Noble Gases for Non-Noble Pursuits

Depending on who you ask, the noble gases (Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, Radon, and the seldom seen Ununoctium, aka the inert gases, aka group 18 elements), are pretty boring. The noble gases have been described as being aristocratic, detached and aloof, never bothering to interact with the common elements, and in a very cool collection of anthropomorphized elements by Kaycie D, the most exciting thing that can be said for the noble gases is that “Krypton is commonly known for its role in Superman comics“. They have the maximum number of valence electrons in their outer shell, making them quite stable and unreactive. And while they conduct electricity and can fluoresce which is kind of exciting, they are odorless and colorless, which is kind of boring. However there are some people who find the noble gases to be quite interesting, namely, the Russians.

Cool anthropomorphized depiction of Xenon, with a somewhat uninspired description, which could stand to be updated with performance enhancer.

Cool anthropomorphized depiction of Xenon, with a somewhat uninspired description, which could stand to be updated to “performance enhancing gas favored by elite athletes”.

In Russia, the biological activity of Xenon (which is much greater than its chemical activity) lends itself to its use as an anesthetic. Xenon can also protect body tissues from the effects of low temperatures, lack of oxygen and even physical trauma. Low temperatures, lack of oxygen, and physical trauma are all things that can be associated with the Winter Olympics, and now so too can xenon. The head of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, Vladimir Uiba, proclaimed in a recent statement that there is nothing wrong with Russian athletes inhaling xenon to improve performance. In addition to the other properties of xenon, it also increases levels of erythropoietin (EPO), which is a hormone that encourages the formation of red blood cells. Artificially raising the levels of EPO is illegal under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) just ask Lance, but there are other “natural” ways of boosting the hormone, which are permissible under WADA, including training at altitudes and sleeping in a low oxygen tent, like the one enjoyed by Michael Phelps. Because inhalation of xenon is not on WADA’s radar (at least not yet) it has been given the blessing by Russian sporting federation, which has produced a manual and set of guidelines on the proper administration of the gas. According to The Economist the manual advises using xenon before competitions to correct listlessness and sleep disruption, and afterwards to improve physical recovery. The recommended dose is a 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen, inhaled for a few minutes, ideally before going to bed. The gas’s action continues for 48-72 hours, so repeating every few days is a good idea. And for last-minute jitters, a quick hit an hour before the starting gun can help.

While there seems to be a strong case that xenon was used by the Russia Olympic team, medal count aside, it is unknown whether any other nations were using this not-illegal practice. It has been suggested that the use of xenon is something of an open secret in the sporting world, which might further suggest that more countries are tapping into this performance enhancer, but not the Brits anyway. So the question I am left with is, given the use of xenon is not that different from the use of an oxygen tent, is it OK to use Xe? To me something about the use of xenon just doesn’t smell right, which given its odorless nature, is saying a lot.

If all this talk of doping and Olympics has gotten you worked up, it might be best to sit back and listen to this catchy song by Duplex, titled 7 Noble Gases.


Reflections on the 6th International Symposium on Flame Retardants

A little bit too keen, I was the first one into the conference hall.

A little bit too keen, I was the first one into the conference hall at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was recently in San Francisco for the 6th International Symposium on Flame Retardants. California is a fitting host for a conference on flame retardants, as their unique flammability standard, TB-117, has likely contributed to the ubiquitous contamination of humans and the environment with brominated flame retardants (BFRs), specifically the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Research has shown repeatedly that PBDEs are environmentally persistent, capable of bioaccumulating in organisms, and potentially toxic. As a result of these facts, PBDEs have been banned in several jurisdictions, and industry has agreed to a voluntary phase-out. This has led replacement chemicals being used in place of the PBDEs. These replacements are less well studied than traditional BFRs, and given that they can be structurally and functionally very dissimilar there is a need for new measurement methodologies and descriptions of their environmental fate and biological activity. The efficacy of flame retardants, which are designed to increase public safety, has also recently been called to question. At this symposium the most current state of the science for flame retardants was presented, and below I highlight some of the interesting research from the various sessions.

