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01/29/2002

Kermit, You're Right

[Bortrum will return by Thursday PM...some computer problems
while the chap is on vacation.]

What a genius was Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. How
natural it seemed when Kermit and Miss Piggy were guests on
the Today Show''s 50th anniversary program. And Kermit is so
right when he sings his plaintive song stating that it isn''t easy
being green. I get all choked up when I hear that little frog sing
it. Today, when we talk about being "green" we most likely are
talking about helping to preserve the environment. But being
environmentally green is even more difficult for us than it is for
Kermit.

Take the e-mail from a reader in New Zealand. The e-mail was
spurred by my column two weeks ago on skunks and mustelids.
My closing comments in that column dealt with my grandson''s
Christmas present, a chemistry set that contained so many
warnings and warning labels that I questioned whether I, a
chemist, would be up to the task of guiding my grandson! The
reader is concerned that overzealous environmentalists could
keep knowledgeable, responsible people from achieving
environmentally sound objectives.

His specific concern was a British TV program that, in his view,
unjustly maligned a project being carried out in his country. I''ve
had the good fortune to visit New Zealand. It''s a fascinating
country combining the attractions of Ireland, Switzerland,
Norway and Yellowstone. Its Yellowstone-like part of the
country provides a source of geothermal energy that supplies a
significant fraction of the power for New Zealand - certainly a
green situation.

New Zealand is an island nation, with its two principal islands
being quite different in nature. As is the case with its neighbor,
Australia, New Zealand has been isolated from other landmasses
for millions of years. As a result, evolution has produced in each
country a number of very different and unusual types of animal
life. For example, in New Zealand there''s the kiwi, a flightless
bird that developed over the ages. It didn''t have to fly because
there were no predators to give it any reason to take wing. This
idyllic isolation, of course, has been shattered over the last few
centuries by seafaring explorers and traders and now the jet age.
Some of the immigrants accompanying these modes of travel
have not been at all helpful to the native flora and fauna.

Our New Zealand reader is concerned specifically with the
possums that have come to that country from Australia.
According to the reader, these possums now number some 70
million. This large population of possums also seems to
consume an inordinate amount of vegetation. He says it''s around
21,000 tons every night! The concern is that if left unchecked
these critters will destroy New Zealand''s natural heritage. So,
what''s the answer? The answer is the subject of that British TV
program.

The answer is "1080" poison, a chemical compound known as
sodium monofluoroacetate. For about half a century, 1080
poison has been used in New Zealand as a pesticide in efforts to
control the population of possums and other destructive
immigrant creatures. The reader supports the use of 1080 but
also indicated that its use is controversial and that it is necessary
to look at unintended effects and secondary poisonings. A search
of "1080" on the Web turned up quite a number of articles on the
subject and there is indeed controversy. The "greenness" of the
1080 pesticide usage is a subject of considerable debate in New
Zealand, even among members of various green groups. Kermit
is right. And there are definitely various shades of green in
environmental matters.

One of the unintended effects of the use of 1080 concerns the
canine population of New Zealand. According to that country''s
Wellington Regional Council''s Web site, dogs are ten times as
likely to succumb to 1080 as a possum. Accordingly, warnings
are issued to keep dogs out of areas in which 1080 poison bait
has been dropped. If you''ve been to New Zealand, you know
that there are zillions of sheep and that dogs play an important
role in keeping the sheep under control. Even after the direct
danger of the dogs ingesting 1080 has passed, there remains the
tendency of the dogs to eat carcasses of the poisoned possums or
other poisoned animals, rabbits for example. Not a good idea for
the dogs, a fair number of which have succumbed to this indirect
form of poisoning.

The Wellington Regional Council''s Web site devotes a fair
amount of space to possible remedies if your dog should ingest
1080. Remedies include inducing the dog to vomit or injecting a
drug known as glycerol monoacetate. Remember that the 1080
poison is sodium monofluoroacetate. It takes one acetate to
counteract another acetate - that''s chemistry. Unfortunately,
neither of these remedies is sure fire and the most desirable
approach is prevention. One preventive measure is to muzzle the
dogs so they can''t consume the questionable food items. Cats, it
seems, are less likely to suffer indirect poisoning since they
apparently have less of an appetite for dead carcasses.

Lest you think the Wellington Regional Council is opposed to
using 1080 poison, it remains an important part of their possum
control program. It seems to be one of the safer of the toxins
used. Being water soluble, it gets washed away eventually and is
biodegradable in streams and in the soil. As with any pesticide,
there are concerns that the ultimate effects of widespread use
may not be fully understood. I can certainly empathize with the
reader - those possums left unchecked can wreak havoc on the
environment. In our area of New Jersey, we have a similar
controversy on how to handle the burgeoning deer population,
not as threatening to our environment perhaps, but a real safety
problem if you hit one on the road.

