Having watched a news item on the BBC Ten O’Clock News about the chemical sludge leak in Hungary (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11504980) I became quite annoyed by the sensationalist and wholly inaccurate reporting of the toxic dangers inherent from the torrent of contaminants.
The first part of the description of the ingredients was fine, it said that the main component was iron oxide, which was clarified as being rust. After that it became a scare story. You can see by the descriptions in the graphic describing the chemical breakdown of the sludge in the article referenced above how bad it was.
But wait a minute! Let’s look at this information more carefully and remind ourselves that this is a fully hydrated environment as well. I’ll take the ingredients one at a time:
- Iron Oxide: Annoying but harmless.
- Aluminium Oxide (Al2O3): Well, reasonably inert. There is actually a possible link with dementia with long-term ingestion. Nothing like Aluminium Sulphate, which was what caused the Camelford incident.
- Silicon Dioxide: Wait a minute.. note the asterisk. The footnote says that actually it’s NOT silica (i.e. quartz), it’s as part of sodium and aluminium silicates. That’ll be clay minerals then.
- Calcium Oxide: Hmm.. Quicklime, in a hydrated environment?! Doh! No, plain old lime, Calcium Hydroxide. Not good for plants but not exactly the worst contaminant in the world. In the environment it’ll probably react with CO2 in the atmosphere and become that well known toxin, calcite… limestone.
- Titanium Oxide: That well known toxin used to cover mints and other sweets.
- Oxygen-bonded sodium oxide: Hmm.. so, it’s not just an oxide, it’s extra oxygen bonded!!! Oh dear.. epic fail number two. In water this would quickly become NaOH. A bit horrid… will turn fat into soap. A slippery customer. Not a long-term problem though.
Now, what was not mentioned in the TV item and is relatively marginalised in the written piece is the problem of heavy metal contamination. This IS the news worthy part of the contamination problem and it’s been almost totally missed by the reporter. The problem, I think, is that because the concentrations in the sludge are low relative to those headline grabbing amounts handed to the reporter in a press release from the chemical company they don’t sound important to a layman. However, they are the long-term health legacy items.
Mentioned in the written article are mercury and arsenic. I’m very much surprised that cadmium isn’t mentioned seeing as these are essentially mine tailings by proxy.
So, all in all a rather big failure on the part of the reporter who, because of a lack of scientific knowledge, not only made an arse of himself and the BBC but also missed the whole real news story.