Friday, December 9, 2011

Homeopathy for Aquariums

In the skeptical community sometimes the question is asked, “if you had no morals, what scam would you do?”. The question is just a bit of fun; an exercise in trying to see how the woo woo merchants think. 

My answer is that I would make homeopathic products for sale to the aquarium industry. Many aquarium products are hit and miss; often due to poor aquarium husbandry and sometimes bad information. Packaged into a harmless excipient  (just like real aquarium medication tablets are; a tiny bit of active ingredient with a lot of filler) the homeopathic fish products would do no harm. They would not help either. Homeopathy is well known to be completely ineffective for any ailments in humans or animals. Check this article for a brief introduction to homeopathy

I think such as scam would work quite well, especially in the chain stores which often have poorly trained staff selling the product that makes the most profit for the company. In many cases, a fish will die regardless of treatment. In the case of spontaneous recovery; perhaps by resolving the underlying problem, it will be claimed that my miracle cure saved the day. If the fish dies, then obviously nothing could have saved it. Ka’ching! If I were such a heartless bastard to do such a scam, I would not even bother to put the homeopathy in the pills. I would just order a bunch of blank pills and put them in bottles with different labels “Miracle Fungus Cure”, “No More Bloat” or “Fish Prozac”! I would even offer a money back guarantee, knowing full well most people won’t bother and with the super high profit margin I would be able to afford to give a fairly high percentage of refunds. Actually, being smart I would send the retailer a replacement bottle to put on their shelf; it would cost me bugger all.

It would be too easy. I know where to get the pills and the bottles pre-labeled. I used to be a sales rep in the aquarium industry, it would be all too easy to get the product on the shelves.  A slick brochure and a stand at the Pet Expo would go a long way.

Looking at my bank balance, it is sad that I am not a heartless bastard.

The fact is most problems with aquariums are due to water quality. Over feeding, not enough water changes, too many fish and on we go. If you are having problems with your aquarium get expert advice. Go to a reputable aquarium specialist or have a professional come to your home to check up on the aquarium. Do not trust your friends Uncle who had fish once. While there are exceptions, you should not expect to get the best advice from a general pet store and especially chain stores.

The fabulous Dr Rachel Dunlop (@DrRachie) brought to my attention that at least one homeopath recommends homeopathy for fish illness.

In that article, it is suggested to add one pill of treatment per liter of aquarium water. Even for a very small aquarium of 50 liters (60cm, 2’) that means adding 50 pills to the water. Homeopathic pills are made by adding a drop of liquid preparation to a “blank” excipient pill, usually containing sucrose.

OK, so now homeopaths want to flog their magic to fish keepers. What’s the harm? Apart from making your wallet lighter without any possibility of helping your problem? Good question. Based purely on conjecture, I have concerns about the contents of the excipient. In particular I am concerned about the effects of sugar in the aquarium.

Bacteria love aquariums; they are temperature controlled, have plenty of oxygen and have plenty of nutrients, like ammonia and fish poo. Even so the limiting factor for bacterial growth is usually nutrients. Overfeed your fish and watch the water go cloudy. The cloudiness is bacteria blooming. When this happens the bacteria use more oxygen for metabolism. This leaves less oxygen for the fish, which if bad enough can lead to fish death; especially if the fish are already suffering from disease or poor water quality.

In some cases, the exponential growth of bacteria can quickly lead to a situation where oxygen levels get so low that all the fish die; leaving you with a stinking mess. I have seen this too many times.

What does this have to do with homeopathy? Imagine adding sugar to your aquarium. This would be a lovely source of nutrients for bacteria. In a well established, properly care for aquarium that is not overstocked it would probably only cause a small blip. In the real world, you are adding pills because the fish are sick. Often sick fish equals poor water quality. Sounds like a risk to me.

Won’t the filter take care of the sugar? You can add activated carbon to some filters to polish the water, however they will also remove the active ingredient (if there were any). In a healthy aquarium dissolved organic compounds are broken down buy “good” bacteria, which grow on a surface such as your filter sponge or in the gravel. These bacteria are very slow growing, which is why it takes so long to establish a new aquarium. If you suddenly add an influx of new nutrients, such as fish food or sugar, the good bacteria are overwhelmed. Instead free living “bad” bacteria grow very rapidly, making your water cloudy.

I am not going to go into detail about the different bacteria and their life cycles, there are hundreds of articles on the web.

I know what you are thinking; “this is all conjecture”. True. Although I have some experience. Over the years I have tried just about everything you can do to an aquarium, including many methods of getting the new aquarium established. I have even tried adding sugar; which resulted in a cloudy mess of water. I know anecdote does not equal evidence or that table sugar does not equal homeopathic pills. So I am going to try a little experiment; sample size of one.

In my garage I have over 4,000 liters in various aquariums used for my business. I am going to put a few goldfish in an established, healthy aquarium and I am going to dose it with the recommended rate of Brauer Sleep and Insomnia Relief tablets at the recommended rate of one tablet per litre. The aquarium I am using holds approximately 160 liters, so I am adding 160 tablets, which cost me $32.  This NOT a cheap way to medicate an aquarium.

What will happen? Well, if homeopathy works on fish, then all the fish should go to sleep. I doubt that will happen, but we will see. I am curious to see what, if any effect there is on water quality. I am 50:50 which way it will go as this is a well maintained aquarium that has a partial water change every two weeks, has no gravel to trap waste and is powered by an excellent filter (Ehiem 2228) which is also regularly serviced.

I am reporting on my plans before I start the experiment and will report back once the results are in. This should only take a few days.

PS: I know my skills with Photopaint are not terrific, but you got the idea didn't you.
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Update: My little science experiment has been post-poned due to other commitments that have come up. I will get to it over the Xmas break.

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