A more formidable worldwide problem in dire need of a green
solution is that of nuclear waste. The disposal of plutonium is
just one of the elements involved in nuclear waste. There is also
concern that plutonium could be used in terrorist attacks using
nuclear devices. For example, an article in the September 28,
2001 issue of Science shows a picture of a Russian worker
holding what looks to be a container no bigger than a half gallon
milk jug containing about 5 pounds or so of plutonium oxide
powder. Take three of these containers and you''ve got enough
for a nuclear explosive! The caption to the figure says that the
Russian facility has over 13,000 of these containers - that''s a lot
of potential bombs!

How to get rid of plutonium? As with the problem of cleaning
up Superfund sites, a key factor is money. Many billions of
dollars. Or is it trillions? One way to get rid of plutonium is to
use it as fuel in a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, this requires a
special kind of reactor and so far, there is no economic incentive
to use plutonium when uranium is much cheaper and the uranium
reactors are already in existence. These uranium reactors keep
making more plutonium as a byproduct.

The chemistry of plutonium doesn''t make its disposal any easier.
Plutonium has some of the most complex chemistry of any of the
metallic elements. Without going into detail, as the plutonium
sits around in whatever form there can be changes in structure
that can result in various disturbing things. For example,
plutonium can become a fine powder that spontaneously catches
fire. The subject of where to dispose of nuclear waste has been
the subject of controversy for decades, with concerns of water
seepage, earthquakes or other disastrous events. Not to mention
the NIMBY syndrome - not in my back yard.

So, Kermit, although it''s difficult being green, green is certainly
the color you want to be, if only figuratively. I''ve heard that
green is a very soothing color, being one of the predominant
colors in Nature. And what about those Johns Hopkins scientists
who claim to have deduced the color of our universe? As I
understand it from newspaper reports, they''ve concluded that an
observer outside our universe would see the universe as a pale
green. This surprising conclusion was apparently obtained from
an analysis of all the forms of light given off by stars, galaxies
gas clouds or whatever. Even though there aren''t any green stars,
these guys conclude that the sum total of the light emitted comes
out to be green. Now there''s one conclusion that I''m sure will
never be directly confirmed or refuted. We''re never going to
hear from that observer out there, presumably in some other
universe!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-01/29/2002-      
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Dr. Bortrum

01/29/2002

Kermit, You're Right

[Bortrum will return by Thursday PM...some computer problems
while the chap is on vacation.]

What a genius was Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. How
natural it seemed when Kermit and Miss Piggy were guests on
the Today Show''s 50th anniversary program. And Kermit is so
right when he sings his plaintive song stating that it isn''t easy
being green. I get all choked up when I hear that little frog sing
it. Today, when we talk about being "green" we most likely are
talking about helping to preserve the environment. But being
environmentally green is even more difficult for us than it is for
Kermit.

Take the e-mail from a reader in New Zealand. The e-mail was
spurred by my column two weeks ago on skunks and mustelids.
My closing comments in that column dealt with my grandson''s
Christmas present, a chemistry set that contained so many
warnings and warning labels that I questioned whether I, a
chemist, would be up to the task of guiding my grandson! The
reader is concerned that overzealous environmentalists could
keep knowledgeable, responsible people from achieving
environmentally sound objectives.

His specific concern was a British TV program that, in his view,
unjustly maligned a project being carried out in his country. I''ve
had the good fortune to visit New Zealand. It''s a fascinating
country combining the attractions of Ireland, Switzerland,
Norway and Yellowstone. Its Yellowstone-like part of the
country provides a source of geothermal energy that supplies a
significant fraction of the power for New Zealand - certainly a
green situation.

New Zealand is an island nation, with its two principal islands
being quite different in nature. As is the case with its neighbor,
Australia, New Zealand has been isolated from other landmasses
for millions of years. As a result, evolution has produced in each
country a number of very different and unusual types of animal
life. For example, in New Zealand there''s the kiwi, a flightless
bird that developed over the ages. It didn''t have to fly because
there were no predators to give it any reason to take wing. This
idyllic isolation, of course, has been shattered over the last few
centuries by seafaring explorers and traders and now the jet age.
Some of the immigrants accompanying these modes of travel
have not been at all helpful to the native flora and fauna.

Our New Zealand reader is concerned specifically with the
possums that have come to that country from Australia.
According to the reader, these possums now number some 70
million. This large population of possums also seems to
consume an inordinate amount of vegetation. He says it''s around
21,000 tons every night! The concern is that if left unchecked
these critters will destroy New Zealand''s natural heritage. So,
what''s the answer? The answer is the subject of that British TV
program.

