Skip navigation

lead_in_water2.jpg

Chemistry and politics again collided.  On January 16, President Obama declared that an emergency exists in the State of Michigan, the city of Flint to be exact.[1] He authorized the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide disaster relief efforts.  FEMA, a group associated with hurricanes Katrina and Sandy relief efforts, was not in Michigan dealing with a natural disaster. Obama stopped short of a disaster declaration because the emergency is man-made.  National Guard troops are on the ground in Flint.  They are not battling the elements.  They are not keeping the peace.  They are handing out water.

 

Flint is in crisis because of chemistry, or more exactly, a lack of knowledge of chemistry.  I live near Flint but well outside the emergency zone. Anyone not connected to the Flint municipal water supply is out of the zone.  The Flint municipal water supply was turned into a lead delivery system.  It was no act of terrorism.  It was an act of ineptitude made possible by thinking that rules of law are more important than rules of nature.

 

Flint, by all accounts, has seen better days.  Michael Moore shone a light on Flint in his 1989 documentary, Roger and Me.  Things haven’t gotten a lot better in Flint since then.  Flint’s finances are in tough shape, so tough that it stopped purchasing water from the Detroit water system, its water source for half a century.[2]  Flint was disconnected from Detroit and began taking water from the Flint River.  The Flint River is a dark and muddy river, a far cry from the sources of clear lake water used by Detroit.  It is not, however, a lead contaminated river.

 

The lead creating the crisis is not in the river; it is in the pipes, old pipes dating to a time when lead solders were the norm.  The source of the lead is the chemistry occurring in the water pipes.  A small change in water chemistry made the lead mobile. Elevated lead levels are being measured both in the water and in the blood of Flint residents.  Lead contamination is clearly due to the switch from the Detroit water to the Flint River.

 

The Detroit system adds ppm levels of phosphate to the water as a corrosion inhibitor.  Phosphate for corrosion inhibition is not new science. I found a reference that dates back to the mid-1800s.[3]  Phosphate forms a corrosion resistant coating on copper and lead, but the coating is reversible.[4]  Systems must continually feed phosphate or risk corrosion.  Flint did not add phosphate when it switched to the Flint River water.  Pipes corroded, and lead entered the water, contaminating the entire system.

 

A mistake was made. Emails have come to light that show a clear focus on the law, not the science.[5]  At the foundation was that a switch in water allowed for a six-month determination of correct corrosion control, apparently hinging on whether the change constituted a new system or a new source.  Others have concluded that once corrosion controls were in place, as they were in the Detroit water, they should have never been stopped. [6] Once lead was identified in the water, rather than searching for and implementing solutions to the technical problem, the response was to follow the letter of the regulation and focus on who was to blame.

 

A focus on rules--rather than what the rules seek to accomplish--is shockingly common and is something that I have witnessed during my career.  The R&D safety culture in industry requires that you review your work plan with others in a pre-startup inspection.  In my experience, this is the best way to insure safety in the lab; it requires careful thought prior to attempting something new or different.

 

We have lots of rules in industry. It is said that every safety rule is a response to an event. Someone gets hurt and the system responds by adding a rule written in the form of “thou shalt not….”  Actions allowed are those not explicitly excluded by a rule.

 

Employees, especially young ones, can get bogged down going through safety regulations in an attempt to find an island outside the areas forbidden by rules, an island where operation is possible.  I always hated the tendency to mindlessly go through the rules as a way to determine what can be safely done.  The rules don’t teach how to approach something safely, they only point out what you can’t do, leaving the zone of safe operation to be determined by exception and exclusion. “Thou shalt not use a cell phone while driving” is a rule because accidents occurred.  “Thou shalt not read a book while driving” will become a rule if accidents are observed.  Just because it isn’t a rule today doesn’t mean it is a safe activity.

 

I strongly believe that the correct approach, and the one I observed most often, is to actually think about how the activity you want to perform can be done safely.  Discuss it with others and get them to constructively challenge assumptions.  Boundaries are always being pushed in R&D, so by extension, it is only natural that we would want to venture into an area outside of the rules.  Clearly articulate the dangers, the steps to be taken to minimize them, and then look at the rules to insure compliance. Safety comes from understanding. Safety does not come from obedience to rules without understanding their origin and where they apply.  Making safety the most important goal was forgotten in Flint.

 

Flint may not have been officially declared a disaster, but it is certainly a tragedy.  Those in charge of the city and the water system put residents at risk.  Thousands are suffering for the lack of simple chemical knowledge and adherence to the letter of the law rather than the intent.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------

Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.

 

1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/16/president-obama-signs-mic higan-emergency-declaration

2. Daisy, Michael, ed.; "Detroit Water and Sewage Department: The First 300 Years", downloaded from http://dwsd.org/downloads_n/about_dwsd/history/complete_history.pdf on 17 January 2016.

3. Greenwood, N.N. and Earnshaw, A.; Chemistry of the Elements, 2nd Edition (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1997)  ISBN 0- 7506-3365-4, page 520.

