Over the last few decades the notion of political correctness has been held, particularly by conservative and conservative protestant evangelical elements in the electronic media, as evidence of moral decay or wrong-headed concern for frivolous sensibilities. Political correctness has been hailed as a form of speech expressing hypersensitive and exaggerated deference to the sensibilities of groups or to certain political beliefs. The words “political correctness” and “liberal” themselves have become epithets through repeated accusatory statements attempting to poison the well of progressive credibility.

Born in 1957, my growth and schooling has been coincident in time with a good deal of what is now called political correctness (PC). My perception of what lead to PC is not hard to describe. Over these years, especially in the 1960’s, there was a conscious attempt by progressive, fair-minded people to remedy the effects of centuries of bias and oppression of minority groups by the caucasian dominated power structure under the heading of Affirmative Action. The civil rights act of 1964, the voting rights act of 1965, the Stonewall riots, assassinations, counterculture, expanding feminism, and a controversial land war in Asia lead to a large scale pushback of the establishment.

During 1960’s the threat of nuclear annihilation and the domino theory of communist aggression had already been in the popular conscious mind since the early 1950’s or before. Add to this the internal upheavals listed above and you have a period of great anxiety and turmoil. For many young people like myself, the notion of equality and fairness to all was imprinted by television, teachers, and a few adults. But especially, seeing the growing integration of black Americans on television programs gave way to a strong normalizing effect on myself and others in lily white Iowa. I began to suspect an essential arbitrariness of racial discrimination.

By the time I moved west and entered high school in 1972 the notion of racial equality was openly embraced by many of my fellow students and found in a few readings assigned in school. Busing desegregation was in full swing and news of controversy filled the airwaves. That is, when the Watergate congressional investigation was not playing.

I have come to think that the origins of PC has evolved from this era. In my view, PC is an attempt to level the playing field for diverse groups seeking equal treatment and opportunity. It was manifested in law by way of operational practices in hiring and equal protection in general. The military embraced racial equality in a large way through recruitment and promotion. But perhaps the most obvious form of PC is in language. The use of epithets and slang that demeaned a person’s race or religion gradually became taboo in many parts of the country. Since the 1970’s this taboo on demeaning language and treatment has broadened and institutionalized to include gender, sex, and sexual preference.

In my college years a ban on epithets and belittling or demeaning language was part of the institution’s mission statement and policy. When I eventually taught at the college level, we were expected to speak and treat everyone in a fair and civil manner, respecting the individual and their rights to their beliefs and speech.

Research has shown that the nuances of grammar in a language affect the way the speaker perceives people and objects (see Boroditsky below).

The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?  Lera Boroditsky [6.11.09].

If, as Boroditsky argues, the subtleties of language can affect perception of the world around you, then it follows that caution must be applied in the nouns and verbs we use in reference to one another lest we infer meanings that are offensive, unintended or slanderous. Plainly we do this all the time with people we know and care for. In regard to those we do not know, is it defensible to make broad assertions that are demeaning or belittling? It will be defended by the meek and the bellicose if bystanders do nothing. And that is what has been happening over the last few decades over conservative talk radio, TV, and even religious broadcasting. These broadcasters repetitively spew divisive rhetoric meant to drum up anger and frustration in it’s listeners. It has worked well. If this kind of rhetoric didn’t work, do you think they would use it anyway? Anger and conflict attract audiences and audiences attract advertisers. Ad revenue encourages purveyors of truculent and intransigent rhetoric to continue. Witness the popularity of Rush Limbaugh with his golden voice and vitriolic diatribes.

If a child grows up hearing and using language asserting that skin color defines people as “other” or “lesser” or “lazy”, this distinction as other or lesser or lazy can become normalized in the child’s thinking.

So, what is wrong with the language of political correctness if it is the attempt to promote fairness and equality? Like any aspect of language, it inevitably undergoes meaning-creep. PC may devolve into ridiculous conflicts when people overreact to a perceived slight and claim that they have suffered some mental trauma. Likewise, PC may cause institutions to enact policy overreach in an effort to avoid perceived threats based on a breach of PC.  Like any social meme, PC can be taken too far. But that doesn’t mean that the concept is without merit.

If we truly want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it must apply to everyone. Why wouldn’t we clean up our language a bit, if for no other reason than to enjoy reciprocity?


Thus began Mr. Toad’s wild ride.

In the past I have written posts on the adventure of having two stage 4 cancers and the journey down the rabbit hole one takes as treatment goes forward. Three years ago I had surgery, radiation and cis-platin for throat cancer. Three years later my throat or oropharyngeal cancer is undetectable. Of course, this is good news.  What remains of the experience are the lasting effects of intense radiation exposure in and around the target volume. I developed the normal array of after effects: stunted salivary glands resulting in chronic dry-mouth; periodontal disease and the loss of a few teeth; a substantial loss and distortion of the sense of taste; inadequate thyroid function requiring medication; difficulty in swallowing dry foods; radiation scarring on the neck; and lymphedema where 33 lymph nodes were removed from my neck. I’ve adapted and manage quite nicely to plod down the timeline much as before.

