Posted by: Green Knight | August 10, 2011

Water, water, everywhere?

I’ve always been a fan of the space program, since the days of the Gemini flights.  I was only seven when Mercury ended, but John Glenn orbiting the Earth in Friendship 7 certainly caught my attention.  I built all the models of the spacecraft, and had a poster of the astronauts on my bedroom wall.

This led to a lifelong interest in astronomy, planetology, and exobiology, all courses I took during my various stints in college.  I’ve always had a particular fondness for Mars.  The Viking landers in 1976 were a bit of a disappointment when it came to the hope of finding life.  James Lovelock, creator of  Gaia theory and part of the Viking project, predicted that the Red Planet would be lifeless based on its static atmosphere; our own here on Earth is full of gases that wouldn’t last long were it not for them constantly being replaced by the activity of life.  Lovelock, whom I like a lot, thought it was possible that there might be small pockets of residual life left over from when Mars was warmer and wetter, but not enough to make it a living biosphere in present times.  But he just about broke my fave science guru and his fellow Viking team-member Carl Sagan’s heart when he told him that.

On the other hand, since then Ben Bova, Kim Stanley Robinson, and other science-fiction writers have come up with plausible ideas for life still existing (assuming it ever did), and I’ve always wanted to be on the first manned mission, with my rock hammer, to look for fossils in ancient lake beds.  That’s the place to find evidence of at least former life.  Bury me in Hellas Planitia! (starts with Hell, very fitting.) When I was a kid, I got my first look at Mars through the 48” refractor at the James Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in northern California.  It was a fuzzy, mottled-red orb, but still way cool.  In 2003, during its closest approach in hundreds of years, I saw it through a big reflector at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.  At first I was disappointed, because it looked the same, until I found the focus knob (I’m a klutz).  THEN it was magnificent!  I went home, put on Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War” from his suite “The Planets” really loud, and drew what I’d seen with highlighters.  Even with my own fuzzy vision, I could look up at the night sky with naked eye and see this burning red point up there.

You may be asking, “what does this have to do with hazardous waste?”  Fair question.  When I was an instructor, sometimes my students would get fidgety when I’d go off on a seeming tangent, but patience is a virtue, and if they lengthened their attention span, they’d see that I’d eventually bring it back around full-circle to the topic, and make the course material more meaningful in the process.

This post all came about because recent information from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter  indicates that liquid water may exist seasonally in low-lying areas of the planet.  It’s thought that the brininess due to salts would keep the freezing point lower than 0°C (32 °F), the same as in our oceans.  Where enviro stuff comes in is that surface soils on Mars also have a fair amount of perchlorates, reactive oxidizing chemicals that also lower the freezing point of water and help keep it liquid.

Perchlorates are substances that end in O4, , meaning that they have four extra oxygens they’re happy to contribute to chemical reactions, which can result in pretty spectacular fires or explosions.  That’s why they use them in solid rocket fuel.  That’s why they use them in fireworks, dammit, so think about that next Fourth of July (or Guy Fawkes Day, if you’re in Old Blighty).  Everything’s hazardous in a high enough dose, or if you use it wrong.  No difference here.

The thing that prompted me to write this post was a bit of synchronicity.  My pal Diane Tegarden’s web radio show, the “Firewalker Flare,” was on today, and her guest didn’t call in, so she did a bang-up job on her own, and one of the things she discussed was perchlorate contamination from rocket-fuel manufacturing sites near her in Pasadena, California, which has caused the city to find other sources for drinking water.  Tune in at  I’ve been a guest twice on the show, with Diane as a gracious and very well-informed host.  The Superfund (CERCLA) program is one of her favorite issues to focus on, and we have a perchlorate site of our own across the river in Illinois.

