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Friday, April 18, 2014

New refrigerant in cars may be toxic

Refrigerant in cars: Refreshingly cool, potentially toxic

Combustion of the cooling agent releases
toxic fumes, researchers have shown.
The refrigerant R1234yf is being considered for use in air conditioning systems in cars. Chemists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich now show that, in the event of a fire, it releases the highly poisonous carbonyl fluoride, and urge that its safety be reassessed.

According to EU guidelines, the new compound R1234yf should in future be used as the refrigerant in air-conditioning systems for automobiles.

But the compound is inflammable, and LMU chemists have now shown that combustion of the cooling agent leads to the formation of the highly toxic carbonyl fluoride.

"It has been known for some time now that combustion of R1234yf results in production of the toxic hydrogen fluoride. Our analysis has now shown that 20% of the gases produced by combustion of the compound consist of the even more poisonous chemical carbonyl fluoride," says Andreas Kornath, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at LMU Munich.

He and his co-workers have just published the results of their investigation in the journal Zeitschrift für Naturforschung.

Carbonyl fluoride is structurally related to phosgene (which contains chlorine in place of fluorine), which was used as a chemical weapon during the First World War.

The simplest fluoride, hydrogen fluoride (or hydrofluoric acid, HF) is also highly corrosive and so toxic that burns about as big as the palm of one's hand can be lethal. The agent binds avidly to calcium in body fluids, and this can result in heart failure unless an antidote is rapidly administered.

Carbonyl fluoride is even more dangerous, because it penetrates the skin more easily, and causes severe irritation of the eyes, the skin and the airways. If inhaled, it can damage the alveoli in the lungs, allowing it to reach the circulation and shut down vital functions.

According to guidelines issued by the European Union, automobile manufacturers are legally obligated to use an environmentally friendly refrigerant in the air-conditioning systems installed in their cars.

Use of the previously approved refrigerant R134a in new models has been forbidden in the EU since 2011, as the agent had been shown to contribute to the global warming in the atmosphere.

However, its recommended replacement R1234yf has already been the subject of much heated debate in Germany.

Studies carried out by various institutions and by German auto manufacturers had pointed to the compound's flammability, and shown that, in the event of accidents in which vehicles catch fire, combustion of R1234yf leads to the release of hydrogen fluoride.

"The risk analyses carried out by the manufacturers of the refrigerant so far have not taken carbonyl fluoride into account. In light of our results, we advise that the risks associated with R1234yf should be urgently reassessed," Kornath adds.

Source: EurekAlert! by AAAS 

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fracking health concerns continue

Air quality complaints and water contamination debated

Fracking sites can emit dangerous levels of
toxic substances over short periods of time.
There are more than 6,000 active gas wells in Pennsylvania. And every week, those drilling sites generate scores of complaints from the state’s residents, including many about terrible odors and contaminated water.

How the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection handles those complaints has worsened the already raw and angry divide between fearful residents and the state regulators charged with overseeing the burgeoning gas drilling industry.

For instance, the agency’s own manual for dealing with complaints is explicit about what to do if someone reports concerns about a noxious odor, but is not at that very moment experiencing the smell: “DO NOT REGISTER THE COMPLAINT.”

When a resident does report a real-time alarm about the air quality in or around their home, the agency typically has two weeks to conduct an investigation. If no odor is detected when investigators arrive on the scene, the case is closed.

“The time that it takes them to respond is something people are concerned about,” said Matt Walker, a community outreach director for the Clean Air Council in Pennsylvania, an environmental advocacy organization. Waiting a few days to two weeks to respond to odor complaints, he said, is “way too long.”

The concerns of residents are not likely to be eased by a study published in Reviews on Environmental Health, a peer reviewed journal.

The study, researchers say, confirms what they have long suspected about natural gas operations — that emission levels from these sites spike drastically over short periods of time, making it hard to assess the true threat to people’s health.

Researchers at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project collected real-time readings of particulate matter — soot, dust and chemicals — in 14 homes in Washington County, a heavily drilled part of the state.

They found repeated episodes during which measures of contaminated dust rose sharply, to dangerous levels in the course of a day.