My situation with the stage 4 prostate cancer (Gleason 8) is stable. One of the treatments for prostate cancer is chemical castration. Since testosterone has the effect of accelerating the growth and spread of prostate cancer cells, the commercial drug Lupron is used to down regulate the production of testosterone. Loss of body hair and muscle mass as well as the onset of hot flashes were some of the highlights of my experience. A substantial nulling out of the sex drive happens as well.  Effectively I spent about two years as a eunuch.

It’s been nearly a year since the Lupron injections have stopped. I’m getting a more strength and some body hair is returning. I’ll leave it at that. The radiation treatment was intense in the target zone, but largely without significant discomfort overall. The tricky part of external radiation treatment of the prostate is it’s proximity to the bladder and the bowel. Fortunately, modern IMRT equipment is capable of modulating the x-ray beam intensity as well as shaping the beam with a multileaf tungsten collimator as it rotates around the patient.

After 11 months since the last Lupron shot, my PSA has increased only slightly from being non-detectable.  The return of testosterone after having it shut down for 2 years is a weird experience for a fella. But weirdness is normal in the world of cancer treatment.

Now we’ll pivot to a different topic.

A delicate parting thought for friends and family of those with cancer. Invariably a well intentioned friend or family member will say that their thoughts and prayers are with you or that a prayer group is holding you in the light. Another expression of sympathy might be that there is a reason for everything and that God has a plan for all of us, and as the story goes, our lives have purpose after all. Such sincere well wishes are expressed with the best of intentions, but for myself and other non-theistic people it rings hollow and offers little consolation. A prolonged and agonizing illness is part of some plan? Seriously? If a person set forth such a plan we would rightly consider this foul individual a psychopath worthy of punishment.

People express these sentiments when presented with an existential conflict- it is when the need to connect their belief system with reality the observable world is confronted with the paradox of the divine sanctioning of pain, suffering and untimely death. The need is met by the supposition that there must be divine purpose rather than the unthinkable alternative of the illness happening in the stark emptiness of a godless universe. If such a universe existed, what possible purpose could there be in existence? Well, yada yada. I’ll take this topic up in a later post.

Here is an alternative for your non-believing friends and family. Consider renewing and expressing gratitude for their love and friendship. Confess what the person means to you and commiserate with their condition. Let your emotions flow. Hold their hand. A bit of listening goes a long way too. Mirth is always welcome- the regaling of past exploits, funny stories or people, jokes or the sharing of what experiences you have in common. A light heart and cheerful smile is always welcome in sickness and in health.


An article I read in Spiegel online deserves comment. My German is too paltry to be of use so I read Spiegel because it is in English and seems credible.

The article in question is titled “Russian Foreign Policy: ‘We Are Smarter, Stronger and More Determined’ ” and is the transcript of an interview by Christian Neef of Spiegel. Neef interviewed Sergey Karaganov, known as the honorary head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Dean of Faculty at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia according to Wikipedia.

Karagonov is quite blunt in his distrust of NATO and confident in Russia’s determination to take it’s place as the dominant Eurasian power. Just a few bits of the interview-

Karaganov: The Russian media is more reserved than Western media. Though you have to understand that Russia is very sensitive about defense. We have to be prepared for everything. That is the source of this occasionally massive amount of propaganda. But what is the West doing? It is doing nothing but vilifying Russia; it believes that we are threatening to attack. The situation is comparable to the crisis at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the stationing of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles and the American reaction?

Karaganov: Europe felt weak at the time and was afraid that the Americans might leave the continent. But the Soviet Union, though it had already become rotten internally, felt militarily strong and undertook the foolishness of deploying the SS-20 missiles. The result was a completely pointless crisis. Today, it is the other way around. Now, fears in countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are to be allayed by NATO stationing weapons there. But that doesn’t help them; we interpret that as a provocation. In a crisis, we will destroy exactly these weapons. Russia will never again fight on its own territory …

July 13, 2016. Spiegel Online International.

It should not be a surprise that Russia has been steadily acquiring a gleaming confidence and a recharging of energetic nationalism under Putin. Too much ink has been spilled on Putin the man rather than Russia the state. I would question whether sufficient resources are being applied to diplomacy with this confident Russian state. I sincerely hope that our elected officials have the intellectual bandwidth to understand what is happening.

I shall now veer in a somewhat different direction.

It is my impression that the Fourth Estate in America is consistently failing in it’s responsibility to participate in the very democracy that facilitates its existence by not keeping the spotlight on the powerful.  Worse yet, a distracted, flaccid American populace consistently fails to hold this pillar of our society accountable.

Elected officials and the agencies they fund are only too willing to keep our country on a perpetual war footing because the production of war materiel keeps people employed and stockholders fat and happy. Defense dollars pour into military installations in the US and the world round to maintain staff, pay contractors for supplies, and drive money into the local economy.

The influential petrochemical industry is only too happy to warn of the dire consequences of lost American influence in the far flung oily spots of the world. That the US is willing to send and keep forces abroad to protect petroleum interests- in the name of liberty- only adds credence to the meme that oil is worth almost any sacrifice in blood and treasure. Against such a longstanding and compelling circumstance, how can elected officials support alternative energy technologies that might undermine the profits of big oil who we’ve fought so hard to support?