Analytical Methods

Studying BFRs often comes with certain analytical challenges. BFRs are tricky to analyze, and given their widespread use, they have become ubiquitous, background contaminants, often showing up in blank laboratory samples. One way to minimize background contamination is to automate and contain the entire extraction procedure. Philip Bassignani of Fluid Management Systems, presented Validating multiple matrix analysis of PBDEs using pressurized liquid extraction and multi-column clean-up, where he showcased the available technology for incorporating Pressurized Liquid Extraction (PLE) and automated multi-column Clean-up as a sample prep procedures, thereby reducing many of the problems associated with traditional manual approaches, and saving loads of time. It was a very cool talk, and made me really wish that this type of instrument was available during my research.

Another problem that was touched upon in this session was the lack of analytical standards for many of these emerging flame retardants. Standards are needed so the identity of a compound can be verified. This is particularly tricky when you are not even sure what you are looking for. Such is the case when you are trying to determine what degradation products, metabolites, or unknown compounds may be in a sample. Mehran Alaee of Environment Canada presented the work Post target determination of brominated flame retardants and related compounds in American Eels captured in Eastern Canada, which was somewhat of an environmental detective story, where they were able to deduce the structure of several unknown contaminants in samples of Eel. This is accomplished by gaining an accurate mass for the unknown compound from the time of flight mass spectrometer, and then determining the possible combination of atoms that could result in that mass, then determining whether the mass spectra of that possible combination fits with the observed spectra in the sample. It is like trying to solve a puzzle, without knowing what the picture is supposed to be.

Measurements in Abiotic Media

Once the methods are developed for analyzing these flame retardants (again not an easy task), next you can go out an measure them in real samples. Rob Letcher of Environment Canada presented the paper Comparative photolytic debromination of decabromodiphenyl ether, decabromodiphenyl ethane, and tetradecabromodiphenoxybenzene flame retardants and environmental considerations, in which he highlights some of the measurements of new and relatively huge BFRs, and some of the pathways by which they can be transformed into more toxic compounds.

Measurements in Biota

In addition to measuring flame retardants in environmental samples like, air, dust, water, and sediment, it is also important to monitor these compounds in biota. The uptake of compounds from the environment into biota is known as bioaccumulation, and if the accumulation is great enough, this can result in toxic effects. Roxana Sühring of Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, Institute of Coastal Research presented work on the accumulation of flame retardants in two different species of eel, throughout their lifecycles, From glass to silver eel – brominated flame retardants and Dechloranes in European and American eels. The work was very interesting, largely in part because of the unique life-history traits of eels (future post), and the varying susceptibility to contaminants and contaminant profile during their life cycle.


One of the reasons for concern over flame retardants is due to their toxicity. Flame retardants tend to not be acutely toxic, but rather demonstrate a chronic toxicity, often mediated through endocrine system, as several flame retardants have structural similarities to hormones, particularly the thyroid hormones. David Volz of the University of South Carolina presented some very compelling evidence Aryl phosphate esters within a major penta-BDE replacement product induce cardiotoxicity in developing zebrafish embryos: potential role of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, that demonstrated that some flame retardants are exerting their toxicity through the aryl hydrocarbon receptor; the toxicity of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin is also mediated through this receptor.


Regrettably I missed this session as I was discussing my posters with other researchers over lunch and things went long. However, the talk Associations between maternal serum PBDEs and fetal thyroid hormones: Results from the Chemicals, Health and Pregnancy (CHirP) study, looked really cool.

Exposure Pathways

Before there can be toxicity, there must be exposure. This session showed many ways (mainly dust and food) which we are being exposed to these compounds, but two of the talks were about unique occupational exposures. The first, by Anna Strid of Stockholm University looked at Exposure to brominated flame retardants during maintenance work in aircrafts. Airplanes are loaded with flame retardants, and that is probably a good thing, but continuous workplace exposure can become an issue for pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics. Another interesting and overlooked group in terms of high levels of occupational exposure, are gymnasts. Courtney Carignan of Boston University School of Public Health presented work on Gymnast exposure to flame retardants, given that much of gymnastic equipment is foam, which contains high concentration of flame retardants, levels in the air, dust and gymnasts were elevated. The work presented was just the preliminary findings and there is much more to be done, but this was really cool and will be something to keep an eye on.


