Monday, June 11, 2007

Chemicals of Interest

If you’re like most people, you object to American colleges because they stuff students with postmodern relativism as brutally as foie gras manufacturers stuff geese with corn mash.

Sad to say, it now looks as though this is the least of our worries:

Unusual paranoia over chemical attack in the US takes many forms. It can be seen in a recent piece of trouble from the Department of Homeland Security, a long list of "chemicals of interest" it wishes to require all university settings to inventory.

"Academic institutions across the country claim they will have to spend countless hours and scarce resources on documenting very small amounts of chemicals in many different labs that are scattered across sometimes sprawling campuses," reported a recent Chemical & Engineering News, the publication of the American Chemical Society.
That’s a fair objection. The sensible way to answer it is to shriek ”9/11!” 'til your face turns as purple as an eggplant and your throat sprays a fine mist of blood.

The problem of mass shootings can be addressed by arming students, teachers, and janitors with semiautomatic weapons. But when terrorists and others malcontents equip themselves with chemical weapons, it’s a bit harder to fight fire with fire. The only possible solution – and I’m speaking as someone who has pondered this problem for at least ten minutes – is to purge our nation’s college labs of anything more dangerous than Rochelle salt.

And that definitely includes trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide:
"The manufacture of hydrogen sulfide is [simple]," writes Hutchkinson. "It is created by water coming into contact with phosphorus pentasulfide."

This is actually true, unlike many things in terrorist poison handbooks. On the DHS list, phosphorus pentasulfide is only of interest if a university has a ton of it. Hydrogen sulfide, any amount. Phosphorus pentasulfide, one ton.
While the DHS performs the important – and exciting! - work of rounding up every half-empty bottle of triethanolamine from here to West Quoddy Head, chemistry professors can concentrate on more wholesome experiments. Handled carefully, baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes will provoke considerable excitement - even among jaded modern students weaned on R-rated movies and “acid rock” - while teaching important lessons about fizzing, carbonation, and allied topics.

In unrelated news, there seems to be a small amount of chemical contamination in the environs of Hampton Roads, Virginia:
The military has polluted Peninsula creeks and ponds with cancer-causing chemicals and dangerous contaminants such as mercury and arsenic….At one base, an industrial solvent has been found flowing into the York River at levels almost 4,000 times the federal drinking-water limit. At another, fish skeletons have been deformed by military pollution.

And tests show elevated levels of nasty polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in fish, oysters and crabs in public waterways near three of the bases - particularly around Tabb Creek near Langley Air Force Base….

The estimates for cleanup costs range from $80 billion to $120 billion. The timeframe to finish the job is measured in multiple decades. In many cases, it takes a decade of studies before the military even begins a cleanup.
(Photo via Beaver County Militia.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is just crazy!! How do they expect to teach chemistry?? (Sorry for the excessive use of punctuation marks)

Oh well, more jobs in europe.