Politicians find strident support from the electorate by the evangelical rhetoric of flexing our military might for God and country. And liberty, if you were lucky enough to be born in the US. They well know that a large segment of the electorate is susceptible to all of highly produced emotional imagery of flag waving, weeping veterans kneeling before a tombstone, and country singers belting out patriotic lyrics. Yet with all of the concern for American veterans, nobody has demanded satisfaction on the following question: Are we being careful enough in choosing where we send our troops? Is it based on rock solid information and against qualified threats? The youth who become our troops are national treasure. Yet we send them into battle spaces where combatants look like non-combatants and are fighting over conflicting religious doctrines. When they come home injured we turn them loose in a shamefully inadequate Veterans Administration hospital system. Perhaps a bit of time on the 4th of July and Veterans Day should be devoted to a meditation on this rather than beer and burgers? Is this our best effort?

Electronic media have a clear conflict of interest in their focus on the costly horse race aspects of politics. “Money has corrupted our electoral politics!!” is the shrill cry. But what fraction of that filthy lucre is channeled to the very media in the form of political advertising?  More than a little, perhaps?

Once again we will have conflicting superpowers vying for global influence and resources. With Russia on the rise, do we have the unity and compelling interest to avoid armed conflict with them? What caliber of elected officials do we need to grapple with a future that seems sure to bring the threat of nuclear conflict back? Are we ready? We have never needed a quorum of mature adult voices demanding civilized behavior as much as we do today. Heaven help us all.


We’re back from a refreshing June visit to Iceland. I can recommend a visit to this gentle country to anyone and without reservation. If you’ve traveled in other parts of Europe, there will be no surprises; if not, the cultural shock will be minimal. Driving the paved roads is a breeze, traffic control minimal, everyone speaks English and credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere.  The unit of currency is the Icelandic Krona or ISK. As of today the exchange rate is 122.85 ISK to the dollar. Gasoline was in the neighborhood of 208 ISK per liter, so gas seems a bit spendy to an American. I would compare the prices one will encounter as a tourist to be in the range of a visit to NYC or Boston.

Flight arrival happens at the town of Keflavik (KEF) southwest of Reykjavik. Reykjavik is a half hour drive north from the airport. The famed Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið) spa is a short drive south from Keflavik. Be warned, reservations are required and the earlier the better. Our experience was that they would not allow walk-in visitors to gain or even schedule entry. Online registry is done exclusively. This spa is an artificial body of geothermal hot spring water that has its source from the adjacent geothermal plant Svartsengi.

Iceland is a country with 330,000 inhabitants, 200,000 of which live in Reykjavik. The population density is low. It is like taking Boulder county, Colorado, and plopping the population onto an area the size of Kentucky. We saw none of the garish tourism blight in the form of signage and souvenir shops so ordinary in the US. While folks back home were sweltering in the heat we enjoyed the benefits of North Atlantic climate, namely 55 °F temperatures and drizzle.

The only bit of unpleasantness for us was getting through US customs in Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) on the return trip. We arrived at MSP within a day of an explosion at an airport in Turkey. Consequently the TSA sphincter had already slammed shut at American customs and passport control entry points and security theatre had gone full Hollywood.

From Denver the total flight time on Delta to Keflavik was about 8 1/2 hours. We arrived on the summer solstice so for our 8 days in country there was effectively no darkness, just a few hours of twilight.

Our experience with accommodations was positive. Most nights we stayed in a guesthouse. These are essentially a B&B arrangement, but the proprietors were not resident in the same building as may be the case in other countries. Breakfast is optional so be sure to select it when booking a room. I used Booking.com and had not a speck of trouble with it. However, once in country I did notice that the guesthouse options were much more extensive than what appeared on the Booking.com website.

There are several ways to explore Iceland. There are numerous day tours available from Keflavik and Reykjavik as well as more extensive guided bus tours. A colleague took a 12 day self-driving tour through an agency called Nordic Visitor. They drove themselves from point to point around the Island on the ring road. Nordic Visitor pre-arranged for accommodations and excursions like glacier hikes, etc., along the route.

Center, The island of Surtsey in the Westman Islands, Iceland.

Center, the island of Surtsey, newest of the Westman Islands, Iceland.

We took a chance and planned our own tour with a rental car. Not knowing the scale and drive times between places of interest was problematic. Highway speed was 90 kph at it’s greatest and often 40 to 70 kph in many locations. In town the speed was usually 30 kph. I took a conservative approach and stayed within what turned out to be about 7 hours from Reykjavik. Really, this was too conservative and prevented exploring the eastern side of the island. On the positive side, this approach prevented us from spending all of our time driving.

Iceland is a geologist’s paradise. It arose from the divergent drift of the Eurasian and North American plates at the mid-Atlantic ridge – a global feature that dominates its geology today. The island has many active volcanoes as well as glaciers. Many of the volcanoes are actually under a glacier. When they erupt there may be large floods as the ice melts from the volcanic heat.

