One of the scariest things I have ever experienced happened to me as I was running to shelter from a storm in Pennsylvania. It was the summer of 2012 and I was in the middle of a wood trying to light a campfire when, without warning, the heavens opened. Luckily for me and the people I was with, shelter was not far away and we all began to run towards it. As we did, I started to get a strange feeling on my arms as if something was tugging at my hair. I stopped to look and saw that my hair, even though it was wet, was standing on end as if I were touching a powerful Van de Graaff generator. At the time, I did not understand what was happening, but before I knew it, BANG! There was a deafening noise and everything whited out for a split second. I jumped a mile and then realised what happened – that a bolt of lightning struck the ground ridiculously close to where I was stood. I ran as fast as I could, catching up to everyone else before making it safely inside. With adrenaline still pumping around our systems, we all began to talk about how close we must have been and how we have never seen storms like this in England. As we were talking with the thunderstorm continuing outside, I could not help but notice that there was a growing sterile smell in the air, similar to that of chlorine. This sharp aroma was, in fact, ozone, which had been generated by the thunderstorm outside.
Ozone was first isolated by German-Swiss Professor of Chemistry, Christian Friedrich Schönbein, who published his findings in 1840. Schönbein made his discovery after noticing that a gas was produced whilst he was performing electrolysis experiments on water that had the same distinct odour you find after a lighting storm. He named this gas “ozone” from the Greek word “ozein” meaning “to smell” however it was not until 1865 that Swiss Chemist Jacues-Louis Soret finally determined its structure to be an inorganic molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms.
Even before its structure was known, ozone was, and still is to this day, used as a water and air steriliser, as well as a surface disinfectant. It has also been used in the past as a way of disinfecting wounds, but as technology has advanced, coupled with the fact that ozone is quite toxic, it fell out of favour. Now, like so many redundant medical practices, it has been adopted by the alternative medicine crowd where its proponents are promoting it as a panacea that has the ability to cure, among other things, cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.
I recently came across a video from one of the many self-proclaimed experts on YouTube who are pushing this gas to vulnerable people. The video was called “Ozone Therapy at Home generator miracle cancer herpes lyme MS back pain oil medical acne machine for” which grammatically makes no sense, as well as showing a complete disregard for YouTube’s 100-character limit for titles. The reasons why I decided to single out this video was because firstly the thumbnail contained an image of the star of the video (a man named Rick Buck who is a dentist living in California) wearing a lab coat. I know this sounds petty, but one of my biggest pet peeves in life is when people wear inappropriate PPE to try to give their pseudoscience an air of credibility. This is clearly what rick was going for because at no point in the video does he wear his lab coat. Instead, I found that this image comes from a photoshoot he did whilst appearing on something called the Mormon Bachelorette. The second reason is that Rick, unlike nearly every other person promoting ozone therapy online, actually references scientific papers to back up the claims he makes. The video is just under 10 minutes long, but is so densely packed with, for lack of a better word, bullshit, that I am only going to cover the first 47 seconds.
The video starts off strong when Rick says that “Ozone therapy is the closest thing we have today to a miracle drug”. After hearing this, I instinctively rolled my eyes as I have found that if anyone tells you that “X” is a miracle drug and they are not being hyperbolic then, more often than not, they are a Snake Oil Salesman and they are taking you for a ride. Another red flag at the beginning of this video was the obligatory legal warning about the product about to be peddled, which is the calling card of quackery.
To convince us of ozone’s miraculous properties, Rick begins by saying that ozone therapy can do “four main things”. The first of these four is that it “destroys bacteria, viruses, yeast, funguses, and protozoa without hurting us when it’s done right”. As Rick is saying this, the abstract of the paper “Does ozone therapy normalise the cellular redox balance? Implications for therapy of human immunodeficiency virus infection and several other diseases” is flashed on screen, and Rick highlights the part where it says that ozone “can become an important and reliable drug for the treatment of several diseases”. What Rick failed to mention is that the paper he just referenced was published in Medical Hypotheses; a non-peer-reviewed journal that published unconventional ideas so long as they are coherent and clearly expressed. There might be some of you who remember this journal being used by Rebecca Watson to discredit the field of Evolutionary Psychology when she quoted the study ‘Why gentleman prefer blondes’. The journal has also received a lot of negative press after it published articles written by Peter Duesberg claiming there is still “no proof that HIV causes AIDS”.
The paper itself is a review of several papers looking into ozone’s ability to be used against HIV without enhancing its replication. However, it fails to do this because of the undeniable fact that ozone readily breaks down in the presence of water creating, among other things, hydrogen peroxide, making it useless as a way of fighting HIV infection. Another danger of coming into contact with ozone is that it can destroy carbon-carbon double bonds through a process called ozonolysis to produce carbonyls – destroying whatever organic compound it was originally part of, whilst simultaneously creating reactive intermediates which also may cause damage. The paper ends on a wishy-washy note, saying that ozone may become a useful drug, but never explains how this can be accomplished other than topical use.
