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...

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In Print: Mushroom Wrapping And Sound Zapping
Dec13

In Print: Mushroom Wrapping And Sound Zapping

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what's going on in this week’s issue of C&EN. Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, has gotten a deservedly bad rap for clogging up Earth's arteries. But an idea thought up by Eben Bayer when he was a mechanical engineering student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute could give plastic packing peanuts a run for their money. As Senior Editor Alex Scott writes in this week's Newscripts, Bayer devised a plan to use mycelium—tiny branching threads made by fungi—to hold together a natural, moldable packaging material. His firm, Ecovative Design, has a 40,000-sq-ft mycelium-growing facility that creates Styrofoam-shaped molds (that is, hollowed-out cavities, not fungi) for packaging delicate items. Bayer insists that this mycelium packaging goes “head-to-head with plastic foam on cost, performance, appearance, and feel,” but Alex says he'd be interested in comparing the impacts of the two products on the marine environment and greenhouse gas emissions. And the Newscripts gang would be interested in comparing the reactions of kids when they open holiday presents wrapped in fungi. “It does have an organic and irregular appearance,” Alex admits. “But I think once consumers learn about the environmental benefits of Ecovative’s material they would opt for it every time." Alex, for one, says he'd be pleased to get such an environmentally friendly wrapped package and would either put it in his compost bin or, if it was easy to crumble, use it as mulch on his flower beds. Such a green guy. And if you read his original story carefully, you'll notice Alex is also a punny guy. One pun that he self-edited out of print? That Bayer must have been a “fun guy” to have thought the idea up. Good one, Alex. The next item in Alex's column is also about how to make the world greener, this time using sound to amp up electrical output. London-based research teams have designed a photovoltaic cell with zinc oxide nanorods that up the device's electrical output by 40% when exposed to sound vibrations. The vibrations increase efficiency by decreasing recombination—the process of electrons converting to heat or light within the solar cells. Roadside noise (at about 75 decibels) significantly improved performance of the ZnO-nanorod solar cells, and the high frequencies of pop and rock music beat out classical music in increasing output. Alex would be up for trying these cells out as well, but he says: “My roof is already jammed with photovoltaics and a solar water panel”—of course it is, Alex—“but I’d have to find space outside my 15-year-old son’s room as he is a drummer. And without a...

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This Week on CENtral Science: Military Biofuels, Preserve it Like Beckham, and more
May31

This Week on CENtral Science: Military Biofuels, Preserve it Like Beckham, and more

Tweet of the Week: @carmendrahl @smbaxtersd I mean really, judging by the numbers, an alternative career today would be one where you get a faculty position.— Ryan G. Coleman (@rgcjk) May 31, 2013 To the network: Artful Science: How long should conservators protect David Beckham’s football? Cleantech Chemistry: It’s Actually Happening: Military biofuels grants Grand CENtral: Sarah Everts talks Artful Science at conservation meeting, Jyllian Kemsley moderated #chemsafety panel Newscripts: In Print: Mission to Mars, Molecular Fashion and Amusing News Aliquots The Watch Glass: Big Data, 1972-style and Bhopal Revisited and Chemical Genetics and Oil in the...

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What’s Your Solution To Drugs In The Environment?
Feb17

What’s Your Solution To Drugs In The Environment?

A guest post by C&EN European Correspondent Sarah Everts A new paper in PLoS ONE reports some alarming data: Bacteria living in the rivers fed by the waste streams of 90 drug production factories in India have high levels of antibiotic resistance genes. The work, from Joakim Larsson’s group at the University Göteburg, Sweden, was a follow-up to his team’s measurement of fluoroquinolone antibiotic and other active ingredient levels in manufacturing waste streams. In that study, sometimes the drugs turned up at therapeutic concentrations. The research shows that these low--and not so low--levels of antibiotics waste may be exacerbating microbial resistance to drugs we really can’t afford to do without. Larsson’s work is also another data point in the steady stream of reports that the drugs we use are causing side effects in the environment, with consequences ranging from feminization of fish to microbial resistance. So what’s to be done? Mae Wu and Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council recently wrote a snappy, pointed commentary in Environmental Science & Technology that effectively says action on the issue is mostly stalled—or in low gear at best: Identifying effective and efficient solutions is hampered by the complexity of the problem—multiple sources* contribute, only some of which are regulated, often by multiple federal agencies pursuant to various legal authorities. Furthermore significant data gaps mean that individual sources of contamination point the finger at each other without much substantiation. Advocacy groups, drinking water utilities, and government officials have introduced different initiatives to address this situation resulting in a scattershot of partial solutions rather than an overarching strategy. I wonder if Wu and Janssen would be encouraged by an email that popped in to my inbox at around the same time as Larsson’s paper: A call for researchers to suggest, by means of a websurvey, any number of pressing research questions that need answering about pharmaceuticals in the environment. The survey is being sponsored by the regulatory agency Health Canada, SETAC pharmaceuticals advisory group and a bit of funding from pharmaceutical companies, but the executors are two researchers at York University in the UK: Alistair Boxall, an environmental chemist who studies drugs in the environment, and Murray Rudd, an environmental economist who has set up similar surveys to prioritize research questions on ecosystem conservation. So go ahead-visit the survey and have your say. Rudd says he’s expecting several hundred questions from the survey which will then be whittled down to 40 top priorities at an upcoming Health Canada-sponsored stakeholders retreat in Southern Ontario. These priorities will be disseminated to policymakers, research funders, and the scientific community. Rudd acknowledges that there’s no guarantee...

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Benign-by-Design: Can Drugs be Eco-Friendly?
Apr01

Benign-by-Design: Can Drugs be Eco-Friendly?

There’s been scuttlebutt recently about what happens to drugs that have been, to put it bluntly, flushed out of our bodies and down drains and toilets. Scientists are becoming increasingly worried about the drug waste that makes it out into the environment and accumulates. But what if drugs were engineered to be more eco-friendly in the first place? Our own Sarah Everts took a look at the concept of building greener drugs in this week’s issue. As she says, “there is not yet an ecotoxicity equivalent to Lipinski’s Rule of Five,” the infamous set of parameters to predict the safety and orally-availability of a compound that were developed at Pfizer by Christopher Lipinski in the late 1990s. Still, scientists from academia and industry provided a few guidelines for a “benign-by-design” approach to medicinal chemistry: --Adding ester bonds can help with biodegradability. --Avoid quaternary carbons because they hinder biodegradability by microorganisms. --Eliminating halogens, a culprit in making a drug environmentally persistent. --Size matters, as bacteria cannot break down molecules that are too large. --Getting rid of potentially environmentally-unfriendly blocking groups that aren’t involved with a drug’s activity. --Increasing how efficiently drugs are absorbed when taken orally, so patients need to take less drug in the first place, lessening the amount that winds up in the environment --Exerting more control over when and how a drug degrades. Everts goes on to provide some examples of projects within pharma companies where a “benign-by-design” approach is yielding results. Still, there are hurdles, not the least of which is that an eco-friendly drug isn’t at the top of most companies’ priority list. So, what are you thoughts on the potential of “benign-by-design”? Is this at all a consideration in your company or university’s...

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