Heckla as viewed from the island of Heimaey 6-16

Hekla as viewed from the island of Heimaey 6-16

The volcano Hekla near the south coast of Iceland is part of 30 volcano systems on the island.  The picture above was taken from the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands. These islands make up this volcanic archipelago. Incidentally, nervousness about the state of Hekla lead our car rental agency (Budget) to offer volcanic ash insurance to it’s customers.  I’ll admit- I bought it.

This post has been updated. Th’ Gaussling, 6/4/16.

If you work with chemicals at the level of chemist in a production environment, chances are at some time in your career you’ll be called upon to help decide when a material is too hazardous to use in manufacture. It can be in regard to raw materials or as the final product. Your organization may have protocols or institutional policies or memories relating to certain classes of substances. Some companies, for instance, will not use diethyl ether in its processes. Others may require hydrocarbon solvents *absolutely* free of BTX. Some companies are so fastidious about worker exposure that the faintest whiff of solvent constitutes a breach. One world class company I know requires R&D chemists to include a process hazard analysis, review, and an inspection for all R&D reactions performed in the hood.  Whatever the company, most have fashioned some kind of boundary as to what is permissible to have on site and what isn’t.

Large chemical companies tend to have large EH&S departments with well established SOP’s and protocols with regard to personal protective equipment (PPE) and the measurement of occupational exposure to substances. Larger companies may have an OSHA attorney on retainer and staff members specializing in regulatory compliance.

One might suppose that smaller chemical companies may not have the depth of hazardous material experience that the larger companies have for many reasons. Smaller companies may have smaller capital equipment and a smaller staff. But smaller companies may have a greater organizational freedom which can lead to a great variety of projects. A great variety of projects often means that a great variety of materials are used on site. As such, a smaller company might very well have considerable expertise in a wide variety of chemical substances and, consequently, a wide variety of hazards.

While a smaller chemical company may have considerable expertise in handling its hazardous materials, it may be lacking in infrastructure for administrative controls and regulatory compliance. A wise CEO watches this aspect as closely as the actual operations.

Whether large or small, eventually a company has to draw the line on what hazards it will bring on site. The chemist has some very sober responsibility in this regard. Through the normal ordeal of process development, the diligent synthesis chemist will find the optimum path from raw material to product. All synthesis consists of the exploitation and management of reactivity. But there is always the “deal with the devil”. In exchange for a useful transformation, properly reactive precursors must be prepared and combined. A mishap with a 1-5 liter reaction on the bench top is messy and possibly an immediate threat to the chemist. But that same reaction in a 50 gallon or 5000 gallon pot can turn into the wrath of God if it runs away. The chemists judgment is the first layer of protection in this regard. All process chemists have to develop judgment with respect to what reagents, solvents, and conditions are feasible. Economics and safety come into play.

A runaway reaction poses several kinds of threats to people, equipment, and the viability of the company. There is the immediate thermokinetic threat stemming from the PV=nRT, meaning that energy can be dumped into PV work leading to the high speed disassembly of your equipment. A prompt release of heat and molecules kicked into the gas phase may or may not be controllable. Especially if the runaway leads to non-condensable gases. A runaway has a mechanical component in addition to the chemical action.

An runaway may cause the reactor contents to be abruptly discharged. Several questions should be answered ahead of time. Where do you want the contents to go and what are you going to do with it once it is there? Catchpots and emergency relief systems are common and resources should be invested there.

A question that the wary chemist must ask is this: What if a cloud of my highly useful though reactive compound gets discharged into the air or onto the ground? Do the benefits of this reagent outweigh the downside costs? Even if a release is not the result of a thermokinetic disaster like a runaway, explosion, or fire, a simple release of some materials may be consequential enough to require the evacuation of a neighborhood. Once your materials have left the site in the form of a cloud or a liquid spill and you make the call to the fire department, you have lost control of the incident. Even if nobody gets hurt or exposed, the ensuing “regulatory compliance explosion” may knock you down.

A chemical process incident can have mechanical consequences, chemical release issues, and the matter of fire. Substances that are pyrophoric have automatic ignition problems that may be surprisingly easy to deal with, especially if they are liquid. Liquid transfer systems can be inerted easily and pyrophoric liquids can be transferred airlessly and safely. Pyrophoric solids are another matter. There  are few generalizations I can make about pyrophoric solids. Inert solids pose enough handling issues without having the added complication of air/water sensitivity. All I can say about pyrophoric solids- waste or finished product- is that you will need solids handling equipment, a big supply of LN2 and procedures for passivating hot filter cakes. Production glove boxes and Aurora filters are particularly useful. Also required is a space on the plant site where you can open up a container and let the contents burn if needed. If air gets into a container of pyrophoric solids, it’ll begin to get hot. That is when you need to have an open spot where it can smolder or ignite harmlessly and not bring the facility down. Crowded industrial parks are a bad place for such material handling.

When designing a chemical handling space, it is important to think about what happens in a fire. Flammable liquids are under the constant influence of gravity and will run to the low point on a floor. The question you must to ask beforehand is this: Where do I want the burning liquid to go? There are good choices and poor choices. Preferably a stream of burning or flammable liquid should run away from evacuation pathways and exits as well as anywhere other hazardous materials or combustibles may be contained. To some extent this is moot because indoor spaces should be covered by a fire suppression system. But outdoor spaces may be problematic in regard to crowding of a tank farm and drums and cylinders.

