Monthly Archives: August 2014


Clean Air, Stable Climate

Section 202 of the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate any pollutant which in their judgment may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare. Previously this had been applied to acute respiratory toxins such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides or substances which contribute to their formation.

After an extended court battle the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2007 in favor of the EPA that regulating green house gases (GHG) is a requisite part of the EPA’s mandate. Greenhouse gases, principally Carbon Dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere and because of the threat of global warming endanger the public health and welfare.

Rule making took several more years but now the regulations have begun to roll. The first to feel regulation was new power plants which had to meet stringent emissions standards. Likewise emissions standards for new cars continue to rise.



The most recent regulations require a national average reduction of Carbon Dioxide Emissions of 30 % by 2030. The rule is actually 50 different rules, one for each state. And the mandate is not for any particular method to reduce emissions, just that they must be reduced.

Because Arkansas has above average reliance on coal fired power which emits the lion’s share of carbon, our required reduction amounts to 44 %. This may sound like a lot but remember we have 15 years to achieve this level of reduction.

Almost half this reduction can be achieved at little to no cost to the consumer. A study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found that nearly half that emission reduction can come about by increased energy efficiency. Whereas the reduced demand for power will mean a small loss of jobs as coal fired power plants close, many more jobs will be created for the necessary technology improvements to greater efficiency.

Wyoming coal

Wyoming coal

Generally the public is in agreement with the scientific community about threat of global warming. So how about the “ruling class?” Both the Republican and the Democrat, Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross have spoken against the rule. Similarly an interim legislative committee, Insurance and Commerce, hase passed a resolution condemning the EPA rule as illegitimate. Cries of violation of “states rights” rang through the halls.

In reality the only serious argument is that clean air and a stable environment for the future MAY cost somewhat. Let it be noted that every regulatory action to clean our air and water has been met with cries that to do so will crash our economy. It hasn’t happened yet, not with removing lead from gasoline, nor with preventing acid rain, and now not with mitigating the risk of global warming.

So why the dire warnings from politicians? A 2014 study conducted by the Sierra Club and Oil Change International found that for every dollar the fossil fuel industry contributes to candidates, it reaps 59 dollars in subsidies. Follow the money.


Energy Medicine

The word energy may have a simple definition but when coupled with medicine, it gets more complicated. Energy to a physical scientist or engineer means the capacity to do work. It is measured in Joules or BTUs or any number of other terms. It comes in the form of potential or kinetic energy. There is chemical, electrical, vibrational, energy and more; nevertheless, all these ways of defining and measuring energy are real.

Then there is the use of the term energy medicine. It is a term frequently used (abused) by practitioners of alternative medicine. It encompasses a range of biologically implausible and clinically unproven practices such as therapeutic touch, acupuncture, and much of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

At the heart of energy medicine and especially TCM is the mystical Qi. It is said to be a “vital force” which is said to flow through various meridians in the body. Acupuncture is supposed to work by interfering with or enhancing the flow of Qi, when the needles are placed in the appropriate meridians. Because Qi is so ill defined and unproven, any therapy that relies on its existence is questionable at best. Just because there are claims of ancient use of a given therapy doesn’t mean it is real – just ask a rhinoceros without a horn, a bear without a gallbladder, or a tiger without a penis.

Rhino Horns

Rhino Horns

In the world of real medicine, energy is used in a number of imaging techniques. There are a number of imaging techniques. Some procedures such as MRI and ultrasound are essentially harmless, while PET and CT scans, involve some risk due to exposure to ionizing radiation.

Ultrasound, like the sound we can hear, is a pressure wave. Echo location in bats and sonar in submarines utilize the same concept. A transducer creates a sound wave which reflects off of structures in the body. The echo is collected by a computer which turns it into an image. At the frequency and intensity utilized in medical imaging called sonography, it is harmless.
MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging and is another relatively harmless imaging technique. It has been in use by chemists for determining the structure of molecules for over 50 years. It involves electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves, combined with a strong magnetic field. The only contraindication for MRI is the presence of metallic objects in the body. Metal staples, pins, and devices like pacemakers could be moved due to the magnetic field or heated via induction.

