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Name: Donna
Status: educator
Grade: 4-5
Location: CA
Country: N/A
Date: October 2006

I am studying elements and compounds with my fourth grade class. They are very interested in the chemical compounds for different items. I am hoping to meet their enthusiasm with some interesting information that they can relate to. Can you send me some chemical formulas for some common household items? For example cleaning products, fingernail polish, various foods, simple plastics. Perhaps there are others.


Thanks for being so enthusiastic of a teacher! It's truly rewarding to entice kids to want to learn more about chemistry. Of course, I say that being a geeky chemist, so take that for what it is worth ;) Anyway, here is a list of things that I could come up with. Note that when I list an item, I am primarily listing its main or active ingredient. Thinks like Drain cleaner are mostly water, but the active ingredient is sodium hydroxide, so I will list it as sodium hydroxide and not water. So it will be important to note to your kids that there are usually many chemicals in any one product but only one or two give the product its main effect.

Drain cleaner - Sodium Hydroxide - NaOH (careful, this is of course a dangerous chemical)

Mouthwash - Ethanol/Ethyl Alcohol - EtOH or CH3CH2OH (you may or may not want to teach them this one)

Glass cleaner/Rubbing alcohol - Isopropanol/Isopropyl Alcohol - iPrOH or (CH3)2CHOH (this means that the two methyl groups are branched off of the CH group)

Ammonia - NH3 (gas dissolved in water, very corrosive)

Bleach - Sodium Hypochlorite - NaOCl

Table Salt - Sodium Chloride - NaCl

Sugar - Sucrose, which is two molecules of glucose put together - C6H12O6-C6H12O6

Vinegar - Acetic Acid - AcOH or CH3(C=O)OH or CH3COOH

Baking Soda - Sodium Bicarbonate - NaHCO3 You can combine vinegar and baking soda to make a volcano!

Fingernail polish has had a lot of different chemicals in it over the years and has been changed due to health and safety of the solvents used, so I will not get into this.

There are many plastics, which are all polymers and include long repeating chains of the given formulas. This may or may not be too complicated for your class without a lot of further explanation. Polyethylene (-CH2CH2-)n, where n determines how long the chain is and also the properties of the plastic. Teflon (PTFE) - polytetrafluoroethylene) (-CF2CF2-)n-(-CF2CF(OCF3))m look here for a structure if you cannot read


Antifreeze/coolant - Ethylene glycol - HOCH2CH2OH Gasoline and oil are too complicated of mixtures to explain, same with most detergents and soaps

Foods are usually too complicated too, but the minerals: zinc (Zn), magnesium (Mg), maganese (Mn), etc. are usually ions of the main elements. Vitamins are very structurally complex.

I hope that I have put enough things down here so that there are enough simple ones and enough complex ones so that they learn a good amount and are not left wanting for more! Good luck,

Matt Voss

Most household items are mixtures of several ingredients, which makes things a little more difficult, but there are some items that are relatively "pure" and "safe" for the 4-5 grade level. Common table salt is sodium chloride (NaCl) if you are getting into the shorthand symbols for elements, which is not a bad idea if you limit it to a few simpler ones. There is sugar, which is common enough, but has a much more complicated formula: C12H22O11 (see for how the atoms are put together. A simple example is aluminum (Al) as in aluminum foil. Baking soda (NaHCO3) is sodium hydrogen carbonate (common name sodium bicarbonate). Vinegar (plain white) is a 3% solution of acetic acid (CH3CO2H). This works well with baking soda because is "fizzes" CO2 when you mix the two -- and the reaction is harmless.

The labels on most household products have the ingredients listed on the side. You might be able to do some "label" detective work by looking for a particular substance in various household products without actually doing any experiments. The advantages here are: 1. ease of lesson preparation and 2. safety. 3. the wide range of products and ingredients that would be available.

Vince Calder

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