Burning pools of organic liquids radiate considerable energy per sq ft per sec (power in Watts). The temperature of nearby objects will rise rapidly to the flash point and the ceiling spaces will accumulate smoke and hot gas. Drums and cylinders filled with flammable liquids or gases will eventually overpressure and release their contents adding to the mayhem. The release can be in the form of a BLEVE or a flood of flammable liquid leading to a widespread pool fire.

There are resoures available to quantitate the risks of such releases. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) is well organized and provides much literature on the topic of chemical plant safety. In particular I am thinking of Dow’s Chemical Exposure Index Guide, 1994, 1st Edition, AIChE, ISBN 0-8169-0647-5.  This handbook takes the reader through calculations aimed at estimating the risk and likelihood of chemical releases.

Also available is Dow’s Fire & Explosion Index and Hazard Classification Guide, 1994, Seventh Edition, AIChE, ISBN 978-0-8169-0623-9.  This handbook supports the use of a quantitative risk analysis chart for the use of a risk and hazard index for generating numbers associated with process activities for cost/benefit analysis. It is well worth the addition to your library

Such flammable liquid scenarios can begin many ways.  Forklift and maintenance operations are particularly rich in opportunity for a fire. The physical location of flammable liquid storage must be well thought out. Ideally a warehouse fire should not be allowed to spread to capital equipment locations. This helps to keep workers out of harms way and contains the magnitude of the financial disaster as well.  Since most chemical plants seem to grow organically over time, unfortunate choices are usually made in regard to incident propagation.

One type of propagation incident can be ameliorated through the clever use of architecture. I am aware of one tragic incident where an explosion occurred in a processing space of a facility that had grown over the years by the addition of contiguous manufacturing and warehouse spaces. A rabbit’s warren of interconnected rooms and hallways accumulated over time. At the moment of the reactor explosion, the room and adjacent spaces were badly damaged by the blast overpressure as you’d expect. However, since the building was interconnected the overpressure propagated throughout many other distant spaces and delivered considerable structural damage to the facility. Overhead doors were bent outwards and windows and man doors blown out. Extensive damage may have been avoided by the simple expedient of providing open air walkways to separated buildings rather than enclosed hallways between adjoining areas. Of course, the benefit of this depends on the who, what, where, when, and how, but eliminating pathways for a blast wave is a cheap and easy way to start.

When is a substance just too hazardous? This is fundamentally a business or policy decision. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the organizational leadership to draw the line on the risks that are deemed acceptable. It is the ethical responsibility of those knowledgeable and experienced with the proposed chemistries to combine information with pragmatics to provide persuasive feedback to the decision makers in charge.

There are plants that routinely manufacture nitroglycerine, phosgene, chlorine, phosphine and HCN. Workers spend their careers in these places.  Most risks can be abated by properly engineered processing and packaging. It really comes down to personal choice. Is that ammonium perchlorate plant that just offered me a job operated safely? These reactive and/or energetic materials all have properties that lead to demand for their use. Somebody is going to supply that demand. We chemists have to look inward and then act with our eyes wide open and our heads on a swivel. Myself? I wouldn’t work in a nitroglycerine factory, but I’m glad that someone does.’

[Added 6/4/16 by Th’ Gaussling] I happened to go back to this post and in doing so read a comment by “Bob”, which you can see in the comment section below. Here is a copy

“I actually believe that as a society should keep the safety rules relaxed a bit in academia. Academia, for better or worse, is our national chemical research institution”

So underpaid grad students, postdocs and staff working at  a univeristy are less human, and less deserving of safety than their for profit brethren?

That’s diabolical Mr. Gaussling. Pure evil incarnate. For whose gain do you sacrifice their lives?

I want to address this now better than I did back then. To Bob I say this: Everyone has a right to a safe workplace. Academic institutions as well as industrial operations must use best practices in regard to worker safety. This is axiomatic. Plainly I did not articulate my contention as well as I could have. I will do so now.

We have to assume that junior chemists are likely grow to be senior chemists in an organization. The role of a senior chemist in industry for example, may be quite varied through her/his career. A senior chemist who has stayed in the technical environment will almost unavoidably have been confronted with a large variety of questions in regard to circumstances and outcomes relating to hazardous materials and tricky reactions. Moreover, a senior chemist is likely to have been promoted to a level that also involves supervision, the drafting of SOPs, work instructions, MSDS documents, emergency planning, laboratory design, etc.

In my view, a senior chemist as described above has an ethical and moral responsibility to coworkers, plant operators, material handlers, and customers to oversee chemical safety. A chemist at any level has a responsibility to make known to all involved what dangerous circumstance might arise with any given chemical operation. Either in relation to the hazardous properties of substances that may be released in mishandling, or in regard to hazardous processing conditions that can lead to danger.