4. The Phosphate Forum; "The Use of Phosphates For Potable Water Treatment", file dated 19 January 2007 downloaded from http://orendatech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Potable-Water-Treatment-phospha tes.pdf on 17 January 2016.

5. Smith, Lindsey, "State admits Flint did not follow federal rules designed to keep lead out", Michigan Radio, 18 October 2015, http://michiganradio.org/post/state-admits-flint-did-not-follow-federal-rules-de signed-keep-lead-out-water#stream/0 downloaded on 17 January 2016.

6. Meegan Holland, 24 December 2015 in https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2695541/Emails-Released-By-Michigan-G overnor-Rick-Snyder.pdf

 

Additional sources:

Brunning, Andy. "Lead in the Water-The Flint Water Crisis." Compound Interest, 25 January 2016. http://www.compoundchem.com/2016/01/25/flint-water/ on 1 February 2016.

 

Share the discussion:

facebook2.png twitter2.png linkedin2.png googleplus2.png

An article in the New York Times last week caught my eye.  It described recent actions by the China State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), which is basically the antitrust arm of the government. Last year, SAIC agents stormed the offices of Microsoft, confiscating computers and other records related to its business strategy in the country.  Microsoft was suspected of causing “computer compatibility problems” by not fully disclosing details regarding its operating system and Office applications.

 

Microsoft is not alone as a target.  Qualcomm, Volkswagen and Chrysler also fell afoul of SAIC in 2014.  It takes very little internet digging to find other actions taken by the Chinese government in the past few years against US-based companies. Perhaps the most prominent company targeted was Google, who was ordered to assist the Chinese government in censoring the internet.

 

Google tried to be accommodative without outright censoring, but after five years of adventure, including cyber intrusion into its facilities, in 2010 the company refused to cooperate further.  This, of course, means that access to Google is censored—by someone else.

 

Fortunately the Chinese people were not left without search capability.  A home-grown company called Baidu, which already had significant market share was happy to step into the vacuum.

 

And the Times reports that Dell is now shipping computers to China with a Chinese operating system called NeoKylin.

 

So why am I telling you this in a chemistry-related blog? Because I think there may be ramifications for chemistry-related industry.

 

I started doing business in China in 1986, when it was still relatively unusual to be doing so.  We were licensing PVC resin technology and I had some responsibility for sales as well as implementation.  I learned early on how the deal worked:

 

You bring the technology and some money, and we’ll bring the site and the market.

Then we share.

 

On one level, a fair trade. On another level, a loss of protection of your technology, and at least in those days, no right to take profits out of the country.  This was not just the deal in chemistry, it was the same for everybody, and everybody who was there took the deal.

 

I also felt the regulatory environment was two-tiered.  It seemed to me that the rules on us as a foreign licensor were way more stringent than the rules on our competitors, which were largely government-owned enterprises.  Perhaps this is not a bad thing: to this day the foreign joint ventures have a much better safety record than their competition, and spectacular news events bear that out.

 

What all this speaks to is a strong Chinese government preference for Chinese businesses.  That may not be headline news to you, but it does have ramifications, and seems to me to be accelerating.  The government of Xi Jinping has, since taking over in 2012, become more assertive militarily and more restrictive socially—including restrictions against foreign non-government organizations.  While government purchase preference for indigenous enterprises is no longer the official policy, it was for some time and may well still be an unspoken one.  I don’t believe you compete against Chinese companies, I believe you compete against the entire Chinese team.

 

Ten years ago the driver was the China price.  But China’s become a more expensive place—both on a transactional basis and a “total cost of ownership” basis.  Many industries that can move are moving.  But chemical industries may have large capital or intellectual property investments that don’t move or are difficult to protect and are kind of stuck. If I were in that circumstance, I’d be a little concerned.  Speaking as a frog, I think the water’s getting warmer (if that’s not too oblique). In the New York Times article, Robert B. Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, notes “I think the strategy is basically de-U.S.A.”

 

I don’t know that Atkinson’s statement is totally correct, but it’s hard to argue that the business climate is as welcoming today as it was ten to twenty years ago, and I think it’s an intentional repositioning by the current government.  I loved my time in China; my great-grandfather did business there, and my father was stationed there in World War II.  I have good friends there, and Chinese have been very kind to me personally.  But this isn’t personal.  I think China will be a tougher place to work the next few years, and maybe not the safest place to invest.  According to Atkinson: “This is about business—that’s all it is.”

 

That and a strong preference for the home team.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.  He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.

 

Editor's note: If you're interested in reading more on this topic, check out IndustryWeek's recent article: US Firms Eye China Exit as Conditions Worsen, Survey Says.

The following multi-part blog series was inspired by a conversation among a few friends about scientific communication, the current state of education in science and scientific integrity. To adequately cover such a broad topic, I’ve chosen to break it up into smaller, connected parts.

 

Happy 2016! My New Year's resolution is to finish up what I promised you back in July of last year: to publish a second entry in this blog series.