A medical imaging tool that presents a risk is CT scanning. CT stands for Computerized Tomography. This is essentially a way to get three dimensional images via the collection of multiple X-rays from different angles. A computer then collects these individual 2-D images and creates a 3-D image. This diagnostic technique has a slight but real risk, due to the exposure of the patient to X-rays, a known risk for cancer. The more scans, the greater exposure to ionizing radiation, and the greater risk of cancer.

abdominal CT scan

abdominal CT scan

The aforementioned imaging techniques all use some sort of sound wave or electromagnetic radiation generated outside the body. PET scans have the radiation originate inside the body. In Positron Emission Tomography, a substance called a radiopharmaceutical is injected into the body. The radioactive emission from the injected chemical is detected by sensors outside the body.

With any imaging technique or medical procedure for that matter, risks must be weighed against benefits. The only other limitation to the application of an imaging technique is economic.


Los Niños

Inscribed on a brass plaque at the base of The Statue of Liberty is “… Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Is it time to rip the plaque off and melt it down for scrap?

Apparently some in this country feel this way – to the point that there are armed men and women prepared to turn away the children of Central America. Some fear that this tide of illegal immigration will bring with it a host of problems including epidemics; Tuberculosis, Dengue Fever, even Ebola. What’s the reality? Should we be so fearful?

The actual estimated rates of illegal immigration are down from a high in 2007. This is most likely due to the weakness of the economy to supply jobs, hence making the U.S. less attractive. Also President Obama has overseen a considerable increase in deportations, particularly for those who have committed violent crimes.

The real change that has come about recently is the increase in unaccompanied minors. For the most part they are simply showing up at the border and turning themselves in. The number is on the rise with most of the children are coming from Central America, principally El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Interviews with the children by the press both here in the US and in their country of origin indicate that they are not so much attracted here as fleeing there. Both abject poverty and in the case of Honduras, the world’s highest murder rate are driving the children to seek refuge in the U.S. and other countries such as Costa Rica and Mexico.

Photo credit New York Times

Photo credit New York Times

Further complicating the matter is a requirement, signed into law by President Bush in 2006, that the children be given due process. The law requires that they be brought before an immigration judge for consideration of refugee status. Because the immigration service is woefully underfunded and hence understaffed, there is a several year backlog for hearings.

The United Nations High Commission on Refuges recently found that the majority of immigrant children they interviewed were adjudged to be “forcibly displaced. This means that to refuse these children would be to breach United Nations Conventions.

Surely in a nation of over 300 million people, in a nation many claim to be a Christian nation, in a nation with close to 10 million millionaires, we can find it in our hearts and especially our pocketbooks to find a way to accommodate these refugee children, who number this year to less than a hundred thousand.

That’s 100 millionaires per child. We can live up to our boast on that brass plaque on the Statue of Liberty. “These are not somebody else’s kids. These are our kids,” Joe Biden


Mercury in the Evironment

A human body contains on average 3 grams of Mercury (Hg), in the form of dental amalgam. Cremation releases the material to the atmosphere in the form of gaseous elemental Mercury. As Mercury is a well known toxin, should there be concern over its release to the environment via cremation?

Currently there are over a million cremations a year in the United States, resulting in the release of about three tons of Mercury. That is a lot of Mercury but it pales in comparison to the Mercury released from burning coal – over 50 tons per year.

Just how dangerous Mercury exposure is depends on two important variables, the chemical form and the amount of the exposure (dose). In the elemental form, for example the liquid in older thermometers, it has a relatively low acute toxicity. If inhaled in the gaseous form or absorbed through the skin in the liquid form it is poorly metabolized and rapidly excreted unchanged. We are all exposed to trace amounts of elemental mercury from airborne sources, but in this form it presents little hazard.

Even children on a playground near a crematorium are at little to no risk from this type of Mercury. This doesn’t mean that the Mercury from a crematorium is of no consequence, but the explanation is more complex.

Mercury in the form of a salt is much more toxic. Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland was a parody of the real life risk of hatters of the 19th century. Exposure to certain Mercury salts caused tremors and a form of dementia.

The Mad Hatter

The Mad Hatter

Hat makers in Central Asia used felt which was obtained by separating the fir from the skin of small animals. Traditionally camel urine was used to help form the felt. When felt preparation moved to Europe, hatters substituted their own urine. It was soon discovered that hatters who had syphilis and were being treated with Mercury salts made better felt! Thenceforth, solutions of Mercury salts were substituted for urine for hat making.