I’ve used the word hazard(ous) and the word danger(ous). We need some clarity on this. If you Google the words and stop with the dictionary definitions you will be left with the shallow notion that they are synonyms. If you dig deeper, say at the website of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (OSH), you will find a definition of “hazard” that I find particularly useful. To wit:

A hazard is any source of potential damage, harm or adverse health effects on something or someone under certain conditions at work. [italics mine]

The same fuzziness in definition exists for the word danger(ous) as well. A definition I prefer is below:

A dangerous occurrence is an unplanned and undesired occurrence (incident) which has the potential to cause injury and which may or may not cause damage to property, equipment or the environment. [italics mine]

This definition is borrowed from the University College Cork, Ireland (UCC). I believe this is a good definition and it readily sits apart from the definition of hazard above.

The key difference is that a hazard is any source of potential of damage … under certain conditions.. whereas danger is a condition brought on by an unplanned or undesired occurrence. Next, lets consider these terms in the context of chemistry.

On the shelf in the fire cabinet is a glass bottle of phosphorus oxychloride, properly sealed and segregated. As the POCl3 sits on the shelf in the cabinet, I would argue that it is only hazardous. If, however, you pick up the bottle and in walking to the fume hood drop it causing it to break and spill the contents in the open, you’ve caused a dangerous situation. It’s an imminent threat to health and safety.

Conversely, let’s say that you carried the bottle to the hood, used it, then returned it to storage without incident. In the reaction the POCl3 is consumed and in the workup the residual acid chloride is quenched by water. Congratulations! You have taken a hazardous material, used it safely, passivated the actives during workup, and eliminated at least the acute hazard relating to POCl3.

In the first situation, a hazardous material was mishandled and became dangerous. In the second situation, the hazardous material was handled properly, consumed, and residuals passivated. In this case a hazardous material was used safely and to positive effect.

Seem trivial? Well, it’s not. This difference in meaning leads to a confusion that is especially acute among the non-chemist population. But my point leads to the question of how students are taught to use hazardous materials.

I spoke of relaxing safety requirements in academia. An example of such a thing might be the use of diethyl ether. This useful solvent is banned outright in some chemical manufacturing operations across the country owing to the flammability. Even in their R&D labs. This is corporate policy handed down by those responsible for risk management, not scientists. In some industrial labs, woe is he who has an unexpected occurrence like a boil-over or a spill.

I believe that Et2O should remain in academic research labs for both the research value and for the development of valuable lab experience by students and postdocs.

You learn to handle hazardous materials by having the opportunity to handle hazardous materials.

Ether is only a simple example of what I’m trying to communicate. In order for chemists to graduate as experienced scientists with working familiarity in the properties of substances, they must have experience handling and using a large variety of substances, many of which may be substantially hazardous. And by hazardous I mean much more than just toxic. A substance may have a reactive hazard aspect that is a large part of it’s utility.  To safely handle substances that pose a reactive hazard, a chemist needs to have experience in using it. And killing it. The chemist must try to gauge the level of reactivity and modify the use of the substance to use it safely. If you’ve made or used a Grignard reagent you know what I mean. Expertise in laboratory chemistry only comes through direct experience.

Hazardous reactive materials do useful things under reasonable conditions. Non-hazardous, unreactive materials find great utility in road and bridge construction.

If we regulate out all of the risk by eliminating hazardous materials in academic chemistry, what kind of scientists and future captains of industry are we producing? What we can do is to put layers of administrative and engineering protection in the space where the hazardous transitions to the dangerous.  Academic laboratory safety is promoted by close supervision by experienced people. Limits on the amount of flammables in a lab space, proper syringe use, safe quenching of reactive residues, proper use of pressurized equipment, and a basic assessment of reactive hazards present in an experiment will go a long way to improving academic lab safety. Experienced people usually have a trail of mistakes and mishaps behind them. If we corporatize the academic research experience to a zero risk condition, we may kill the goose that lays the golden egg.


The US Chemical Safety Board has approved and released the final report on the Macondo /Deepwater Horizon  blowout and explosion of 4/20/10 in the Gulf of Mexico. The report is in two volumes and does include an animation of the sequence of events. I have found the CSB animations to be particularly helpful in understanding the key features revealed by their investigations.

The CSB recently released their final report on the ammonium nitrate fire and explosion in West, Texas on 4/17/13. A few months after the release of the final report the ATF announced a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of person or persons responsible for the industrial fire and explosion that killed 15 people.

If the forensic aspects of industrial accidents is of interest to you, I’d recommend having a look at the CSB website. Knowledge of various initiation and propagation modes in past industrial accidents is useful for those of us trying to prevent initiating events on our own sites.

An article by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters writing for News Week reports that the North Carolina Senate will introduce a bill called “Energy Modernization Act. SENATE DRS25123-RIxz (01/22)”. A part of this bill will enact the extraordinary authority to make disclosure of fracking fluid information without permission a felony- i.e., a criminal act. Normally, cases of disclosure of commercial confidential information is a civil matter leading to injunction and/or monetary awards.

A quick look at bill shows the following language:

SECTION 7.(a) Article 27 of Chapter 113 of the General Statutes is amended by 26 adding a new section to read: 27

Sponsors: Senators Rucho, Newton, and Brock (Primary Sponsors).

§ 113-391A. Trade secret and confidential information determination; protection; 28 retention; disclosure to emergency personnel.

