Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's in your water

A substantial part of the time with my chemistry 1105 class is spent developing awareness of the role of chemicals and chemistry in the environment. This in some ways is an exercise in marketing, for most people chemistry has a negative connotation.

A few minutes spent in Wholefoods will explain why that is the case. The words "natural" and "organic" appear everywhere, whereas the presence of anything "chemical" is hotly denied. This is of course a nonsense as we proceed to explore. All matter is made of chemicals, and there is no shame in being addressed as a chemical. On the whole, chemicals synthesized by men have done a lot more good than harm.

Still, the papers have been replete with stories about the venality of communities and companies in their dealings with chemical waste. First there was Crestwood where, according to records obtained by the Tribune, water was distributed from a local well even after it was shown to contain unacceptable levels of chlorinated solvents. To think that the solvents I used to wash the grease off my hands when working on the car are now not tolerated at any detectable level in drinking water. I'm still waiting for the second head to appear. Although it appears that the city officials were informed by the local EPA that the water was contaminated, these guardians of public health omitted to inform the citizens. That apparently is the norm in Illinois, and entirely fitting with its wider reputation of corruption, patronage, cover-up and deceit. (As a side note, I can see why some citizens are activists for greater transparency, and one such visited himself upon the college (forthegoodofillinois) demanding greater transparency; and the good board responded by publishing all our salaries on a website that cost $20,000. I'm not convinced that it has really done much to improve government in Illinois; but if you think otherwise I'm happy to listen.) The citizenry of Downers Grove were similarly kept in the dark about the chlorinated solvents in their wells, until they were told not to use them. Amusingly, the mayor of Crestwood is trying to tell the residents that the water was tested to be safe, despite the records obtained by the Tribune to the contrary.

Yesterday there was an update about the radioactive contamination in the DuPage river in Warrenville, originating from a Kerr-McGee plant in West Chicago that closed in 1973 - this was before Silkwood, made famous by the film with Merryl Streep. I had heard about the contamination when I first moved here twenty-five years ago (don't think about it); now, it appears that the cleanup has been compromised by the bankruptcy of the firm Tronox that was responsible for the job. Just exactly how unsafe the situation is is of course difficult to judge.

In yet another environmental story, political junkie John Kass strayed from his traditional lambasting of Chicago or Illinois politicians to discuss a recent bill that sailed through the Illinois house that permitted the dumping of building waste in old quarry sites rather than landfills. Mr. Kass suggests that the bill is motivated in large part by the city of Chicago's desire to prepare for the Olympics; the debris associated with that project will be more readily be disposed of in neighboring quarries than shipped to landfills further afield. Juxtaposed with the Crestwood case about contaminated well water, the exposure to greater risk of contaminating water by dumping in quarries seems rather odd. Yet, as Mr. Kass points out, the Environmental Law and Policy Center has been oddly silent on the matter.


Anonymous said...

While I concur, as a "trained chemist", that there has been great good done for humanity from the development and practical applications of "synthetic" chemicals, there can also be absolutely no doubt that the initially unforseen consequences of a not-insignificant number of these synthetics and the by-products of their manufacture or their decomposition products have wrought havoc on mankind and the environment at large, and many consequences are, as yet, unknown. You know this to be true. The use of DDT, while great in the fight against malaria in tropical countries, nearly brought many bird species to the brink of extinction in this country. More subtle to quantify, and perhaps much more insidious, in their long-term societal effects, are all the synthetics that have subsequently been demonstrated in labs to act as "hormone-mimics or -inhibitors" in the body at extremely low concentrations.

You might scoff at the notion of any ill effects from using volatile, synthetic chlorinated solvents to cleanse grease from your hands. I once supervised a technician who told me a similar story from a previous place of employment where he had washed his hands daily in benzene. He didn't have 2 heads at the time, but goodness knows what his golden years held for him, with a history of brain tumors in his family. You know very well that outward symptoms of cellular damage from exposure in adults, children, and fetuses to free radicals, heavy metals, hormone mimics and others can take years to manifest themselves.

As you say, there is no shame in being a chemical--that's what we're all composed of. What there is shame in is in unmitigated support for the notion that everything is safe until proven otherwise. Where is your healthy skepticism? Sure, there is always a price-tag attached to "clean-ups" and introductions of "safe alternatives", if any. But how on earth is this any different than the complex issues that surround "global warming" and the push for "clean technologies" that you feel so strongly about?

Acquisition of knowledge and our understanding of science are evolutionary, subject to almost-daily change. For the public to have been denied full disclosure on the issues as they evolved in Crestwood (for 20 years) and the Kerr-McGee plant (for even longer) is downright criminal. Unfortunately, it is just too easy to tune out to the "outrage of the day" and, by default, accept the status quo.


Richard said...

Wow. I'm now taking the risk of crawling out from under the desk where I was taking cover from the verbal hailstorm that was breaking around me. I think we are in agreement perhaps more than you suspect. Maybe it was my less-than-perfect prose that has prompted some misunderstanding.