David Brown, the lead researcher on the study, said that a person in such circumstances could get what amounted to a full day’s exposure in half an hour.

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association declined to comment on the Environmental Health Project’s study but said that the oil and gas industry is “heavily regulated” and that the association’s member companies “strive to comply with numerous federal and state air quality related rules, regulations, and reporting requirements.”

Information provided by the DEP shows that between 2011 and 2014, the department received over 2,000 complaints about oil and natural gas operations. Water quality issues featured prominently in the list of complaints. The DEP also registered 110 of the complaints as odor issues.

John Quigley, a former director of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the need for greater transparency in the oversight of the fracking industry was real and urgent.


Gas drilling operations include several processes that release toxic chemicals into the air. The type and level of chemicals released varies from hour to hour depending on the type of activity taking place on the well pad.

Despite this, researchers and regulators seeking to assess the health threat of fracking operations have typically used measurement devices that capture air emissions over longer periods of time, often 24 hours.

These levels are then, in many cases, compared to the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which were created over 40 years ago at a time when large, 24-hour-a-day sources of pollution such as coal fire plants and steel mills were dominant.

“You can’t use 24-hour standards if the health effect occurs within a few minutes,” said Brown, the lead author of the study released Friday.

The question of whether episodic bursts of contaminated air from fracking could pose an unappreciated but real health menace was first explored in West Virginia in 2010.

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection asked Michael McCawley, then a professor at West Virginia University’s Health Sciences Center, to study air emissions from fracking operations in the state. McCawley found the contaminants he detected at fracking sites fluctuated over a wide range.

Those findings mirror those in the Pennsylvania study published on Tuesday.

Research has shown that fracking operations can release an array of toxic chemicals — some carcinogenic, others capable, at significant enough levels, of causing serious neurological and respiratory damage. The worry, Brown says, is that these chemicals are attached to the microscopic dust particles that he detected and can reach the bloodstream after being inhaled.

McCawley and Brown say that the wide fluctuations that they’re picking up on are also attributable to operators not using the best available technology to limit possibly harmful emissions.

State and federal regulations, for instance, do not require operators to use equipment that would capture all emissions during drilling. Often, gases are vented or flared into the air. The regulations also don’t consider activities, like diesel truck traffic, that degrade air quality at the fracking site.

“The law requires best technology,” said McCawley, and the data, he says, is telling us that the gas drilling industry is “not working according to the strict definition of the law.”

Source: ProPublica. This article has been edited for length.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Smoking ban shows quick results

Research shows smoke-free public places
improve children's health, even before birth.
The number of premature births and children’s hospital visits for asthma dropped significantly in parts of the United States, Canada, and Europe barely a year after they enacted smoking bans, researchers reported in The Lancet recently.

The new analysis combined the results of 11 studies encompassing more than 2.5 million births and nearly 250,000 asthma attacks.

Experts called it the best evidence to date that legislation creating smoke-free public places and workplaces improves children’s health, even in the womb.

The results are “very impressive,” said Dr. Brian Mercer, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, who noted that half a million American babies are born prematurely each year.

“If you could prevent 10 percent, you’d prevent nearly 50,000 premature babies in the U.S. alone each year,” said Dr. Mercer, who was not involved in the study.

After an exhaustive review of relevant studies spanning 38 years, the researchers analyzed five that looked at perinatal and child health after local smoking bans in North America and six studies conducted after national bans in Europe.

Hospital visits for childhood asthma and premature births both declined about 10 percent in the year after smoking bans took effect, the researchers found.

The investigators also pooled data from two studies and found a 5 percent reduction in the number of children born very small for their gestational age after the introduction of smoke-free laws.

An earlier analysis of the impact of smoking bans on adult health demonstrated a 15 percent reduction in cardiovascular events.

The new report offers “another very good reason to institute smoking bans in public places,” said Dr. Muktar Aliyu, an associate professor of health policy and medicine at Vanderbilt University who has studied birth outcomes linked to maternal smoking.

Only 16 percent of the world’s population is covered by comprehensive smoke-free laws, and 40 percent of children worldwide are routinely exposed to secondhand smoke.