The answer is "1080" poison, a chemical compound known as
sodium monofluoroacetate. For about half a century, 1080
poison has been used in New Zealand as a pesticide in efforts to
control the population of possums and other destructive
immigrant creatures. The reader supports the use of 1080 but
also indicated that its use is controversial and that it is necessary
to look at unintended effects and secondary poisonings. A search
of "1080" on the Web turned up quite a number of articles on the
subject and there is indeed controversy. The "greenness" of the
1080 pesticide usage is a subject of considerable debate in New
Zealand, even among members of various green groups. Kermit
is right. And there are definitely various shades of green in
environmental matters.

One of the unintended effects of the use of 1080 concerns the
canine population of New Zealand. According to that country''s
Wellington Regional Council''s Web site, dogs are ten times as
likely to succumb to 1080 as a possum. Accordingly, warnings
are issued to keep dogs out of areas in which 1080 poison bait
has been dropped. If you''ve been to New Zealand, you know
that there are zillions of sheep and that dogs play an important
role in keeping the sheep under control. Even after the direct
danger of the dogs ingesting 1080 has passed, there remains the
tendency of the dogs to eat carcasses of the poisoned possums or
other poisoned animals, rabbits for example. Not a good idea for
the dogs, a fair number of which have succumbed to this indirect
form of poisoning.

The Wellington Regional Council''s Web site devotes a fair
amount of space to possible remedies if your dog should ingest
1080. Remedies include inducing the dog to vomit or injecting a
drug known as glycerol monoacetate. Remember that the 1080
poison is sodium monofluoroacetate. It takes one acetate to
counteract another acetate - that''s chemistry. Unfortunately,
neither of these remedies is sure fire and the most desirable
approach is prevention. One preventive measure is to muzzle the
dogs so they can''t consume the questionable food items. Cats, it
seems, are less likely to suffer indirect poisoning since they
apparently have less of an appetite for dead carcasses.

Lest you think the Wellington Regional Council is opposed to
using 1080 poison, it remains an important part of their possum
control program. It seems to be one of the safer of the toxins
used. Being water soluble, it gets washed away eventually and is
biodegradable in streams and in the soil. As with any pesticide,
there are concerns that the ultimate effects of widespread use
may not be fully understood. I can certainly empathize with the
reader - those possums left unchecked can wreak havoc on the
environment. In our area of New Jersey, we have a similar
controversy on how to handle the burgeoning deer population,
not as threatening to our environment perhaps, but a real safety
problem if you hit one on the road.

A more formidable worldwide problem in dire need of a green
solution is that of nuclear waste. The disposal of plutonium is
just one of the elements involved in nuclear waste. There is also
concern that plutonium could be used in terrorist attacks using
nuclear devices. For example, an article in the September 28,
2001 issue of Science shows a picture of a Russian worker
holding what looks to be a container no bigger than a half gallon
milk jug containing about 5 pounds or so of plutonium oxide
powder. Take three of these containers and you''ve got enough
for a nuclear explosive! The caption to the figure says that the
Russian facility has over 13,000 of these containers - that''s a lot
of potential bombs!

How to get rid of plutonium? As with the problem of cleaning
up Superfund sites, a key factor is money. Many billions of
dollars. Or is it trillions? One way to get rid of plutonium is to
use it as fuel in a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, this requires a
special kind of reactor and so far, there is no economic incentive
to use plutonium when uranium is much cheaper and the uranium
reactors are already in existence. These uranium reactors keep
making more plutonium as a byproduct.

The chemistry of plutonium doesn''t make its disposal any easier.
Plutonium has some of the most complex chemistry of any of the
metallic elements. Without going into detail, as the plutonium
sits around in whatever form there can be changes in structure
that can result in various disturbing things. For example,
plutonium can become a fine powder that spontaneously catches
fire. The subject of where to dispose of nuclear waste has been
the subject of controversy for decades, with concerns of water
seepage, earthquakes or other disastrous events. Not to mention
the NIMBY syndrome - not in my back yard.

So, Kermit, although it''s difficult being green, green is certainly
the color you want to be, if only figuratively. I''ve heard that
green is a very soothing color, being one of the predominant
colors in Nature. And what about those Johns Hopkins scientists
who claim to have deduced the color of our universe? As I
understand it from newspaper reports, they''ve concluded that an
observer outside our universe would see the universe as a pale
green. This surprising conclusion was apparently obtained from
an analysis of all the forms of light given off by stars, galaxies
gas clouds or whatever. Even though there aren''t any green stars,
these guys conclude that the sum total of the light emitted comes
out to be green. Now there''s one conclusion that I''m sure will
never be directly confirmed or refuted. We''re never going to
hear from that observer out there, presumably in some other
universe!

Allen F. Bortrum