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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fossil fuels, asbestos, lead and white phosphorus

The beginning of the fossil fuel era

1882 [Thomas Edison]
Edison's work led to the first commercial power plant in 1882.

1903 [Charles Curtis]
The first steam turbine generator, pioneered by Curtis, was put into operation at the Newport Electric Corporation in Newport, Rhode Island.

Asbestos related diseases

Although the health risks associated with asbestos had been long observed and were confirmed scientifically early in the Twentieth Century, it was not until the 1970s that the Australian community was made aware of the problem.

Asbestos was phased out in Australia after 1980. It was finally banned from building products in 1989, though it remained in gaskets and brake linings until recently. Asbestos was prohibited completely after 31 December 2003, and can not be imported, used or recycled.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was widely used in Australia in the 20th Century for many industrial and domestic applications.

Inhalation of asbestos fibres has been shown to lead to a number of serious health risks, including asbestosis and the cancer mesothelioma.

As these can take a number of decades to develop, it is likely that the effects on the Australian community of exposure to asbestos will continue to increase into the 21st Century.

Lead alert facts: Lead in house paint

Before 1970, paints containing high levels of lead were used in many Australian houses. Exposure to lead is a health hazard. Even small amounts of dust or chips of paint containing lead, generated during minor home repairs, can be a health risk.

Lead in domestic paint has declined from 50% before 1965, to 1% in 1965. In 1992, it was reduced to 0.25%, and in 1997 it was further reduced to 0.1%.

On Catalyst: could lead exposure in childhood lead to an adult life marked by violent crime?

Any house painted before 1970 is likely to contain leaded paint
Any house painted before 1970 is likely to contain leaded paint
"We've undertaken similar studies in Australia which show a very strong relationship between lead in air and crime 22 years later."

The beginning of the white phosporus match era until the final ban

1830 [Charles Sauria]
The U.S. Congress passed a law placing a prohibitively high tax on them in 1913.
Sauria formulated a match using white phosphorus. However, the phosphorus was deadly. Many people developed a disorder known as 'phossy jaw'. Children who sucked on matches developed skeletal deformities. Phosphorus factory workers got bones diseases. One pack of matches contained enough phosphorus to kill a person.  Deaths and suicides from eating the heads of matches became frequent.

Ripper Street- A case of Phossy  Jaw, in it’s worst stages.
True horror story - A case of Phossy  Jaw, in it’s worst stages.
1838 [The first case of "phossy jaw" was recorded]
The victim, a female Viennese matchstick maker, had been exposed to the phosphorous vapors over a five-year period. The average time between exposure to the phosphorous vapors and the appearance of "phossy jaw" was about five years, but only about 5% of those exposed were inflicted with this disfiguring and often lethal affliction

The infamous "phossy jaw" became an epidemic of exposed bone osteonecrosis exclusively in the jaws began around 1838. This epidemic of osteonecrosis produced pain, swelling, debilitation, and a reported mortality of 20% and was linked to "yellow phosphorous," the key ingredient in "strike-anywhere" matches. In match-making factories, workers called "mixers," "dippers," and "boxers" were exposed to heated fumes containing this compound. Related to the duration of exposure, many of these workers developed painful exposed bone in the mouth, whereas their office-based counterparts did not.

1888 [the “London matchgirls” strike]
Phossy jaw, also known as phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, was most commonly seen among match workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries – famously, the “London matchgirls,” whose strike of 1888 brought the problem into the public eye – fifty years after the first recorded case.
In those days, matches were made with white phosphorus, and prolonged exposure to the vapor of the substance caused deposits to form in the victims’ jawbones. Throbbing toothaches, extreme swelling of the gums and abscesses in the jawbone followed. The afflicted bones would also take on a green-white tinge, while severe brain damage also lay in wait for those already suffering.

The only known treatment was to surgically remove the jawbones; if it were left unchecked, organ failure and death would result. The disease also caused tremendous pain and disfigurement, and the rotting bone tissue emitted a putrid-smelling discharge. Phossy jaw did not begin to decline until 1906 – sixty eight years after the first recorded case.

1872 [Bans commence on white phosphorus matches]
Finland prohibited the use of white phosphorus in 1872, followed by Denmark in 1874, France in 1897, Switzerland in 1898, and the Netherlands in 1901.

1898 [Henri Savene and Emile David Cahen]
Two French chemists, Henri Savene and Emile David Cahen, developed a safe match using phosphorus sesquisulfide that was patented in 1898. They proved that the substance was not poisonous, that it could be used in a "strike-anywhere" match, and that the match heads were not explosive. They patented a safety match composition in 1898 based on phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate.