About half of Americans are protected by complete smoke-free policies in workplaces, restaurants and bars, according to the Americans Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, a nonprofit group.

The new analysis did not prove that smoke-free laws caused the improvements in children’s health. And the researchers didn’t evaluate other factors, like taxation of tobacco products and advertisement bans, which could have contributed.

The authors note that further studies are needed to estimate the effect of smoke-free laws on respiratory tract infections in children, a major problem of secondhand smoke. The authors also cite a “pressing need” for studies of tobacco control laws in low- to middle-income countries.

Source: NY Times. This article has been edited for length.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

States take action on toxic chemicals regulations

Toxic chemicals can hide in many
commonly used products.
In Vermont, the Senate has just passed a bill potentially empowering the Green Mountain State to ban chemicals it deems harmful to consumers.

Some 3,000 miles away, in Washington State, environmental reformers weren’t as successful: A bill to ban six toxic flame retardants died in the Senate, beaten back by industry opposition and politicians’ cries of state overreaching.

In state capitols from Maine to Oregon, environmental advocates are filing bills to identify and ban noxious chemicals and industry groups are fighting back with pointed rebukes and high-pitched lobbying. Toxic reform legislation is either breathing with new life or being extinguished altogether.

The toxics tug-of-war in state houses is direct fallout from the muddled environmental politicking of Washington, D.C.

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal framework intended to safeguard the public from dangerous chemicals. Yet in the nearly four decades since, TSCA, as it is known, has done little more than gather dust.

Among tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency has “only been able to require testing on a little more than 200 existing chemicals,” and banned five, the EPA told The Center for Public Integrity.

Everyone wants to revamp TSCA — from the industry’s $100 million lobbying arm, the American Chemistry Council, to the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, to the EPA itself.

Yet three years to the month since the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg proposed sweeping change through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, the TSCA overhaul remains in the works, with proposals, counter-proposals and criticisms about the working draft’s fine print.

Fed up with logjams in D.C., state legislators are filing hundreds of measures in their own states to do what the federal government hasn’t — take action against destructive chemicals, by singling out the most dangerous toxins and seeking to remove them from shelves.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported last year, the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups fight nearly every state measure, contending that a patchwork of state laws would do more harm than good, and that true change should come through TSCA.

Source: Center for Public Integrity. This article has been edited for length.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

A cleaner way to separate coal and ash

New technology separates coal, ash without chemicals

The new technology is new but has
the potential to curb contamination.
The DriJet 100 is a new technology that can separate coal from ash without using water or chemicals.

The technology, developed by Pennsylvania-based Mineral Separation Technologies, uses x-rays to scan and separate coal from ash. That means it's cleaner, portable and more reliable than traditional coal prep plants.

It's also safer, faster and much more economical.

"It eliminates a lot of risk for us, a lot of potential exposure, that's what we like about it," West Virginia Coal Reclamation Managing Partner Gene Ricciardi said. "It provides on-site separation and cleaning, so we don't have to worry about transporting large volumes of coal in trucks — we're going to be transporting probably one-third of amount in trucks that we normally would.

"There's a lot less possibility of contamination into the water system and air."

The Kanawha County company was first in the industry to purchase the technology, but Ricciardi and his partner, Joe Cornfield, are satisfied it will live up to the hype. Though their system isn't operational yet, Ricciardi said they've run their coal through the machine "and it's worked."

Mineral Separations CEO Charles Roos said the patented technology uses x-rays to identify the atomic weight of the coal particles and then air jets separate coal from ash. The ash is removed from the coal right at the mine face.

"The technology was developed for separating recycled metals and recycled plastics; it's been used for years in that industry," he said. "There have been hundreds of installations around the world in recycling plants.

"About five years ago we noticed electronics had gotten fast enough and sensors fast enough that we could use the technology on (other) material streams."

Roos said the technology means fewer coal trucks on the road and less coal waste in impoundments, both positive changes for the industry. It also requires less horsepower and fewer moving parts, which cuts operating costs.

The DriJet can process 20,000 pieces of coal per second and deliver a higher quality product.

Source: The State Journal

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