The most toxic form of Mercury comes in the form of certain organomercurials, specifically Methylmercury. In this form it is easily absorbed, where it binds to and destroys nervous tissue. This is the form of Mercury found in both fresh and saltwater fish.



The first recognition of the toxicity (principally nerve damage) of Methylmercury occurred in Japan in 1956 and was referred to eponymously as Minamata Disease. Chisso Chemical Company on Minamata Bay manufactured industrial chemicals and disposed of their wastes in the bay. A component of the waste was Methylmercury which was absorbed by fish and shellfish. Consumption of the sea food resulted in chronic poisoning and thousands of deaths.

This brings us back to the crematorium and the release of the relatively non-toxic elemental Mercury. When this mercury is deposited on soil or in water, it makes its way to the benthic layer – basically the mud at the bottom – of streams and lakes. There, anaerobic bacteria convert it to the much more toxic Methylmercury. It bioaccumulates in the smallest organisms, then up the food chain to fish.

The long and short of it is that it is not a good idea to allow release Mercury to the environment. The problem is easily solved however by simply removing the Mercury amalgam from teeth before cremation, as has been proposed by Humphrey Funeral Service. They are currently seeking a permit to construct a crematorium near Center Valley here in Pope County. If so they will be the first in the nation to take this simple but environmentally important step. Occam’s razor, don’t operate a crematorium without it.


The Prince of Fuels – Natural Gas

In 1993 Daniel Yergin published a widely acclaimed book on the global oil and gas industry titled “The Prize.” He described natural gas as the Prince of fuels because natural gas is a more recent player in the energy mix of fossil fuels. Natural gas is essentially one molecule, methane. Coal and oil are a mixture of many, many different hydrocarbons.

Roughly one quarter of the energy used in the US comes from natural gas. It is used for process heat and as a raw material for industry, for space heat in residential and commercial buildings, and for electrical generation.

Because of the technological developments of horizontal drilling and shale fracturing, production of natural gas is at an all time high. Projections based on current technology suggest that gas production will expand for 30 or more years before peak production is achieved and then begin a slow decline.

Increased natural gas production has allowed for expanded export markets which may be geopolitically important. European reluctance to stronger sanction on Russia is to a large degree due to their dependence on natural gas from Russia. A US export market in the form of Liquified Natural Gas could help support stronger sanctions.

Liquified Natural Gas

Liquified Natural Gas

Increased reliance on natural gas should expand in the economy for a couple of reasons. Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels. It is not contaminated with a host of impurities such heavy metals and sulfur present in coal and to a lesser extent in oil. Because it is cleaner burning we might expect to see expanded use of natural gas for transportation, especially in urban areas. Natural gas could also replace fuel oil for residential and commercial heating in northeastern United Sates.

A major advantage of natural gas is that it presents a lower global warming potential for an equivalent amount of energy compared to the other fossil fuels.

Natural gas is particularly attractive for the production of electricity. As more and more sustainable energy sources come on line, there is an increased need for rapidly dispatchable power to balance the intermittent nature of solar and wind. Electricity produced from gas turbines can be quickly increased or decreased to match the variable production regimen.

That’s the good news, now for the not so good. The increase in gas production comes entirely from expansion of gas production from fracturing shale formations. Fracturing involves a witch’s brew of water and chemicals plus a material called a proppant. Traditional methods are used to drill a well into a shale formation. Water and other chemicals are pumped into the formation to expand the shale layers where the gas is trapped. The proppant is comprised of small particles like sand or ceramic beads that hold the layers open to allow for gas extraction. There is evidence that the water table has been contaminated with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in areas near fracturing (fracking) operations.

fracking simplified

fracking simplified

Another problem comes about when dealing with the used fracking fluids. The only practical disposal of the fracking fluids to date involves reinjection into old oil or gas wells. Injection of these fluids under pressure has been linked to earthquakes in numerous locations both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

As with most things in life there are both risks and benefits to be considered. In the last analysis the cheapest, safest energy is the energy we don’t use. This can be achieved through improvements in energy efficiency.