1906 [International Agreement to ban white phosphorus in matches]
An agreement, the Berne Convention, was reached at Bern, Switzerland, in September 1906, which banned the use of white phosphorus in matches. This required each country to pass laws prohibiting the use of white phosphorus in matches. Great Britain passed a law in 1908 prohibiting its use in matches after 31 December 1910.

The United States did not pass a law to ban the manufacture and sale of white phosphorus matches, but instead Congress passed a law placing a prohibitively high tax on them in 1913.  This punitive tax on white phosphorus-based matches was sufficiently so high as to render their manufacture financially impractical.

India and Japan banned them in 1919; China followed, banning them in 1925 - five years before the centennial of the invention of white phosphorus matches.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Gambling on climate change - no safe bets

Gambling on Climate Change
Gambling on Climate Change

Lectures on the Global Warming Gamble 

Extract of -
The Global Warming Policy Foundation
2011 Annual GWPF Lecture
Westminster Cathedral Hall | 26 October 2011

One Christian Perspective on Climate Change
Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney

Let me begin by thanking the Global Warming Policy Foundation for the invitation to deliver this lecture.

Why might a Catholic bishop comment?

We might ask whether my scepticism is yet another example of religious ignorance and intransigence opposing the forward progress of science as is alleged in the confrontations between Galileo and the Papacy in the early seventeenth century, when the Church party on the evidence of scripture insisted that the sun moved around the earth.

It is not generally realized that in 2001 at least, one of the IPCC Third Assessment Report’s Working Groups agreed: “In climate research and modelling, we are dealing with a coupled, non-linear, chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible”.

Arnold helped to explain why the systems around us work, how fluids flow. Like Lorenz, he found that small changes had an immense impact on outcomes. For him long-range weather forecasting was effectively impossible, because small events could have dramatic, unforeseen consequences.

A small event - dramatic, unforeseeable consequences

Changes in Carbon Dioxide and Temperature
Changes in Carbon Dioxide and Temperature (EPA)
Fluctuations in temperature (red line) and in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (yellow) over the past 649,000 years.
"SMALL" Change: The vertical red bar at the end is the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the past two centuries and before 2007.
From "A brief history of the universe"

  • Human beings first arrived in Europe about 35,000 years ago.
  • The first cities were only built 8,800 years ago.

An observation on Cardinal Pell's Lecture

Cardinal Pell highlights key attributes of climate science that give little reason for comfort:
  • "In climate research and modelling, we are dealing with a coupled, non-linear, chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible" and
  • "small events could have dramatic, unforeseen consequences."
The implications of this description are perhaps a little obscure.

An example of a non-linear system is a house-of-cards. It is susceptible to sudden collapse when a single card is moved even though it is seemingly stable when other small changes are made. That is, small events can have dramatic, unforeseen consequences.

There are three unfortunate characteristics of such systems -
  • Very small changes can create completely unexpected and seemingly disproportionate changes with little warning.
  • Predicting behaviour of the system will be very difficult. 
  • Removing a "trigger" that seemingly precipitated a disproportionate change will most likely fail to restore the system to its previous state.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Electricity peak period pricing a poor idea

The Australian Energy Regulator processes data into a graph showing seasonal peak period demand in energy market regions.

Seasonal peak electricity demand (by region)
Seasonal peak electricity demand (by region)
An article by RMIT authors Yolande Strengers and Larissa Nicholls "Feral o'clock: why families struggle to shift their energy use" observes -
"A key plank of the Australian Government’s draft energy policy is to reform electricity pricing so that it more accurately reflects rises and falls in peak demand."
and -
"But research we have published today suggests that this policy focus is missing other opportunities to shift electricity demand. Research with parents reveals that many household routines are unlikely to shift in response to cost-reflective tariffs..."
When you drill down into the electricity demand data - summarised beyond recognition by the Australian Energy Regulator - you may well conclude that encouraging families to shift electricity demand is not only difficult. It is also pointless.

The strategy of demand-response players, such as EnerNOC, is far more precisely targeted at the underlying problem -
"Demand response allows energy users of all kinds to act as “virtual power plants,” adding stability to the grid by voluntarily lowering their demand for electricity. Participants in demand response programs get paid for providing demand response capacity..."
The "peak seasonal demand" for New South Wales in Summer 2012/2013 is shown by the Australian Energy Regulator to be about 14,000 megawatts (MW) during the peak 30 minute electricity market interval during December 2012 - February 2013.

Graphing the source data from the Australian Energy Market Operator for this period shows that peak demand rarely went above 10,000 megawatts. Promoters of time-of-use charging may want to install generating and network capacity to supply 40 percent more electricity - 14,000 megawatts - for one to two hours each summer, and earn a profit from this grossly excessive capital investment. EnerNOC has got the right approach: pay a few electricity users to turn off discretionary plant and equipment for one or two hours each summer, and save the extravagant wasted investment.