The symposium concluded with talks related to how all the research that has been done can change or influence policy. One of the first challenges that will need to be addressed is to get everyone talking the same language. Andreas Rydén of Stockholm University presented A novel abbreviation standard for organobromine, organochlorine and organophosphorus flame retardants, to help get everyone on the same page, which means I will have to change all my references to TBBPA-DBPE, BEHTBP, and EHTeBB in my papers to TBBPA-BDBPE, BEH-TEB, and EH-TBB, respectively. The symposium ended with a panel discussion, which focused on whether there is a need for these flame retardants in various consumer products (e.g., insulation, couches, children’s toys and products), and the current regulatory system for flame retardants which is highly stove-piped (e.g., EPA, California Bureau of Home Furnishings, Department of Toxic Substances Control all have interests and regulations relating to flame retardants) and largely ineffective.  There was a comment from the audience that flame retardants (and other chemicals in consumer products, (e.g., PFCs, musks, nanoparticles) should be regulated just as food, drugs, and pesticides are currently. One comment that really struck me is that scientists are spending lots of time and money (often public funds), to just determine what substances are in the products we are exposed to everyday. Recently, there has been lots of excellent work by researches focused on determining what is in our couches, knowledge that industry has, but does not share because of its proprietary nature. This just seems so backwards to me.

Overall it was a great symposium filled with an almost overwhelming amount of interesting research and discourse. Flame retardants are going to be an environmental and human health issue for a long time, and forums like this symposium are crucial for helping researchers gain insights and share ideas.

Boxed Wine Revolution

Boxed wine turned out to be the perfect drink for a late October camping trip to Tobermory. While the temperature never got up to 10oC, the wine wasn't stored for very long, and was delicious.

Boxed wine is the perfect drink for a late October camping trip to Tobermory.

In getting back to Foodie Friday themed posts, here is a post about the wonderful product that is boxed wine. The perks of boxed wines are numerous; they have greatly improved in quality, they are generally cheaper in price, they hold more wine than a single bottle, they are light and recyclable (making them ideal for camping), are easy to open, they chill quickly, they won’t break if you drop them, they aid in the removal of “ladybug taint”, they are good for table wines that don’t need to age, they may be more environmentally friendly, and saving leftovers (if you have any) is much easier.

That last point was the subject of a recent study on The Combined Effects of Storage Temperature and Packaging Type on the Sensory and Chemical Properties of Chardonnay in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. In the study, Californian Chardonnay was stored in five different wine-packaging configurations, (three different bottle closures [natural cork, synthetic cork, and screw cap] and two bag-in-box, or BIB, configurations [with and without modified atmosphere packaging, or MAP]) at three different temperatures (10, 20, and 40 °C) for a period of 3 months. The authors wanted to study the combined packaging and temperature effects on the sensory and chemical properties of the wines. Sensory properties were evaluated in triplicate with a descriptive analysis for aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and color attributes by twelve very lucky panelists. Oxygen data (head space and dissolved oxygen) were measured throughout the 3 month period. Changes in the chemical composition of the wine were determined in triplicate at the end of the storage period by measuring TA (as tartaric acid equivalents, TAE) and VA (as acetic acid equivalents, AAE), pH, ethanol, and SO2 (free and total).

The largest changes were observed with the highest storage temperature of 40 °C, and were independent of the packaging. All samples showed signs of oxidation at the 40 °C, and were described by the sensory panel as oxidized, musty, and sulfur. The wines were lower in lightness and green color, and higher in yellow color. Similarly, the chemical analyses revealed that the 40 °C samples had lower amounts of free and total SO2, ethanol, and lower TA, and the volatile pattern contained increased concentration of oxidation and aging compounds (diethyl succinate, TDN, and straight and branched alcohols), and a decreased concentration of fruit-related compounds (acetates and terpenoids). So the lesson is not to store your wine at 40 °C, and if you do, maybe you deserve what you get.

In addition to the influence of temperature, packaging type also influenced the properties of the wines, notably the BIB samples. The BIB wines (there was no appreciable difference between the two types of BIB packaging) showed severe and accelerated aging as compared to the three bottle treatments. However, this was only significant for the two higher storage temperatures of 20 and 40 °C; at 10 °C there were no significant differences, either sensory or chemical, between the packaging treatments.

A glass of boxed wine on the rock beach.

A glass of boxed wine on the rock beach.

In summary, as long as you keep your Californian Chardonnay chilled, there is no need to worry about change in sensory or chemical properties as compared to the bottled wine (here is hoping for a follow-up study with red wines, I know where they could find some panelists!). So don’t worry about serving wine out a box this holiday season, it is a perfectly practical and delicious decision.

Retarding Flame Retardants

I have previously written about flame retardants and how the practice of incorporating brominated flame retardants (BFRs) into materials is used to improve public safety by slowing down, or retarding, the spread and growth of a fire, thus increasing the time it takes to reach flashover. Several national agencies set flammability requirements for plastic foam insulation and other building materials, as measures to help prevent loss of life and minimize physical damage. To meet these performance requirements, BFRs (and other types of flame retardant chemicals) are added to the material. While these BFRs have been found in the environment and in people, their use has always been defended based on the fact that they improve public safety and save lives. However, these improved public safety claims have recently come under fire.

The issue was first drawn to the public’s attention with the excellent investigative journalism series by the Chicago Tribune titled Playing With Fire. Below is the introductory video, but do yourself a favor and read the entire series.

The fiery debate regarding the efficacy and necessity of the incorporation of flame retardant chemicals into furniture foams heats up, as claims by industry go up in smoke.

One of the findings presented in the series, was from a report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) which found that “fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significantly greater level of open-flame safety than did the untreated foams (p.23).” The report further noted that a fire barrier (composed of fiberglass, modacrylic, and polyester) between the upholstery fabric and the foam provided a markedly increase in the overall fire safety of the furniture. A similar report by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) also reached the conclusion that barriers (often called interliners) offer significant fire-safety advantages, while flame retardants in foam do not. When called before the US Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, Marshall Moore, spokesperson the flame retardant producing company Chemtura, defended his companies products noting “Scientific data show the relative risk associated with our flame retardants is extremely low and is far outweighed by the societal benefits of an innovation that reduces the number and severity of fires that can threaten lives and property.” This claim was disputed by scientists, and the lead author on the paper cited by Moore, in the Tribune series.

The above studies indicate that the incorporation of flame retardant chemicals furniture foam, has no significant effect on fire safety, and in fact, more improvements in fire safety are achieved with the use of design and technological interventions, such as barriers. While this holds true for upholstered furniture, there had been some questions as to whether this held true in other products for which flame retardants are added, such as building materials. Recently, a report found that flame retardants routinely added to foam insulation make no difference to the prevention of fire in buildings where a fire-safe thermal barrier already exists. As with the furniture case, the authors found that when a code-mandated thermal barrier was in place, the flame retardants (in this case HBCD and TDCPP) did not provide additional benefit to reducing fire hazard. They further comment that during fires, flame retardants are liberated and can actually make fires more deadly! It was recently found that halogenated flame retardants increased the amount of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during combustion, increasing the acute toxicity of those exposed. As well, when products with BFRs incorporated into them burn at high temperatures, they can produce polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans, which have chronic health effects for those exposed, particularly fire fighters.

The few examples above prove that chemical intervention is not the only option for improving fire safety, and in fact it may not do much to improve it at all. Given that the role of flame retardants is to increase public safety, it is time that we took a serious look at whether they are causing more harm than good, and begin to retard their usage.

SETAC Presentations on the Canadian Oil Sands

  1. The 33rd Annual Meeting of the North American Chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) is currently underway in Long Beach, California. I wasn’t able to attend SETAC this year, but fortunately for me Naomi Lubick has been tweeting some of the highlights from the conference,
  2. nlubick
    Infrastructure for sewage and wastewater treatment is aging, and could end up making things worse if ignored: leaking poop! #sfei #setac2012

    Mon, Nov 12 2012 10:42:38
  3. nlubick
    Cesium 137 radiation: twice as much from food in Chiba prefecture vs Fukushima city. Air delivered more Cs-137 in the city. #setac2012

    Tue, Nov 13 2012 15:16:20
  4. nlubick
    Hideshige Takada, plastic pellets expert: flame retardants go from plastics into shearwater seabirds in the middle of the Pacific #setac2012

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 09:05:41
  5. But it has been one session that she tweeted about, which revolves around The Canadian Oil Sands, that has been getting quite a bit of attention.
  6. nlubick
    #EnvironmentCanada confirms levels from David Schindler’s lab’s PNAS ppr: #TarSands pollutants in snow near #oilsands operations. #setac2012

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 10:49:54
  7. The paper that she is referring was authored by Erin Kelly (can be found here), examined the concentrations of priority pollutants (Sb, As, Be, Cd, Cr, Cu, Pb, Hg, Ni, Se, Ag, Tl, and Zn) in snowpack and water from the areas surrounding the Alberta oil sands development. One of the main findings of their paper was that within 50 km of upgrading facilities, 11 400 metric tons of airborne particulates were deposited during 4 months of snowfall. The majority of those particulates consisted of oil sands bitumen, some priority pollutants and polyaromatic compounds, and the particulate elements decline in concentration more rapidly with distance from development, than do those dissolved elements. The study by Kelly et al. got lots of attention and resulted in a press conference where David Schindler waved around a fish found in the Athabasca River which was deformed and had tumors. He attributed the deformities in the fish to the oil sands operations in Fort McMurray, and warned of potential health effects for members of the surrounding communities. Largely as a result of the work of Kelly and Schindler, Environment Canada began an intensive monitoring campaign in the area. The results of their studies are now being shared.
  8. CBCQuirks
    Federal scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants travel further than expected scientists uncover evidence that oilsands/7542747/story.html

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 07:19:11
  9. This is referring to the work of Jane Kirk et al. of Environment Canada, whose findings confirmed those of Kelly et al., but also found that the loadings extended further than previously reported. Kirk et al. collected snowpack samples from ~90 sites located 0-200 km from the major bitumen upgrading facilities to determine the atmospheric contaminant loadings into the Athabasca River. They found all 13 of the priority pollutants that Kelly et al. looked at, and noted that the loadings were 1.5 to 13 times greater at sites within 50 km of the upgraders, compared to those sites that were further than 50 km away. They also noted that particulate bound methyl mercury (MeHg) increased exponentially with proximity to the upgraders. The presence and concentration of MeHg is troubling as it is a very bioaccumulative substance that is also quite toxic.
  10. ecojustice_ca
    Snow near oilsands contains toxic substances, CBC reports. #oilsands Please ReTweet

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 06:21:12
  11. A related study, presented by Derek Muir (Environment Canada), found that concentrations of total PAHs in lake sediments surrounding the oil sands development were 2.5 to 23 times greater than there were pre-1960 background levels. Muir commented that the footprint of deposition is potentially larger than anticipated, and that the rising levels of PAHs in sediments seems to parallel the development of the oil sands industry.
  12. EcoRational
    Hey #Alberta: Lakes & food chain full of PAHs & mercury. Is this to be your legacy? #SETAC #abpoli #tarsands #oilsands

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 09:25:48
  13. BCLaraby
    Defunding in 3,2,1: Fed scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants travel further than expected scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants/7542920/story.html #cdnpoli

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 11:32:02
  14. But it is worth noting that the concentrations of the PAHs in the lake sediments (with the exception of the lake closest to the oil sands development) are below guideline limits, in fact, they are similar to concentrations observed around urban areas. These concentrations are are not yet great enough that they are considered toxic to aquatic life.
  15. nlubick
    Still relatively low concentrations of PAHs from oil operations. #TarSands #EnvironmentCanada #setac2012

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 11:52:55
  16. Interestingly, results presented by Joanne Parrott (Environment Canada), found that melted snow (amended with essential salts to mimic the ionic composition of the Athabasca River) from near the oil sands mining and refining areas were toxic to larval fathead minnows from 25 to 100% strength.
  17. nlubick
    “The snow was toxic” to fathead minnow larvae near stacks but clean far away. What happens to melt? #EnvironmentCanada #TarSands #setac2012

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 10:53:51
  18. However, once the snow melt water was diluted with water from the Athabasca River it was no longer toxic to the minnows.
  19. nlubick
    Dilution is the solution? Athabasca River water is “NOT TOXIC” (#EnvironmentCanada emphasis). Meltwater is ok for fish #setac2012 #TarSands

    Wed, Nov 14 2012 10:56:22
  20. These results are being presented at a conference and I am largely gathering information about the work being presented through the SETAC Abstract book and the tweets and updates from colleagues. This is by no means the ideal way of getting information, but it does represent how most people would be exposed to science news, and while it is cool that it is happening, it is still lacking. Reading a full peer reviewed paper gives much more information and a more complete story to help interpret the results. Unfortunately, that format is largely unavailable to the public (both as it is written and physically as a paper), and as such we have to rely on newspaper articles and press releases which are often incomplete and can be misleading. Hopefully once the results presented at the SETAC conference get published, there will be a renewed discussion of their significance and they will help inform the future development of the Canadian oil sands.

Shady Geoengineering Project has Shady Government Connections

After reading some of the discussion going on in the comments section of both The Guardian and the CBC’s website regarding the geoengineering project that took place off British Columbia, I wanted to follow-up on a sentiment echoed in the following comment from the CBC site,

It’s an experiment. Now, we look at all the results and see if there is any downside to the action. So far, so good.

That was one of the over arching themes that many brought up, given all the uncertainty about the procedure, and the calls from international agencies for more research, many commenters feel that this project will provide the necessary answers to move forward. While this experiment will probably yield some results, it is very unlikely that the results will be usable, and will likely just raise more questions. Admittedly, until more is known about the methods and the persons involved in the experiment it will be difficult to critically analyze the study, but there are just too many red flags (e.g., Mr. Russ George’s history, and the criticisms of the practice) right now that are troublesome. Perhaps none more than the fact that driving force behind this project only focuses on a few narrow aspects, mainly profit, and disregards others, mainly the environment and the Haida Nation. With so many unanswered questions about the process of iron fertilization (e.g., the impacts of other materials released with the iron, the amount and impact of other greenhouse gases produced during decomposition of the bloom, the extent of hypoxia and anoxia during the decay process, etc. ad infinitum), testing the process in the open ocean, without scientific oversight/monitoring seems quite foolish. There is a need to distinguish legitimate scientific experiments from publicity stunt attempts at commercializing RedBull iron fertilization for the carbon credit market.

The world renowned Experimental Lakes Area, a research facility like no other, soon to be no longer. Above, Lake 226 was divided with a curtain to examine the causes of algal blooms, the upper divide of the lake received phosphorus addition. This research was crucial in the policy decision too limit phosphates from detergents and waste-water treatment plants.

The sad irony about this project having taken place off the Canadian coast, is that Canada used to be uniquely equipped to answer these types of large scale, ecological questions. Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is a truly unique facility with one of their primary goals being To better understand global threats to the environment through knowledge gained from whole-ecosystem, experimental, scientific research. Granted they are freshwater lakes, but some of the more pertinent questions about geoengineering could still be addressed in these systems. Unfortunately the ELA, which costs $600,000 per year to operate, is being shut down by the current administration, a decision that has been derided by renowned scientists and organizations around the world.

In addition to cutting the ELA, the government has also severely cut funding to The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).  In a letter to the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Peter Hodson describes what the cuts will mean,

DFO has cut 400 positions, including all 55 scientists and technologists involved in environmental toxicology and chemistry. As a consequence of the cutbacks there will no longer be any analytical chemistry labs in DFO. While the cuts are a small percentage of the total departmental budget, they represent 100% of the departmental resources devoted to chemical pollution. They will impair DFO’s capacity to protect fish and fish habitat, to respond to chemical crises, and to provide advice re: environmental protection to those who are developing government policy.

The demise of the DFO’s contaminant research program, including the termination of the lone marine mammal toxicologist is quite troubling as this would, and should, be exactly the type of program and persons involved with the investigation of the effects of this shady geoengineering project. Sadly the government’s budget cuts have limited our ability to not only preemptively study the effects of these large scale ecosystem level experiments, they have also hampered our ability to respond to them when they unexpectedly occur. Even more sad, and troubling, is that this project may not have been so unexpected.

Today The Guardian (who is really on top of this story!) is reporting that the Canadian government was aware of the plans to dump iron ore into the ocean. The Guardian claims to have seen government correspondence which indicates that Environment Canada officers met with Mr. John Disney’s Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) in June and expressed their misgivings about any ocean fertilisation going forward, but appear to not have taken further action. Mr. George told the Guardian

Canadian government people have been helping us. We’ve had workshops run where we’ve been taught how to use satellites resources by the Canadian space agency. [The government] is trying to ‘cost-share’ with us on certain aspects of the project. And we are expecting lots more support as we go forward

CBC’s As It Happens interviewed Mr. Disney about the role of the Canadian government in this project,

I’ve been in touch with many departments within the federal ministry. All I’m saying is that everyone from the Canadian Revenue Agency down to the National Research Council and Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada – these people, they’ve all known about this.

Environment Canada officials refuse to comment on the issue, saying the matter is currently under investigation. The apparent complicity of the Canadian government in this project, combined with the crippling of environmental programs across the country through budgetary cuts, is very sad and troubling for Canadians.

Shady Geoengineering Executive Dupes First Nation into Shady Geoengineering Scheme

Modified from The Guardian, the black circle indicates the area where the algal bloom is occurring. Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean. Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA

An investigation by The Guardian has revealed that an American businessman has dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate off the west coast of British Columbia as part of a geoengineering scheme. Satellite images obtained by The Guardian confirm a large plankton bloom, covering 10 000 square kilometers. The man responsible for this geoengineering project is Russ George, a Californian businessman and former chief executive of Planktos Inc. The now defunct company (read the excellent take down of the company and its chief executive Mr. George, by Popular Science), released Mr. George and decided to,

Abandon any future ocean fertilization efforts that were once intended to restore marine plant life and generate ecological offsets for the global carbon credit market. Due to widespread opposition to plankton restoration in the environmental world, the Company has encountered serious difficulty in raising the capital needed to fund a series of ocean research trials. –Source

As part of his resignation package, Mr. George (whose previous business/science ventures have included cold fusion) obtained/regained the proprietary know-how associated with ocean fertilization concept, and started Planktos Science, no doubt choosing to add the word ‘Science’ to alleviate future investors fears. Below is a short video describing the process of ocean fertilization, and follow this link for Planktos’ description of the process.

Mr. George took that know-how with him and approached the local council of the Haida First Nation, and convinced them that his project would benefit the ocean and sold it as a ‘salmon enhancement project’. The CBC reports that the $2-million project was initiated by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) which in their Project Description used to secure funding, they described the project as such,

The Old Massett Village Council wishes to use HPP [Haida Parity Program] funding to secure a loan at the Northern Savings Credit Union in order to launch their Haida Salmon Restoration project. The Project involves offshore marine science research to improve ocean conditions for the benefit of salmon and other life. We intend to do this also to create community wealth to improve the standard of living for all Old Massett community members.

While the intentions are noble, there is no description of the actual project, which involved dumping 100 tonnes of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean. The only mention of ocean fertilization comes from a Northern Savings Credit Union Commercial Account Manager, who upon approving the loan application, advises Chief Councillor John T. Jones to give serious consideration to the risks of the project, having found several issues after a by no means exhaustive research into the topic-including finding “no reference to proprietary technology or recognition of Planktos Science as a “world leader” in this area” (page 12). The loan approval concludes with the advice that more due diligence should be required with respect to those listed risks.

In addition to the concerns of the lending company, many in the scientific community have serious concerns about large-scale environmental manipulations specifically iron fertilization. While some studies have shown that dumping iron at sea can sink carbon, it is not enough to soothe concerns over potentially harmful side effects on ocean chemistry and marine ecosystems. These concerns include information, or lack thereof, regarding;

  1. The estimated amount and potential impacts of iron that is not taken up by phytoplankton
  2. The amounts and potential impacts of other materials that may be released with the iron
  3. The estimated amounts and potential impacts of other gases that may be produced by the expected phytoplankton blooms or by bacteria decomposing the dead phytoplankton
  4. The estimated extent and potential impacts of deep ocean hypoxia (low oxygen) or anoxia (no oxygen) caused by the bacterial decay of the expected phytoplankton blooms
  5. The types of phytoplankton that are expected to bloom and the potential impacts of any harmful algal blooms that may develop

In response to these concerns an Ethics Code for Ocean Carbon Experiments was developed by Climos, another geoengineering company. The document calls on anyone doing these large scale experiments to protect the marine environment by obtaining permits from relevant authorities, do full environmental assessments, and avoid sensitive ecosystems, and calls for openness through release of data, third party verification of carbon uptake, and collaboration with the broader scientific community. While still at Planktos Inc. Mr. George called the guidelines “a great thing” and said his firm would follow them, it seems very unlikely that Planktos Science chose to follow those same guidelines.

In addition to the code of conduct for business practice, a more formal declaration about ocean fertilization projects was made at a 2008 meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Scientists and policy makers called for a ban on major ocean fertilization projects until they could better understand the potential risks and benefits of manipulating the oceanic food chain, 191 nations agreed to a moratorium. This massive geoengineering project off the pristine Haida Gwaii islands was blatantly illegal, breaking international law. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Mark Johnson, media relations officer at Environment Canada, said the department is aware of the ‘incident’ and the matter is under investigation by Environment Canada’s Enforcement Branch, so it would be inappropriate to comment further.

In the mean time, the president of the HSRC, Mr. John Disney, is very pleased with the results of the project, notingthe results were just spectacular, like we created life where there wasn’t life.” Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation, said of the results and of Mr. George, “he promised a plankton bloom and he got it.” Guujaaw also notes in that interview that the Haida were unaware of the actual fertilization experiment until after the iron was dumped this past July. Now that the details of the project have been revealed, many are concerned about the long term, negative environmental impacts, and wonder whether they will be able to recoup the community’s investment.

Mr. George convinced locals to invest in the project with the promise of carbon credits, he has been pushing various carbon credit schemes in Haida Gwaii for years. He claimed that the plankton will absorb carbon dioxide, opening the door to selling carbon credits. Mr. Disney, and the rest of the Old Massett village council are banking on selling those carbon credits to repay the $2 million borrowed for the project from village reserve funds.The problem, as University of Victoria Nobel prize sharing climate scientist Andrew Weaver points out, is that it is not clear from this project if the carbon will be sequestered, and that it is very unlikely that they will be able to sell any carbon credits.

I think it is pretty clear that Mr. George manipulated the Haida Nation with half truths and promises that couldn’t be kept. He used their good intentions, respect for the environment, and the cultural and economic importance of salmon, to push his personal agenda with complete disregard for environmental and economical consequences. His actions are rooted in business and profit, and any semblance of science or genuine care for the environment are glaringly absent. Hopefully there will be a silver lining to this project, maybe it will work, but by acting in such a manner, Mr. George has not only limited the possible scientific lessons that could be learned, he may have also irreparably damaged the Haida Nation and their environment. Here is hoping that there is a silver lining to this iron sulfate induced bloom.