The West Virginia Chemical Spill: Chemists React
Feb17

The West Virginia Chemical Spill: Chemists React

Today's post is by Amanda Yarnell, assistant managing editor of C&EN's science/technology/education group. As part of our coverage of the West Virginia chemical spill, C&EN contacted a number of ACS members living in the affected area. We couldn’t fit all their stories into our report, so we’re sharing pieces of them here. Their tales reflect those of many Charleston area residents, who found out on January 9 that their tap water had been contaminated with a chemical used in coal processing. And they give a chemist’s perspective on the spill’s effects on daily life. Like other residents, the chemists C&EN spoke to headed out to buy water when they heard the news. Retired chemist Barbara Warren, who lives more than 2 miles from the Kahawha and Elk rivers, drove to her local Rite Aid. “The parking lot was full of cars. There was no water remaining there, nor was there any milk, juice, soft drinks, or any nonalcoholic drinks of any kinds. There were many empty shelves. Many were buying beer and wine and large bags of ice.” When she got home, she and her husband found that they still had water in their 1991 pop-top Volkswagen van, leftover from a fall camping trip. A few days later, it rained, and her husband collected about 60 gallons of rainwater in coolers. “We used this for washing ourselves and dishes. I used two huge crab pots to keep hot water on the stove which could be mixed with cold rain water for warm water.” Madan Bhasin also found a way to get clean, despite the water ban. The chief scientific adviser at Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center drained his hot water heater as soon as he heard the news. “I used it to take a nice warm bath.” Xiaoping Sun, a chemistry professor at the University of Charleston, lives and works in the affected area. “Per the order, the water could only be used for flushing toilets and extinguishing fires,” he says. “Routine tasks such as brushing our teeth required thought to remind ourselves to not turn on the tap water. Washing dishes, laundry, and hands – these basic routine tasks could have put our family in harm.” Although officials have cleared tap water to drink for all but pregnant women and children, Sun and other chemists C&EN spoke with continue to stick to bottled water for drinking and cooking. “We ask whether they are using bottled water before eating in restaurants,” adds Sun’s U of Charleston chemistry colleague Juliana Serafin. Warren installed a 10-inch countertop filter on her kitchen faucet with the best activated carbon 0.5 micron filter...

Read More
Chemists: Tell us your story
Mar17

Chemists: Tell us your story

Dawit Tibebu has a way with trash. Visit his bench at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University and you’ll find him crafting distilling flasks from discarded heat-tempered light bulbs and condensers made from hoses snaked through discarded and conjoined water bottles. With lab set ups built from discarded materials such as these, the chemistry student and his mentor Sileshi Yitbarek hope to help bring simple, hands-on chemistry experiments to regional and rural schools in Africa that can’t afford traditional lab equipment. I heard Dawit’s story from Peter Mahaffy, a chemistry professor at King’s University College in Edmonton and chair of the IUPAC committee that helped make 2011 the International Year of Chemistry. The International Year of Chemistry’s “success will be measured by how we engage the public,” Mahaffy told me over lunch last week. He had just landed in Boston to speak about the year-long celebration at the invitation of the American Chemical Society’s Northeastern section. To capture the public’s attention, he argued, chemists need to tell more stories like Dawit’s. “Human stories--not stories of chemicals or substances--are what drive interest in the subject of chemistry,” he explained. “Those are the stories we need to be telling.” I couldn’t agree more. Those are exactly the kind of the stories we’re trying to tell at C&EN. If you've got an inspiring human story of chemistry like Dawit's, please share it...

Read More
Best Party Favor Ever
Nov16

Best Party Favor Ever

Party favors are best when they are edible, I've always thought. So I was disappointed when I sat down to dinner at Bill Lipscomb's 90th birthday party last night to find a tiny, not-chocolate-coated book next to my plate. Then I took a closer look. The favor was a tiny flip book, put together by Bill's wife Jean and Marc Abrahams of IgNobel fame, intended as a tutorial on tying The Colonel's* signature neckwear. The flip book had a limited print run, I hear. But here's the video from which it came, in case you want to give it a go yourself. *The Colonel is so nicknamed, as many of you know, because he is a member of the Honorary order of Kentucky Colonels -- putting him in the company of the likes of Elvis, Tiger Woods, and Derek...

Read More