Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size image
Around the Block: Do We Want to Eliminate Chemical Polution and How Far Do We Want To Go To Find Out?
By Don Fedak
Eliminating one common chemical would solve many of the environment’s — and the rebuilder’s — problems or would it?
Reduction of vehicle emissions is an important part of the drive to clean up our environment. The effort to reduce the chemical pollution of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we till is over 40 years old, and the EPA’s OBD-II legislation is just the latest of the many benchmarks of this struggle.
Since our population continues to grow in spite of the present magnitude of chemical pollution, most humans aren’t worried about imminent extinction. Not all species are so fortunate.
Humans and animals have long been partnered in a delicate ecological dance. Clearly, we humans have a responsibility to look out for all of the living things that rely on a safe environment for their survival. Some would say the proliferation of chemical emissions is an example of mankind’s neglect in this matter.
The word "chemical" has become a dirty word to advocates of a green planet. But our atmosphere, our planet, and all forms of life which inhabit it are defined by the chemicals they’re made of. So, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d like to "water down" some of the current rhetoric regarding the direction of future efforts to clean up the mess we’ve made for ourselves.
To appreciate our problem, we need to know some chemistry. The chemicals currently on most environmentalists’ hit lists include carbon oxides, fluorocarbons, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, ozone, sulphur compounds and a variety of heavy metals. For those of us in the automotive business, we recognize most of these as by-products of the four-stroke engine.
It’s clearly impossible, with finite resources, to instantly gain full control over the environmental concentration of every chemical on this list. So what chemical should we focus on?
Increased carbon dioxide traps the sun’s energy and causes global warming. As temperatures increase, melting ice caps will destroy populations of animals and plants living along the shores of all oceans and lakes and the edges of all rivers, which would soon become lakes. But if the cold weather and snow found at higher elevations was eliminated, "cabin fever" (a.k.a. the winter "blahs") would disappear, some of us inlanders wouldn’t be all too upset.
Man-made fluorocarbons need to be eliminated to preserve the ionosphere’s ozone and filter out solar UV radiation. But vehicle and power plant emissions contribute to the formation of noxious ground-level ozone on hot sunny days. Should we focus on reducing or eliminating fluorocarbons or low-level ozone?
Aside from their importance as drugs, fuels and lubricants, organic compounds (more commonly known as hydrocarbons) are pervasive and the essence of all animals, plants and life itself. The elimination or significant reduction of hydrocarbons is clearly the path to self-destruction and not a realistic goal.
Nitrogen oxides are produced during combustion of air and fuel at high temperature. Since 80 percent of air is nitrogen, will legislators soon require the separation of oxygen from nitrogen before it’s mixed with fuel? This would be one way to avoid the formation of NOx and eliminate much urban smog.
Atmospheric sulphur compounds originate when coal and liquid fuels containing trace amounts of sulphur are burned. The technology for treating high sulphur crude oil during refining is widely used. State of the art coal fired generators utilize scrubbers to capture the gaseous sulphur compounds in their exhaust stacks.
We could choose to reduce or eliminate "heavy metals" from the environment. But the term itself has become a catch-all for elements which are variously benign, essential, necessary or poisonous to life. (Meanwhile "heavy metal" music remains a true oxymoron.)
I believe we should reduce the environmental concentration of the one chemical which contaminates almost every corner of our planet and atmosphere and which is responsible for untold injury, pain and suffering of humans and many other animal species. If you can correctly identify this pervasive chemical pollutant based on the information given so far, you deserve an "A."
This chemical is directly responsible for the human suffering and property damage caused by avalanches, floods, hailstorms, hurricanes, icebergs, rain, sleet, tidal waves, tornadoes and typhoons. Know it? You get a "B."
In liquid form, it will cause some species to drown. Others will be infected by the soup of harmful bacteria, germs and viruses it hosts and transports. Eliminating it would drastically reduce the carnage caused by poor visibility, slippery roads and drunk drivers, eliminate cloudy and foggy days and make astronomers ecstatic. Correct identification of the chemical at this point deserves a "C."
Exposure to its solid forms can result in asphyxiation, broken limbs, frostbite, hypothermia and death. It can make popular means of human transport (driving, flying and even walking) very hazardous. Although this chemical is a major cause of automobile collision damage, it is necessary for the efficient operation of most engine cooling systems. All correct answers at this point will receive a "D" — or a barely passing grade.
Everyone who truthfully admits they identified this dangerous, essential, important, hazardous and necessary chemical and sends their name and address, written on the back of a twenty-dollar bill to the author, care of Automotive Rebuilder, will receive a graded "Certificate of Environmental Awareness."
Don Fedak is the owner of RPMS, a machine shop located in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. You may e-mail Don at email@example.com.