintboxes.