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Some backgound on natural exposure

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POSTED: April 15, 2013 12:08 p.m.

There is a saying that goes: “If you think education is expensive, compare it to the cost of ignorance.”
Another goes: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
These keep coming to mind when I am thinking about water, aquifers and public health. Last time, I tried some proactive debunking of concerns about arsenic in drinking water. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element; it is part of our world. We are exposed to it daily in small quantities that do no harm to us. The same can be said for most of the periodic table of elements. We are not worried about small naturally occurring levels of elements that do not harm us.
These are called “background” levels, which occur in each of us, the trees, the other plants, soil, animals, rock and water. Low levels of these elements are all around us and do not hurt us, so we ignore them.
Here is a non-water example. A coastal wood-products company in Brunswick takes trees from land-clearing operations, wood ash, agricultural lime, soil shaken off tree stumps and milorganite from a municipal sewage treatment plant and mixes them together in different proportions to make different landscape products. Depending on the amounts mixed they can produce mulch, potting soil or topsoil.
Everybody seemed worried about heavy metals and pollution. Fine, be worried about it, but investigate and find out what the truth is before deciding whether these products are good things or bad things.
A total elemental analysis showed that the milorganite from the Brunswick plant is the highest quality milorganite produced on the Eastern Seaboard — the only source recognized by the EPA as “excellent.” The agricultural lime was clean, the wood ash was free of heavy metals and hydrocarbons. The wood mulch had the highest concentration of arsenic on the site – four parts per million (4 ppm).
Where did the arsenic come from? It is the normal level of arsenic found in trees on our soils. The dirtiest things on-site were the perfectly normal trees. So is there a heavy metals problem with the mulch? Not in the least. The sky is not falling here.
The first question one should ask when someone tells you that some level of a contaminant was found in something is: “What is the normal background level in this environmental system for this contaminant?” Some things, like mercury in fish, increase in concentration as we move up the food chain, but that is not true of everything.
Another ploy to unnecessarily stir people up over non-existent problems is to use terms that many people do not understand or at least do not think about. This past April 1, two deejays in the Fort Myers, Fla., market started their program with alerts that “dihydrogen monoxide” was coming from the water taps in the Lee County area. People panicked and called the water plant. Dihydrogen monoxide — let us see.
Di means two, and mono means one. So a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom was coming from the tap. Yep, gotta watch out for that H2O. So the two deejays were put on administrative leave for telling the public — on April Fool’s Day — that water was coming out of their taps.
Why did no one put the school superintendent on leave? It seems this is an education problem. Nobody yelled, “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre — this is more like yelling, “Think!” in a classroom.
That leads me to my favorite saying, one which I have found to always be true: “No good deed ever goes unpunished.”

Gardner is the UGA extension agent for Glynn County, serving South Bryan.

 

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