I entirely agree that the unforeseen consequences of synthetic chemicals have had massive consequences. I also agree that there are most likely many as-yet unknown consequences to be realized in future years. I still maintain that, on balance, chemistry has done far more good than harm. Considering life expectancies is a good indicator of that.

DDT is a great example, perhaps the best, of a synthetic chemical that was once a wonder but now a pariah. It is also an interesting study in values. Naturally we would consider the extinction of peregrine falcons too high a price to pay for controlling malaria in countries far afield. On the other hand, citizens in those countries probably have a different perspective; elimination of malaria would take precedence over preserving the odd bird which, to them, would seem a rather arcane concept. Only recently, in the whatever anniversary of Rachel Carson (was it the publication of Silent Spring?) there was considerable debate as to whether the response to the environmental issues of DDT was too strong.

I was not actually scoffing at the notion of ill effects from VOCs. Rather, I was musing at the dramatic change (for the good) in the control of these chemicals since my youth. In quiet moments I do sometimes wonder if I myself will some day manifest the consequences of all that exposure in innocent youth. I still recall sniffing the benzene which was in ground glass bottles on the lab bench. It did have a captivating aroma; one that today's students are unable to enjoy. And then there were all the transition metals and rare earth particulates floating around various labs.

If I gave the impression that I buy into the idea that everything is safe until proven otherwise I did not make myself clear. On the other hand, I do not agree with the approach held by some that nothing new should be permitted until it has been proven to have no consequences. In that scenario, it is almost impossible to prove anything safe under all possible circumstances. It is an argument used by those enlightened Europeans to thwart producers of genetically modified foods. I suspect the opposition is in fact motivated by economics rather than concern for health.

I totally agree that withholding important information from residents is an act of criminal negligence. The Illinois EPA has much culpability in this. This same body has been mute over that bill I mentioned that permits dumping of building waste in old quarries.

SMB said...

I agree with you that an awareness of chemicals and chemistry in our environment is important. To that I would add: 1) a basic knowledge of chemicals likely to be encountered daily, and 2) an understanding of the role chemistry plays in sustaining and maintaining daily existence for all organisms. I am, of course, lumping in biochemistry with your primarily inorganic chemistry comments. I believe the reason chemistry is a bad word for most people stems from this lack of basic knowledge and understanding (ignorance creats fear). I remember how deadly dull my 10th grade chemistry class was; I didn't have a clue about what was happening and what was the point anyway?

True, natural and organic are the popular buzz words today but that is only marketing taking advantage of the harried consumer's basic ignorance and gullibility. However, I take issue with your statement that chemicals synthesized by men have done a lot more good than harm. For every "good" synthetic chemical you bring up, I'm sure I could give five that are "bad". The point is that no chemical is an unmitigated benefit, and trade-offs sometimes need to be and have been made. The problem is that those most affected, those who suffer the most from the health and environmental damage caused by synthetic chemistry are those with the least say in the use and production of those products. I'm including not only humanity but the rest of the biosphere as well. I challenge you to defend your statement with fact.

Environmental pollution is an old story for humanity. Indeed, every organism "pollutes" its environment to some extent. Until the 20th century, such pollution was localized and organisms (including humans) could move to new territory leaving the polluted area behind to be cleansed by natural forces and biological action (if possible). In the 20th century, with the acceleration in growth of the human population and concomittant acceleration in growth of human economic activity, moving away from pollution became less and less possible. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, humans were gradually forced to live with the pollution they created. Initially soil, air and water pollution were accepted as the cost of doing industrial business. With the rise of environmental activisim and politics mid-20th century, casual chemical waste disposal began to be discouraged, yet once again, the poor, powerless and voiceless would pay the price as toxic waste began to be shipped overseas and buried in toxic waste dumps in the U.S. (often illegally).

You bemoan the venality of companies and communities with regard to toxic waste disposal but it is worth remembering that modern corporations (most communities are incorporated) have defining characteristics which affect their behavior. One of these defining characteristics is the externalization of costs which means that in the effort to maximize profits in a capitilist system, "[a corporation] is compelled to cause harm when the benefits of doing so outweight the costs."(see footnote) This includes destroying lives, damaging communities and threatening the stability of the planet as a whole. Individuals as official representatives of a corporation behave differently than unassociated people. Think of the average Nazi soldier who committed atrocities while "just following orders". This is not to say these officials of Crestwood and other corporations are not liable for their actions, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I merely attempt to explain.

A note on your response to Anonymous; it is a false dichotomy to propose the use of DDT as mosquito control in tropical countries versus saving endangered species or protecting the environment. This is an old ploy (I do not accuse) often used to derail environmentalist arguments by pitting human welfare against environmental protections. The correct response is that a multi-pronged approach is needed to improve the health of poor people in tropical countries to include improved sanitation, access to medical care, clean drinking water, mosquito control using environmentally safe substances (such as Bt) and education.

The Bridge at the Edge of the World, James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press.

Anonymous said...

Does the SSCP care to comment on current and proposed policies and practices regarding Bisphenol A (first synthesized about 100 years ago), given its ubiquity in our daily lives and its estrogen mimicry..."Plastics.", to quote a memorable line from "The Graduate."