October 9, 2010

Heavy metal is in the headlines again

I don’t mean Metallica, Alice Cooper, Twisted Sister, or AC/DC.

I'm talking about the heavy metals in that toxic sludge that spilled out from the aluminum mining plant’s reservoir in Hungary. The Blue Danube is now the Orange Danube although the experts say that the pH level has dropped to the level allowed in drinking water and predict that it will “turn unharmful” That’s a mighty positive bit of soothsaying, especially as the BP spill in the Gulf is still fresh in our memories. "The consequences do not seem to be that dramatic," Philip Weller, head of the Danube Commission for the Protection of the Danube, told The Associated Press.

Hungarian officials now estimate that between 158 million and 184 million gallons of this orange liquid mud gushed out in just a few hours. They say that’s 79 to 92 percent of the entire spill in the Gulf which took nearly three months to unfold this summer.

But what exactly are heavy metals? Cadmium was already in the news this summer when McDonald’s recalled those 12 million Shrek glasses because unsafe levels of cadmium could adhere to your hands.

If I remember from that periodic chart of elements in chemistry classes decades ago, these toxic elements (such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and beryllium) hang around for a really long time. So if the arsenic concentration in the Danube right now remains super high, somebody has a problem. A recent analysis suggested that roughly 50 tons of arsenic, 300 tons of chrome, and half a ton of mercury was unleashed by the spill. Some of the Hungarian villages had to be abandoned too. So don’t tell those residents that it’s not a big deal. 1/70 teaspoon of mercury in a 25 acre lake makes the fish unsafe to eat. A nice neutral pH makes very little impact then.

The Department of Labor’s OSHA has a lot of info about heavy metals at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/metalsheavy/index.html