… [refer to page 11, line 39]

(d) Penalties for Unlawful Disclosure. – Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section or as otherwise provided by law, any person who has access to confidential information pursuant to this section and who discloses it knowing it to be confidential information to any person not authorized to receive it shall be guilty of a Class I felony, and if knowingly or negligently disclosed to any person not authorized, shall be subject to civil action for damages and injunction by the owner of the confidential information, including, without limitation, actions under Article 24 of Chapter 66 of the General Statutes. [italics by Gaussling]

There are numerous exceptions for government officials who have a need to know this information in the course of their responsibilities as well as emergency medical personnel who demonstrate a need to know.

One has to ask why the Senators wrote law to render disclosure of commercial information relating to fracking fluids a Class I felony as well as an act being subject to civil litigation. Do they believe this is in the public interest? This act will make it difficult for people to monitor ground water for tell-tale components of drilling or fracking fluids because the composition of the injected fluid is confidential. If you are not allowed to identify the input fluids, how can you claim that contaminants found are related to fracking?

Does this law also mean that being in possession of a material safety data sheet (MSDS), a shipping document required by law, could constitute a violation? Oh, even better, will the MSDS contain enough information to be useful to workers, emergency responders, or fire inspectors on the scene and without delay? Or will the material be listed as a mixture of Stuff A, Stuff B, and Stuff C? And by the way, don’t get this shit in your eyes.

So, Senators Rucho, Newton, and Brock. What about the Class I felony G.S. 95-197? Doesn’t that contradict some language in your law?

I    G.S. 95-197 Withholding hazardous substance trade secret information.

It seems like the sponsors are helping someone render future litigation and recovery of damages much more expensive and complex. Does this help your constituents? I mean, you know, the ones who are not corporate entities.



In the course of my professional society memberships I receive an email newsletter called API SmartBrief from the American Petroleum Institute. An article caught my attention today. The API newsletter blurb read-

Senators say methane rule will have unexpected impact

“The Obama administration doesn’t understand the full economic effect of new federal rules meant to cut methane emissions from oil and natural gas production, according to a letter signed by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and colleagues. “Given that so many of our communities are being impacted by current market conditions, [italics added for emphasis] any new regulations impacting oil and natural gas should be based on reliable, transparent data that is devoid of any political considerations,” read the letter sent to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.” 5/23/16

This API summary is sourced from HoumaToday.com.

The alarm expressed by Vitter, API, and unnamed others struck me as amusing. The methane rule will have unexpected impact. Golly Mr. Wizard, tell us more. Naturally, API is beating the drum for petroleum interests. It is their charter, after all. Vitter bemoans the cost impact on workers and communities in his state and, to be sure, that is his job. Thus, the interpenetrating political-industrial partnership seems aligned in their opposition to possible rule making by EPA. Alles ist in Ordnung.

The funny part is that the current market condition cited by Vitter and, I would suppose, API, is the result of years of delirious drilling and hydrofracturing of oil and gas deposits. Perhaps someone of credible standing mentioned that a bubble was forming and that maybe, just maybe, we’ll end up with a glut. If such a voice did arise, it was not widely cited, at least to my knowledge.

So, this self-inflicted malady of excess supply and low prices has crept up on this colossal industry with it’s legions of swingin’ d**ks leasing and drilling methane glory holes. Boom and bust is not new to big oil. Not unexpectedly, OPEC failed to cooperate and reduce their oil production, the greedy bastards. King coal is staggering like a large sauropod after an asteroid impact. And even more dismaying to big petro is that solar, wind, and who knows what else is creeping upwards in power production and taking market share.

With all of this recklessness with oversupply, could it really be that big oil is bad at basic price collusion? Shiver me timbers!

My point is that using a self-inflicted market down-turn to justify reckless disregard in furthering large scale contamination of the atmosphere is a malfeasance of the first magnitude. If the free market gave birth to such an awful turn of events as an oil and gas oversupply, how can we expect the invisible hand of the market to steer us away from certain ecological ruin through destruction of the biosphere from accelerating consumption and advancing overpopulation?

The market is like the male sex organ. It has no brain and seeks only one thing- More.



A FLIR ONE ® infrared imaging attachment for my Android 6S cell phone arrived at my door the other day. The price was initially a bit high, $350, but had recently dropped to a more attractive price of $249, so I pulled the trigger. The online transaction on the FLIR website was seamless and the delivery time was less than one week. At the time the FLIR ONE® was offered on Amazon for the same price.

The unit has two imaging sensors arranged horizontally side-by-side and one centimeter apart: One optical sensor and one Lepton IR thermal imager detecting in the 8-14 micron wavelength range. According to Optics.org, the Lepton is an “uncooled long-wave infrared (LWIR) microbolometer focal plane array”. The FLIR has its own battery which must be charged separately. It will not energize from your phone’s battery.

FLIR image of our front entrance, April 1, 2016.

FLIR image of our front entrance, April 1, 2016.

The unit arrives nearly ready for plug and play. Before it can be operated the user must download an app from FLIR. This process went smoothly and in a short time I had the unit operating. The compact FLIR unit connects to the Android via the micro USB connector on the phone.