In fact, Chris Hayes, a cool reporter from KTVI Channel 2 here in St. Louis, interviewed me three years ago about that site.  Perchlorates aren’t “toxic,” in the sense that of being poisonous; they’re a physical hazard.  Remember, ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic are the four characteristics that can make a waste “hazardous,” and the three properties are physical, chemical, and biological (radiological is dealt with separately by different agencies).  This means that perchlorates would be rated as D001 for ignitability, and would get the primary waste code of D003 for reactivity.  Toxins or poisons sometimes take longer to kill ya (although with some, like nerve gases or pentaborane, one whiff is all it takes), but with physical hazards, you’re dead before any toxic properties can even take effect.  I talked previously about hyponatremia and how drinking way too much water all at once can produce a toxic effect by thinning out your blood chemistry, but if a giant chunk of frozen water hits you in the head, the game’s over already.  Physical hazards usually trump chemical hazards.

So what makes this whole shebang so interesting is that something we don’t want in OUR water may be helping keep water liquid on our sister planet, the only one we have any hope of terraforming for a second home, and maybe keeping residual life, if there IS any, alive.  I love irony.  And iron is what makes Mars all rusty and pink in color, though the etymology is different.

Check out the two articles below for info on the findings:

As the late PBS astronomy guy, Jack Horkheimer the Star Hustler always said, “keep looking up!”



  1. Bob, thank you for the mention of my FireWalker Flare Radio Show. I do find the topics of Superfund sites and of ground water contamination important, as they have both directly affected my health and that of my family members.

    I was diagnosed with Lupus in 2001, and the lasting effects have been that my thyroid was damaged. Curiously, perchlorate ingestion can cause thyroid failure and its lasting results have been a sever drop in my energy levels, which in turn has seriously reduced my opportunities to socialize with friends (most of whom work during the day and get together in the evenings.)

    That being said, my family members who were in the military (most military bases are listed on the Superfund list) have been diagnosed with tumors, cancers, thyroid malfunctions and a plethora of other diseases, so it is a bone of contention for me that the military causes so many health issues and pollution on a major scale all over the world.

    Thank you for the informative post on perchlorates, Mars and life on other planets!

  2. Ouch! You done been hit with a chronic vs. acute effect, sorry. Yeah, I can look at the NPL for California and recognize many electronics companies I worked for or worked next to, and most of those were military or aerospace contractors (back then, it was all the same thing anyway). I was the kid in shipping and receiving that they had dumping their waste chemicals in a pit out back, which is how they ALL did it before RCRA. And people want to deregulate that stuff, sheesh. I’ve spent the rest of my career making up for it, even though it was legal at the time and it was my “job.” As an ex-Boy Scout, my thought was, “there’s GOT to be a better way than THIS!”

    If I were you, I’d find a good Chinese herbalist that doesn’t use endangered species (I know, tough), for some of the complaints. And eat some kelp.

    P.S. back in the late ’80s, either 48 Hours or 60 Minutes did an undercover shoot of a military auction, like any other government auction of surplus property. The catch was you had to bid on a “lot,” not just THIS desk or THAT file cabinet, but whatever was in the batch of junk they were selling off. A 25-gallon drum of waste methyl bromide was part of one lot of stuff. Very nasty chemical…and THAT’S how the military was saving money on hazardous waste disposal!!! I may have to do a whole post on this, since few bother to read the comments on here. You can tell your listeners to, though.

  3. I can post a link to the blog on my writer’s network, and other social media sites, as well as include it in my next newsletter.

    As for the lupus, I’ve been receiving treatment with a DOM (Doctor of Oriental Medicine), using TCM (traditional Chinese Medicine- read, herbs), gone to all organic foods, replaced all toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc. in my house with organics and double filter my water. Due to a stress-reduced lifestyle, I’ve been cleared of lupus, and the Western doctors are amazed!!

    Yeah, I got a second lease on life, and I’m not wasting it being sick!!

  4. Good for you, DT! (and, no, i don’t have the DTs, i just get shaky because my potassium levels tend to get low.) Since lupus is a degeneration of connective tissue, has anyone invented collagen-replacement therapy yet? Just askin’…

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