In the first entry of this series, I discussed scientific integrity and its vital role in changing the atmosphere of mistrust in corporate science. In this post, I’d like to focus on another component critical to improving the perception of corporate science: clear and honest communication with the general public.


As scientists, it is foremost in our training and perhaps even in our nature to obsess over details, for it is in the details where we find the observations that lead us to that “Eureka!” moment (or more likely that “huh?” moment) that can change the world. Yet, when it is time to tell this story, we fail to drop the scientific details and jargon. We further compound this problem by forgetting that most in our audience don’t always have a deep understanding of our field, and we fail to bring the conversation down to an understandable level. When we have the occasion to talk about our science with friends or family, we talk as if we’re giving a seminar or a presentation at a scientific conference. It is little wonder that we are often greeted with blank stares when talking about our work. Those of us who work in industry are faced with the added burden of secrecy in the name of intellectual property. The very nature of much of our work cannot be freely discussed lest we jeopardize the commercial potential of our discoveries. This leads to accusations that we must be hiding something sinister (see part 1 of my series for more on “shills”).

 

If we are to change the perception of corporate science, it is imperative that we change the way we communicate. We must become better storytellers. Humans naturally relate to stories, good stories.

 

A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a storytelling workshop. The most shocking thing I learned was that the content of a story is important to only 7% of the audience. What matters most to audiences? The CHARACTER of the presenter; this is what is remembered by 60% of the audience. (That’s related to part one of my blog series, which focused on scientific integrity.)

 

It’s important to note, too, that a significant portion of the audience – 33% - cares most about the actual craft of telling the story – how we tell it.

 

A good story has the following parts:

 

  1. Beginning – context is given, characters are set.
  2. Conflict – without this, there is no story.
  3. Struggle – what will I do?
  4. Victory – literal or figurative.
  5. Resolution – something has changed.

 

When you think about recent incidents involving the most vocal anti-science advocates, you can see they are good storytellers. People opposed to vaccination caused great harm by using pseudoscience to pull at the heartstrings of moms. They gain credibility with their target audience by making an emotional connection through the parents’ concern for their children. Many in the anti-genetically modified organisms (GMO) movement have used the same connections between mothers and their children. They played to parents’ concern over child nutrition and health to advance a pseudoscience agenda. After gaining the trust of the like-minded parents, they legitimize the struggle over the safety of their children, and present a path for victory against the corporations out to harm their children or control their food choices. Anti-science advocates craft GREAT, albeit scientifically incorrect, stories.

 

We lose the battle when we try to counteract their great stories with what amounts to nothing more than a technical seminar or a conference presentation. We MUST learn to craft great stories about our science, on a level the general public can easily understand if we want to change the public discourse about science.

 

Of course, these great stories make the biggest impact when presented to a scientifically literate audience, yet another major challenge. Promoting scientific literacy will be the focus of the final part of this series.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- --------

 

Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)

hello.jpg

 

ACS Webinars is kicking off the new year by teaming up with Industry Member Programs and C&EN to bring you the 2016 Materials Science Series.  The series will highlight the innovations in materials science that are changing the landscape of the industry and reshaping the way that we interact with the world.  The series starts on Thursday, January 14, broadcast LIVE from 2-3pm EST, with Timothy Gross, the primary inventor of Corning ® Gorilla® Glass 4, and new webinars will debut on the first Thursday of every month.

 

In the first webinar of the series, Making the Glass of Tomorrow, Timothy Gross will explain the chemistry that made Corning the number one name in glass for portable electronics. You will learn the basics of glass chemistry and ion-exchange strengthening as well as the damage resistance of ion-exchanged Corning ® Gorilla® Glass in terms of fracture mechanics.

 

Industry Member Programs will be identifying the trendsetting chemists in the materials science industry to be presenters in the series, and we will enhance the discussion through our Industry Voices blog. C&EN will be supplementing each webinar through a curation of related C&EN articles with their “Dig Deeper with C&EN” feature.

 

The Materials Science Series will be broken up into four thematic modules:

  • The Chemistry of Hello
  • The Chemistry of Go
  • The Chemistry of Comfort
  • The Chemistry of Life

 

The Chemistry of Hello, the first module in the series, will focus on the technological advancements that have transformed mobile communication from science fiction into tools that have become indispensable in our everyday lives.  Following the first webinar in the series, Making the Glass of Tomorrow, Tobin Marks will present a webinar focused on transparent electronics circuitry, and the module will conclude with a presentation on the science behind lithium-ion batteries.

 

Later in the year, the Chemistry of Go will look at the materials science behind transportation. The Chemistry of Comfort will examine technologies that keep us cozy.  Closing out the Materials Science Series, the Chemistry of Life will focus on materials science applications that have improved human health.

 

Registration is now open for The Chemistry of Hello, and check out the ACS Webinars website for more information about upcoming webinars in the series as well as the rest of their exciting programming.  Keep following the Industry Voices blog for additional coverage.