About the imaging. The FLIR ONE superimposes the IR image atop an optical image that consists primarily of edge lines defined through high contrast. This is a useful feature because it improves the image sharpness and helps set the context of the IR image. In a darkened space the optical image is lost and only the IR image will be visible (second image).  The IR image itself is relatively low resolution owing to the limited number of pixels from the IR detector. At close range a significant parallax effect occurs, appearing as shifted overlap of the optical and IR images.

The image above is an example of a false color image captured from the FLIR ONE. The shot of this north-facing door was taken during late afternoon on a sunny day in Colorado. The internal air temperature was ~68 °F and the outside air temp was ~35 °F in the shade. As is customary, the coolest temperatures are indicated in blue and warmer temperatures are indicated by a gradient from red to yellow to white. The IR sensor seems to saturate fairly easily, but the automatic exposure control will get a handle on the image, though not instantaneously. I have found that the best images are had by limiting the frame to avoid including overly IR-bright features. This allows the exposure control to bring out thermal subtleties in the image much as any auto exposure feature would in the optical range.

FLIR ONE image of a gas hot water heater under ordinary operating conditions

FLIR ONE image of a gas hot water heater under ordinary operating conditions

The second image shows a basement gas hot water heater and the hot water output line directed upwards to the floor joists. The hot water lines are insulated with closed cell polymer foam insulation from the local hardware store. The water heater has nothing more than the factory equipped insulation.

The FLIR ONE indicates infrared temperatures by way of false color images and spot temperature readings. But temperature readings from IR thermometry are not the whole story when it comes to understanding fugitive heat losses, radiative or otherwise.

An IR image shows surface temperatures based on assumptions on average emissivity and scaling through the Stefan-Boltzmann law. The amount of radiant energy emitted by a black body is defined by the Stefan-Boltzmann law. A plot is shown here. Emissivity is the quotient of emitted energy from a surface divided by that emitted by a black body radiator at the same temperature. Every surface has a characteristic emissivity based on its composition.  According to the linked emissivity table, polished aluminum has an emissivity of 0.095; concrete 0.95; mercury, 0.12; sanded spruce, 0.82; and white lacquer, 0.95. All these values are at 100 °C.

Home water heater. Aluminum foil on vertical hot water feed line

Home water heater. Aluminum foil on vertical hot water feed line

In the third photo, a 1 ft x 1 ft piece of aluminum foil was wrapped around a stretch of the insulated hot water feed line above the heater, as shown in the photo. The foil is in thermal contact with the foam insulation on the 3/4″ copper pipe. Hot water was run for a few minutes to draw heated water into the plumbing. Caution should be taken in that IR radiation does reflect off of surfaces which may lead to inaccurate conclusions about heat flow in the system in question. Above, the aluminum foil is reflecting some IR from another source. Up close and from another angle the foil appears much cooler than it is.

Plainly the emissivity of the highly heat conductive aluminum is different from the foam insulated pipe. The foil is in thermal contact with the foam and should be near the temperature of the foam surface, but the false color image suggests that the foil temperature is lower in temperature. Because of its much lower emissivity (ca. 10 % of foam) the foil only appears to be cooler. The foil is less radiant than the foam which has an emissivity of ~0.90.

Polished aluminum has high thermal conductivity but low IR emissivity. Foam, which has high IR emissivity (see images), is known for it’s insulating properties. And by that we mean, foam is a poor conductor of heat. What aluminum lacks in emissivity, it more than makes up for in conductivity. And while foam lacks in conductivity, it appears to be an efficient emitter of IR.

It is useful to mention the meaning of “insulation“. A material that conducts thermal power poorly can be said to have insulating properties. Thermal power (dq/dt) is the flow rate of thermal energy (q) per second. Thermal power is the rate of flow in Joules per second. For reference, one Joule per second is one Watt. The valuable attribute of a thermal insulator is that it can resist the quantity of power (Watts) flowing through a unit area such as a square meter. The amount of thermal power moving across a unit area, like a surface, is called heat flux and is in units of W/m^2.  It is common to express thermal resistance through a material by the R-value. An R-value is the ratio of the temperature drop (ΔT) across the insulating material to the heat flux through it, Q:  R = ΔT/Q.  So, as the heat flux gets smaller for a given ΔT, R grows larger in magnitude. In practical terms, a large R-value is desirable for insulation.

Looking at the radiant stretch of emissive insulated pipe rising from the water heater, we might initially guess that the IR image shows the whole thermal picture. But really, this guess is muddied by details. A warm pipe will be radiating energy as well as losing heat by conduction to whatever it is in contact with and by air convection.

IR radiation thermometry is useful when measuring a surface temperature is not practical. Accuracy, however, will depend on the emissivity of the surfaces of interest. The FLIR ONE is an economical imaging device for capturing IR images of large areas. The spot temperature feature is useful for recording the temperature of desired objects. Image files are easily downloaded from the phone and manipulated as jpeg files. Users will find many good applications for this affordable and easy to use IR imaging system.

Easy and cheap is great, but it is advisable for those wanting to do commercial work with IR thermography to take credible coursework and obtain some credentials. There are a few subtleties to thermography and it is best to be a little overqualified than not. Thermography courses can be found on the internet.




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