When Rick talks about ozone not “hurting us when it’s done right”, he flashes up an image of a reaction pathway along with a picture of a destroyed bacteria. Naturally, you would presume this to be from the paper he just quoted, but it actually comes from a Scripps article called “Antibodies Produce Ozone During Bacterial Killing and Inflammation”. As you have probably already gathered by the title of the article, this image actually shows a previously unknown mechanism in which antibodies can kill pathogens by first engulfing them, then physically blasting them with oxidative species. The mechanism Rick flashed up on screen is the proposed pathway for their creation of these oxidative species where ozone is made as a reaction intermediate. So, Rick is correct when he said that ozone can be effective in destroying “bacteria, viruses, yeast, funguses, and protozoa without hurting us when it’s done right”, only he neglected to mention that by “done right” he actually meant “done by your immune system”.
Next, Rick says that ozone can signal and activate the immune system and this time references the paper “Evidence for antibody-catalysed ozone formation in bacterial killing and inflammation”. This coincidentally is the same paper the Scripps article was based on and looks into the evidence that ozone is produced by the immune system and its ability to damage pathogens. It does, however, at the end say the following:
“Ozone shares another key hallmark of immune effectors in that it not only kills but also functions as a signaling device that serves to amplify the inflamma- tory response by the production of nuclear factor kappa B (NF- B), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor– (TNF- ).”
One of the papers referenced here was “Ozone-induced Lung Injury and Sterile Inflammation. Role of Toll-Like Receptor 4” which looked at the immune response following ozone-induced injury of the lungs. Saying that ozone can signal and activate the immune system as Rick did whilst quoting this paper is the same as saying that bubonic plague also signals and activates the immune system…it’s not a good thing!
Finally Rick says that ozone is “actually part of our natural immune system” and quotes the paper “Studies on the biological effects of ozone 1. Induction of interferon gamma on human leucocytes.” Unfortunately I have been unable to find a copy because the journal doesn’t publish online anything before 1994, four years after this paper was published, making me question whether or not Rick has read the research he is quoting. However, as previously discussed, ozone does have a role to play in our immune system, and Rick is correct. What I take issue with is the fact that Rick is implying that because something is part of your “natural immune system”, it therefore must be good for you, or even safe. Hydrogen peroxide is also part of the same system as ozone, but you would not recommend anyone to drink large quantities of the oxidiser.
Next, Rick says that “when it activates our immune system it also includes tumor destroying proteins” and highlights part of the abstract which says “Maximal IFN production occurs 72-96 h after ozone exposure”. Interferons (IFNs) are a group of singling proteins released by a host cell that is infected with viruses, bacteria, parasites, etc. as well as by cancer cells. These proteins are used to communicate between cells and to trigger protective defenses by the immune system. Because I was unable to find this paper, I began to look for others in respected journals that show a link between ozone exposure and tumor suppression in vivo and found nothing. I did, however, find page after page of quack websites quoting the same abstract from the same paper as Rick without going into any more detail. I also found examples of people who had died from cancer despite whilst trying ozone therapy.
The third thing ozone can do, according to Rick, is increase “the energy production from a red blood cell so we have more energy” and links the paper “How Ozone Treatment Affects Erythrocyte”. First of all, any child with a GCSE in biology could tell you that red blood cells do not produce energy for the body; they simply transport oxygen and some carbon dioxide around the body.
The paper itself suggests that ozone therapy may have some beneficial effects on red blood cells improving the metabolism of oxygen, together with sugars and fats to produce energy through normal metabolic pathways but acknowledges the constraints and impracticality of using ozone. It openly admits that it is “intrinsically toxic, cannot be breathed, cannot be stored, and must be used with caution and competence” and it goes on to say that ozone can do great damage and is an “extremely reactive and unstable molecule”
The last effect that ozone has on the body, according to Rick, is that it “floods the body with readily available oxygen” and references the paper “Effect of ozone therapy on muscle oxygenation” on-screen, highlighting part of the abstract that says “indicating that the more poorly oxygenated muscles benefited most from the therapy”. The first real problem here is that Rick is citing a paper from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Therapies, which is the official journal of the Society for Acupuncture Research. The journal has a reputation of publishing misinformation, leading to Quackwatch including it on it’s list of “non-recommended periodicals”, characterising it as “fundamentally flawed”. What’s worse is that I don’t believe Rick has even read the research he is quoting, as there are an errors with the links on the website he was using which redirected to a different paper, written by a herbalist and naturopatic doctor, called “The Many Faces of Silybum marianum (Milk Thistle): Part 2 – Clinical Uses, Safety, and Types of Preparations”. At the end of the day, because this journal is so untrustworthy, it’s not even worth my time reading it.
You can tell by watching the video that Rick was hoping to overload the viewer with scientific research, leading them to believe that ozone therapy may have some potential. What he obviously was not planning on was a loser like me, with far too much time on my hands, meticulously going thought the papers he quoted to see if they have been used appropriately, and checking that they actually back up his what he is saying.
So far nothing he has said has been backed up by a credible paper in a credible journal, and that fact he is forced to reference garbage says al lot about him and ozone therapy.