Simanaitis Says

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BROMINE, FROM the Greek, βρῶμος, brómos, as in “strong-smelling,” is a fuming liquid at room temperature. It’s toxic and corrosive. But it isn’t all bad. It just comes from a bad neighborhood, of the Periodic Table, that is.

Bromine is a halogen, together with astatine, chorine, fluorine and iodine. These last three are familiar; I never heard of astatine except in the first verse of Tom Lehrer’s song The Elements. My enthusiasm for sharing tidbits of bromine arises from a BBC World Service Business Daily podcast, March 5, 2015, (first broadcast, September 17, 2014).


Bromine, Br, Atomic number 35, like other halogens, sometimes a bad actor.

Another member of the halogen neighborhood, chlorine, is known for having gassed soldiers in World War I; yet it also keeps swimming pools free of bacteria. And, in a familiar compound form, sodium chloride, NaCl, (salt), it makes french fries taste even better.

Fluorine, another neighbor, is toxic and highly reactive, chlorofluorocarbons contributing to the ozone hole; yet fluoride enhancement of drinking water is thought beneficial to dental care (except by those subscribing to conspiracy theories).

Bromine has a dual personality too.


Transporting bromine is no easy matter; it’s corrosive and its fumes are toxic. Image from W. Oelen.

As described in the BBC podcast, a piece of aluminum foil ignites in the stuff, forming aluminum bromide and a stinking smoke.

Early in the 20th century, though, other bromides were found to have a calming effect when ingested (to the extent that Italian troops in World War I were given the stuff as a sexual depressant). In time, the word “bromide” came to mean more than just a chemical compound: It’s something intended to calm, but one that’s neither original nor effective.

Other bromides got better press: Silver bromide is a white material that turns dark when exposed to light. In the days before digital cameras, photographic film depended on it. (“What’s ‘film,’ Grandpa?”)

Leaded gasolines used to contain bromine additives to prevent lead build-up in engines. (“What’s ‘leaded gasoline,’ Grandpa?”)


Bromo-Seltzer antacid, originally sodium bromide, now acetaminophen sodium bicarbonate, is said to be efficacious in curing hangovers, colds and indigestion.

Those of a certain age can entertain the grandkids with steam locomotive imitations, “BRO-mo-Selt-zer, BRO-mo-Selt-zer, …, mimicking radio commercials for the product. This antacid contained sodium bromide when introduced in 1888, though not today.

“What’s a ‘steam locomotive,’ Grandpa?”

Compounds of carbon and bromine tend to be especially inert chemically. Because of this, brominated organic compounds make excellent flame retardants. Two of these incorporated into plastic and fiber materials are PBDE, polybrominated diphenyl ether, and HBCD, hexabromocyclododacane; both uses have been controversial.

One problem is the stuff never goes away. It works its way into the food chain, accumulates in the body and may adversely affect human hormones. In June 2006, California began banning use of certain PBDEs; other states followed its lead. In May 2013, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants placed HBCD on its Annex A elimination list, with a scheduled phaseout this year.


Salt evaporation flats of the Dead Sea. Image from NASA’s Space Shuttle mission, 1989.

Much of the world’s bromine comes from the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan. Israel Chemical Limited is a major producer, one of its tasks being formulation of less controversial brominated compounds. More than 40 percent of ICL’s output is used for flame retardants.

Another bromine application is in the gas and petroleum industry’s deep and horizontal drilling. Bromine is an extremely dense liquid (more than three times the density of water), and its compounds are pumped down into the well to counter huge pressure at the drill head. Its uses in this and related fracking are not without controversies of their own.

If you’d like a hit of bromine, you may have to act fairly quickly. Brominated vegetable oil has been a common emulsifier in citrus drinks; among them, Pepsi’s Mountain Dew and Coca-Cola’s Powerade, Fanta Orange and Fresca. Without the BVO or something like it, the citrus flavoring sinks to the bottom, leaving a clear liquid up top.

In May 2014, Coca-Cola and Pepsi said they’d be removing BVO from their products. It has already been banned as a food additive in Australia, Europe, India and Japan. Canadians can still imbibe it. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Bill Rabel
    March 8, 2015

    More than one veterinarian has told me that the high incidence of thyroid cancer in cats coincided with the introduction of flame-retardant clothing and furnishings. It was seldom, if ever seen before this.

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