Friday, February 15, 2013

Does this anti-chemophobia tactic work?

John Hickenlooper is the governor of Colorado and he visited Washington recently to talk about hydraulic fracturing. To demonstrate its safety, he told them that he drank some:
State Capitol veterans loved the story coming out of Washington, D.C., on Tuesday about Gov. John Hickenlooper drinking fracking fluid because it reminded them of the time a state transportation chief swilled a mixture of magnesium chloride. The drinks were intended to show the stuff is safe. 
Then-Department of Transportation director Tom Norton drank his concoction in a legislative committee in 2002 after getting complaints about the magnesium chloride sprayed on Colorado's roads to fight ice and snow. 
Hickenlooper on Tuesday told a U.S. Senate committee that he swigged fracking fluid once. His admission came when he testified that states and not the federal government should lead in regulating natural gas production, a sentiment that angered environmentalists and drew applause from energy groups fighting the Environmental Protection Agency.
I don't think that there are huge acute/chronic human toxicity issues around hydraulic fracturing fluid -- that said, you don't see me volunteering to have a rig next to my house any time soon. I believe that shale gas is, on balance, a positive development for our country and is having/will have good effects on US chemical manufacturing.*

Drinking a glass of hydraulic fracturing fluid (which is mostly water and salt with some various other things (polyols, I'm guessing)) doesn't really demonstrate anything other than a lack of acute toxicity -- presumably, that's not really the issue that people care about. I believe that chemophobia is mostly based on concern about long-term health effects, not short-term ones. (i.e. my couch will give me cancer in twenty years, not that it is killing me right now.) So, nice try, Gov. Hickenlooper, but I don't think folks are buying it.

Readers, what's the best demonstration of non-toxicity that you've seen?

*Let me go on the record: I think hydraulic fracturing is good news, and like most resource extraction issues in the United States, there will be hard-working men and women in this country who will exploit those resources to the very, very fullest. That's the story of our country, from the coal mines of West Virginia on west, good, bad and ugly. I don't believe very many of the acute/chronic toxicity issues that arise around hydraulic fracturing fluid (especially in the popular press), but I don't think that they've been studied particularly well. We could always use more research. 

10 comments:

  1. CJ,

    There's commonly some guar gum as a thickener. (And there are some overnight millionaires in India where they grow the guar beans, now that the price has tripled. To paraphrase the old SNL sketch, "fracking been beery beery good to Indian farmers!")

    My wife use to work for a company that made a sprayable hydrogel - water, cornstarch and a thickener - that goes gangbusters in putting out a fire. The firefighters wanted to know if it was toxic. (Come on, they walk into smoking building filled with toxic gases and they're worried about something toxic being used?) So the CEO would eat some. That seemed to end that issue.

    I think chemophobia is both short and long term. When I had a SBIR grant shot down because the reviewer said isocyanates are toxic (the company I was with worked with them on a daily basis and said so in the application), that was chemophobia. But yes, the concern of cancer 20 years down the road is very real too.

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  2. I think people are chemophobic because of the extent the industry goes to hide the composition of fracking fluid from the public. Energy companies have shown historically that they can not be trusted to be good stewards of public health concerns or the environment. As a chemist, I personally agree with the chemophobia associated with this practice.

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  3. It's not really about toxicity, but my postdoc advisor took a pretty big hit of argon once. He didn't pass out and we didn't have to turn him upside down to get the argon out (as I've heard people claim is necessary).

    Why did he do it? We were discussing whether someone would get a noticeably deeper voice from inhaling argon like they do with xenon or SF6. They don't (I was right, he was wrong).

    As to the fracking fluid story, color me skeptical: (1) that it happened, (2) if it did happen that it was really fracking fluid, and (3) that someone who did that without knowing what they were actually drinking shouldn't be called an idiot. Not being chemophobic doesn't mean handling chemicals stupidly.

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  4. "what's the best demonstration of non-toxicity that you've seen?"

    I would say holding a nugget of plutonium-239 on the palm of your hand. Although I guess that would be a refutation of both chemophobia and radiophobia.

    As an aside, one example of how such a strategy might woefully backfire was when the British Agriculture Minister fed his four-year -old daughter steak in 1990 to prove how benign Mad Cow Disease was.

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  5. Dammit Wavefunction, you beat me to it with the John Gummer reference!
    He was a complete tool, though, and caused an outrage over the incident.

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  6. I did think of the 10/23 overdose of homeopathic products as a demonstration of non-toxicity, but I don't think that's what you are going for here.

    There are also people who promote chemophobia by taking a product that is safe that low levels, declaring that chemical as dangerous, and daring those who say otherwise to consume a large quantity of it, ignoring the fact that "the dose makes the poison". For example, I remember someone campaigning against pesticides daring people who disagree with him to spray pesticides on an apple and then eat it. I think anti-fluoridation perpetrators can also fall in this category - yes, there is such a thing as too much fluoride in water, but the levels in public water supplies is not dangerous.

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  7. I did watch a small chemical manufacturer eat a teaspoon full of DDT on TV. It didn't prevent his plant from being closed.

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  8. A few decades ago one of my lab mates while a TA had mixed equivalent amounts of con HCl & con NaOH and drank it in front of the students. He's now the crystallographer at major school. Not sure if he still craves salt water.

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  9. Thomas Midgley, developer Tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive, deliberately exposed himself to it at a press conference to demonstrate its safety.

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  10. I highly doubt what Hickenlooper drank was actual fracking fluid. Colorado has several highly producing shale formations, but environmentally speaking most people in Colorado are conservative. If you've been here and seen the Rocky Mountains in person you'd understand why. Also, there's the "not in my backyard" mentality already noted. Just like any politician Hickenlooper would love to see the jobs that come with fracking, but many city and county governments are passing legislation to prevent fracking because a majority of votes say, "not in my backyard."

    I think one thing that many people miss about fracking is that the fracking fluid itself could be considered non-toxic, but that neglects the idea that toxic substances are formed geologically with the gas being mined. If present, these toxic substances in the geological formation could then be entrained by the fracking fluid and find its way into the potable water sources underground. Working in the mining industry, I've seen several instances in underground coal mines where bitumen or even light hydrocarbons drip from the roof. These materials have been tested and observed to contain BTEX and other substances that would give me pause if they were in my drinking water.

    I'm sincerely against chemophobia, but I think fracking needs considerable oversight due to the potential harm to valuable drinking water sources that could result.

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