Element Update: Toxic Space Grease Edition

We may be proceeding through the periodic table full steam ahead, but I think it’s worth occasionally glancing overboard at those elements we’ve left in our wake. There’s plenty left uncovered by the episodes we’ve already aired! Let’s get into a few choice selections.

Featured above: a jet of hot, toxic space grease that occupies the space between stars.

Beryllium

The episode on beryllium made clear that people should practically never be exposed to beryllium, especially in powdered form, lest they come down with a terrible disease that can cause decades of suffering. We also covered David Michaels’ dogged pursuit of reasonable regulation that could save lives, and how victory seemed just within his grasp when a new presidential administration made that much less likely.

As far as I can tell, the OSHA can has been kicked down the road to at least December, thanks in part to our friends at Materion.

Relatedly, the James Webb Space Telescope, a sort of successor to the Hubble with a beryllium mirror, has had its launch date pushed back to 2021. This is frustrating, but it’s much better to deal with these sorts of problems here on the ground rather than on a grueling spacewalk.

Carbon

Speaking of space, that’s where we’ve just found a lot of carbon!

We’ve known for a while that there’s a lot of stuff in the space between stars, and that a lot of it is carbon. But a joint team of Turkish and Australian scientists have recently discovered approximately how much of the stuff exists in our own galaxy: A lot. A lot a lot. Ten billion trillion trillion tonnes of carbon-based compounds. I don’t even know if that’s different from ten billion trillion trillion tons, or what. The best comparison the Guardian could come up with is “40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter,” which is equally incomprehensible.

A lot of this carbon exists as naphthalene and similar compounds, greasy molecules that are toxic to known forms of biology, but paradoxically could also seed habitable planets with the ingredients of life.

Nitrogen

Space is pretty dark, but the episode we did on nitrogen is darker. It doesn’t get any happier with this update.

Several of the eponymously united states have a problem: There are currently almost 3,000 people who are sentenced to be executed, but lately, word’s been getting ’round that lethal injection is a nightmarish horror show that occasionally results in spectacles every bit as gruesome as the gas chamber or electric chair. (Lethal injection is actually the most-botched method of execution in the US over the past century.)

This has caused some drug companies to become a bit squeamish — they don’t want their pristine brand names to become tarnished by association, you see. So as prisons’ drug supplies have dried up, their executioners have had to become more creative. Utah has brought back the firing squad (which some prisoners say they’d prefer over lethal injection, if they really must make a choice). Tennessee has put the electric chair back on the roster.

Other states are turning to nitrogen asphyxiation.

From a purely technical standpoint, this is effective. We’ve covered this: If you breathe nitrogen and no oxygen, you’ll die. And from the victim’s point of view, it might even be less horrific than the other available options. Theoretically, the person will pass out very quickly, and death will soon follow. (Carbon dioxide will not build up in the victim’s lungs in this scenario, so panic does not set in as it does when you hold your breath for too long.) However, I believe it’s important to highlight that this is not a choice being made out of some sense of mercy. This is a logistical choice.

Rather than asking how can we continue this practice, perhaps we should ask why we continue this practice. There are some empirical and undeniable facts we know about the death penalty in the United States:

  • The threat of capital punishment does not prevent people from committing crimes.
  • It is unequally applied: A black defendant is 1.7 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white defendant, and people convicted of murdering a white victim are 4 times more likely to receive the death penalty than those convicted of murdering black victims.
  • More than 4% of victims might be wrongfully convicted, innocent of any crime at all.
  • And if all that isn’t enough, one case of capital punishment can cost taxpayers well north of $100 million, more than ten times the cost of incarceration for life.

These are all matters that one must reckon with after deciding that execution is a just and moral act.

But for the moment, nationwide abolition of the death penalty appears to be a non-starter in the United States. Personally, I can’t help but remember Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who begrudgingly accepted the popularity of capital punishment, and so advocated for the most humane method possible to accomplish the task.

Of course, that’s not why anyone else remembers him.

Oxygen

We learned about Guillotin in episode 8, oxygen. In that same episode, we mentioned oxygen’s uncommon allotrope, ozone, which accrues in a layer high in the atmosphere, protecting us wee humans from damaging radiation. (Hooray!) We also talked about how we humans put a pretty sizable hole in that layer with chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (Ack!), but we stopped doing that sometime around the ’80s and the hole was going away. (Hooray again!)

Surprise!

In May, the journal Nature reported that there was evidence that somebody, somewhere, was pumping CFCs back into the atmosphere. (Ack again!) Recent evidence seems to indicate that this may have been coming from a factory in China. The source article is worth reading in full, but it sounds like the owner of a refrigerator factory chose the cheaper of two chemicals, not knowing that it was harmful to the environment. (Why was the banned chemical available, and economically incentivized?)

That factory is now closed, but I would be surprised if it were the only one that led to a global rise in CFC emissions.

Magnesium

In episode 12, we learned how magnesium’s ability to start fires led to the deadliest accident in motor sport history well over half a century ago. We’ve gotten a lot better about handling it, generally, but accidents still happen. In May of this year, an auto parts manufacturer outside of Lansing, MI blew the roof off its plant with a magnesium explosion that could be felt from miles away. (Thanks to my dad for the tip on this story!)

Cars in the parking lot caught fire, and one man was thrown through the air. More than 150 workers were evacuated from the plant, and while two men were wounded, no one died. As you would expect of people working with magnesium, they knew how to handle it: An unnamed worker quoted in the Detroit Free Press said, “We did not try to extinguish any fires at the plant because of the molten mag in the area.”

They might very well be still cleaning up the mess now. You can take a gander for yourself with this quadcopter footage from the Lansing State Journal.

We’ll keep those fires stoked next week, when we return to our regular schedule and learn about element 16, sulfur.

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