Toiletry and Sunscreening
Well, Phoenix did land safely on Mars. I found that I have a
Science channel on our new HDTV and got to watch live the
excitement and joy at JPL and other locations associated with the
Phoenix mission during the landing. In this era of instant
gratification, it’s nice to see a successful end, at least so far, to a
project many years in the making and requiring the ultimate in
patience. Now let’s hope that the scoop and analytical
instruments on Phoenix perform as planned. If so, we’ll know
what’s in that water just under the surface in the vicinity of
Mars’ North Pole. As of 1 AM this morning, all is going well,
according to a JPL/NASA press release.
Another news item in this morning’s Star-Ledger indicates that
there’s a bit of a problem elsewhere in space. The news item,
headlined “To boldly go where no one has gone for a week”,
deals with a rather more basic problem. It seems that the
International Space Station’s sole toilet has been malfunctioning
for a week. It reportedly still processes solid waste but the
astronauts have been forced to pee into plastic bags!
Fortunately, our space shuttle Discovery is slated for a liftoff on
Saturday to deliver a Japanese experimental module to the Space
Station. A flight from Russia arrived yesterday with a pump for
the Russian-built toilet; the countdown for the launch began
yesterday afternoon. I believe I saw somewhere that the
Japanese module, which will be the largest laboratory facility on
the Space Station, cost in the neighborhood of a billion dollars. I
wonder which the current occupants of the station will greet with
more enthusiasm, the lab or the pump?
Last week we talked about virtual water. Here we’ve mentioned
Martian water and a type of water problem in orbit. With a
glorious Memorial Day weekend here in New Jersey, many
people headed for the waters along the Jersey shore.
Accordingly, I imagine that the sales of various sunscreen
products must have risen substantially. I know that on Tuesday,
before playing golf with our Old Guard group, I applied a bit of
sunscreen to my face. It was a hot and humid day and I was
drenched in sweat at the end of nine holes on our par-3 course.
Incidentally, I had a 34 and it was the first time playing this
course that I had nothing higher than a 4.
But I digress. The relatively small amount of sun lotion I applied
to my face is nothing compared to the amounts that are or should
be used by those who spend hours in the sun, often in skimpy
attire. Much has been written about the need to protect against
the various forms of UV rays and to choose lotions carefully. At
the same time, more recently we’ve seen articles about the
desirability of getting a modicum of unfiltered sunlight to
promote formation of vitamin D, which is apparently an
important factor in helping to prevent certain diseases and
perhaps even some cancers. It’s a tough balancing act.
Now it seems there may be an unanticipated environmental
downside to the use of sunscreens. In the past we’ve managed to
create holes in the ozone layer in our atmosphere by using certain
compounds as refrigerants. Could our use of sunscreen lotions
lead to another serious environmental problem, this time in our
oceans? Our editor Brian Trumbore called my attention to an
article headlined “Sun lotions help to kill coral reefs” by David
Charter in the May 24 London Times.
As if coral reefs were not already in enough trouble due to global
warming and rising sea temperatures, Roberto Danovaro, at the
University of Pisa in Italy, and his coworkers have found
evidence that the compounds that protect against UV can do in
coral reefs. The researchers carried out their studies in waters
surrounding coral reefs in Mexico, Indonesia, Egypt and
I didn’t manage to track down the original study to find out
details concerning the amounts and types of sunscreen used in
the experiments. However, the Times account and other Web
site reports indicate that the response of coral to the sunscreen
ingredients was independent of the dose and that small amounts
led to the same effects as large doses. The response of the coral
was to discharge coral mucous, which is apparently a sign that
the coral is in distress. They also found that virus levels in the
water went up to 15 times the level in control samples.
With some 78 million visitors to tropical areas where the corals
abound, the researchers estimated that the amount of sunscreen
washing off during a 20-minute dip in the sea is about 25
percent. They calculate that the cumulative number of tons of
sunscreen chemicals released worldwide is enough that about ten
percent of the world’s coral reefs are in danger of being
destroyed by the chemicals in sunscreen.
I should note that on browsing the Internet, I found random
comments indicating that there are “reef-safe” sunscreens.
However, I have no idea as to the validity of these claims,
especially given the unknown veracity of the venues in which I
found them. As for me, I haven’t set foot in any sea for perhaps
three decades. Any sunscreen I use gets washed off in my
bathroom sink or shower. Whether or not the offending
chemicals get destroyed or captured during subsequent water
treatment I don’t know. I hope they are.
OK, it’s time to get back to my care giving activities and some
serious shopping. Would you believe that my wife has just
informed me that we are running desperately low on toilet tissue?
Those astronauts on the Space Station aren’t the only ones with
personal hygiene problems.
Allen F. Bortrum