What is the "glow stick" liquid made of, and is it toxic?

Dear Mr. Alice:

I recently attended a white-trash theme party which featured a real live stripper who, as part of her act, opened up glow sticks (the kind kids get at Halloween) and poured the fluorescent liquid on her body. The effect was, um, interesting, but I couldn't stop wondering what that glow stuff really is and whether or not it's such a good idea to coat your naked, undulating body with it.

-- The Duck, San Diego

Pa Alice offered to do the research on this one -- hang around after the show and keep an eye on the stripper in case she needs CPR or to check for nasty rashes. I told him we could handle it. I turned down the elves' offer to pour glow-stick stuff on my naked, undulating body instead. So we were reduced to our usual tactic of presenting our questions to strangers on the street until one of them comes up with a halfway reasonable-sounding answer or until we run out of time. In the case of the glowing stripper, I think we've got the naked facts for ya. And I'm glad to report, the lady will live to strip again.

Glow sticks come in many different forms and go by many names, but they all work basically the same way. Two chemicals mix, and the resulting reaction gives off a cold light. Chemiluminescence is the general name for the process. The specific glow-stick technology was developed with money from the Department of Defense, using fireflies as the biological model. And thanks to the unstoppable American imagination, not only do strippers now find the stuff handy, so do cows. More on them later.

Anatomy of a glow stick: Inner glass capsule containing a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and a phthalate ester solvent. Outer soft plastic capsule (in the form of a stick, necklace, earrings, button, whatever...) containing phenyl oxalate ester and fluorescent dye. Snap the inner capsule, and the resulting mixture frantically transfers oxygen atoms around, creating an unstable compound that gives off energy to the dye, then decomposes into carbon dioxide. The energized dye radiates the colored light you see in the light stick. In a cold environment, the chemical reaction is slowed so the light is dimmer but longer lasting. The opposite, of course, if it's hot.

Two major manufacturers of glow sticks say there's nothing in this soup of alcohol and acids that will hurt you if you get it on your skin. I don't think they had your stripper in mind when they said that, and she probably has to be careful of any glass shards that might be released, but a quick post-performance sponge bath should put her out of danger. (Though my attorney suggests that you forget I ever answered this question if you're not an experienced stripper with at least a B-plus average in two semesters of organic chemistry.) Some chemically created cold light uses a mixture that includes sodium hydroxide, which is potentially dangerous.

So, Matt, what's up with the cows? you're asking. What do cows have to do with strippers? The parallels are numerous and unsightly. So we'll limit our discussion to the glow stick connection. One of the niftier applications of chemiluminescence (aside from glowing crosses, suitable for hanging around your neck or carrying in night processions or awarding to particularly diligent Bible students -- imprinted with scripture or your own advertising message, the catalog says) -- anyway, better than glowing crosses is the Bovine Beacon. Unbeknownst to us civilians, one of a dairy farmer's biggest problems is knowing when a cow's in heat, a critical bit of info if the cow's to keep producing. But who's an expert at spotting a ripe heifer? A guy cow, natch. Whap a Bovine Beacon on the cow's haunches, and let nature take its course. And since 68 percent of the time nature takes its course between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., the farmer doesn't have to hang around to watch. The capsule inside the Bovine Beacon snaps from the weight of the bull, the dye fluoresces, and Bossy's got a light-up patch on her butt to let the farmer know what's what.

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